In a way the arrival of Pakistan in India, and the heartwarming little reception in Hyderabad, is the moment the 2023 ODI World Cup really began. A World Cup does not happen every day. It is a special occasion, where we anticipate wonderful and rare and unexpected things to occur. Pakistan were always going to make it, of course, but we're in a moment where all the bitterpoliticking over their participation over the last year was more reflective of the state of international cricket than of whether they would actually participate or not.
So for Pakistan to finally arrive in India is one of those big-picture moments we crave from a World Cup. It's the first time they've visited India in seven years and nearly two World Cup cycles. When they were last here, Shahid Afridi was captain of the side, not father-in-law to its biggest star - that's how long ago it was. Only two members of their squad have ever been here before, and they are the only team at this World Cup, other than Netherlands, to not have toured India in those seven years. The IPL brings the world to India every year, the Asia Cup brings Pakistan and India together every year, but Pakistan in India is a sign - perhaps the surest sign - that a World Cup is upon us.
And no sooner is it upon us than thoughts turn to the end, not of this particular edition, but of the larger idea of an ODI World Cup. To be clear, the World Cup is not going anywhere for now. All of cricket has signed on for two more tournaments over the next eight years (although, just saying, it's not like all of cricket has never flip-flopped over its events). But given how swiftly the game's calendar is changing, how the priorities are shifting for its players, how international cricket is being edged out, this may well be the last time a World Cup is as big a deal in the game as it is now, the last time it is the World Cup as we have known and loved it over the last 40 years.
Because it is very cricket to have come to a situation where its showcase event is played in the one format whose future is so uncertain. The two opinions on what to do with ODIs these days stand at opposite ends from each other. Either they are totally dispensable and not worth playing at all until a World Cup year (a great idea because it frees up calendar bandwidth). Or the Super League ought to come back (a great idea because it gives context to bilateral ODIs). Meanwhile, nobody's mentioned the next World Cup, back to its expansionist avatar, with 14 teams. More teams should mean more, not fewer, ODIs in the intervening years, to make Associates more competitive. But more teams also mean that a Super League becomes redundant, because narrowing it down to eight teams from 13 (and then two from a qualifier) carries the necessary jeopardy, but how do you retain that fairly when 14 have to qualify?
Cricket, why you do this?
The game has been confronted by such existential choices - mostly choices it has forced upon itself - almost non-stop since the last World Cup. Members want leagues all over the calendar, members want international cricket all over the calendar. Players want to be in all those leagues, players also want to play international cricket, and players also want some R&R. How much longer should we keep playing formats that we think are dying? No wonder cricket feels so fatigued by itself: these conversations are exhausting.
Thankfully, that fatigue will wear off as soon as the first ball is bowled in Ahmedabad on Thursday. Cricket will no longer be one long doomscroll, or the disparate, siloed experience of following it now, where watching one game or series or league means you're missing out on ten elsewhere at the same time. For the next seven weeks we're all watching one and the same thing. In spite and love, with cheers and boos, and yes, in outrage, we will be, for once, united.
It will, hopefully, also be a reminder of the virtues of the 50-over game, that it is more than the Fredo Corleone of formats (the modern choice would have been Connor Roy, except, one, he was the oldest sibling, though with middle-child vibes, and two, he didn't die). That at its best it can provide naturally both the slow-burn satisfaction of long-form cricket as well as the instant rush of the shortest formats.
Until that first ball is delivered, we exist in the vast, beautiful but unlit unknown; in the exquisite moment where we don't know what is possible except that everything is. New stars, old stagers, fresh ideas, old thinking, rivalries, ball meet bat, life meet sport, all of it coiled before us, ready to be sprung.
Going into 2019, we thought we knew what to expect. The game's trajectory was unmissable. Between 2015 and 2019, England rewrote batting and other sides were catching up. They were playing on English pitches, where a lot of the rewriting had taken place. The World Cup was going to showcase the evolution of batting, and it was hard to look beyond England. It didn't quite play out that way - delightfully - but expectations going in were clear.
This time, as Nathan Leamon, England's full time data guru and sometime zen philosopher, notes, nothing is quite so obvious or straightforward. ODIs were the biggest casualties of the pandemic, and even though the Super League eventually played itself out, the dishevelled, haphazard nature of it and the ensuing bilaterals has meant no pattern or outright trend has emerged over the last four years.
Instead, T20s have land-grabbed the terrain. Since the last World Cup, there have been two T20 World Cups, four seasons of all the established T20 leagues, a season each of three new T20 leagues, four seasons of the Abu Dhabi T10, and three seasons of the Hundred. Chuck in two cycles of the World Test Championship and no wonder the middle overs of ODIs started to feel so long this year.
It's reasonable to assume that some of the early energy at this tournament might be spent working out the tempo of ODIs all over again, or at least in recalibrating to the needs of the format: when to go hard, when to go harder; when to pull back; when to chase; how to extract wickets in the middle and not just save runs. And given the large number of late and high-profile injuries - a direct result of the crush of this calendar - many sides will first be working out how to cope without key names.
Maybe for most it all will simply fall back into place. After all, nearly half of the players in this World Cup took part in the last World Cup (across the nine sides that played both). And though the format may have faded, it isn't gone yet. This is still, by and large, an era in which players have grown up watching and then playing ODIs.
Unlike in 2019, when England began as clear favourites, there is little real form to draw on. Most people are happier to predict only a final four this time. England themselves arrive with an unusual confidence, having oscillated for much of the intervening four years between indifference to the format and a monstrous mastery of it. On paper, that is reflected in a 7-7 win-loss record (with two washouts) over the last 12-odd months, but such is the assuredness and depth of their white-ball cricket that the latter end of that scale is a truer setting.
India are at home, which would ordinarily be enough of an endorsement. But they have a truly formidable side, a batting order that, to be honest, is straining at the leash to be let loose, and a bowling attack that covers most situations and conditions. Opponents might have only the hope that they peaked at the Asia Cup to draw from.
Australia are quirkier than usual, first with a captain who feels slightly stop-gap for the format, and a squad that is a retro tribute to England's 1992 side (and almost every South Africa side of the '90s). Full of allrounders who give them batting depth, but without compromising much on the bowling. They may rue not having enough spin options, though.
Pakistan's campaign is already accompanied by the rhythms that so often get them and their supporters going. They're on the back foot simply by virtue of being in unfamiliar territory, part entertainers, part diplomats treading a geopolitical tightrope. They've lost the services of an electric young fast bowler. They're coming off the back of a couple of big, bruising defeats at the Asia Cup; administrative turmoil is rumbling in the background. Forget that they have a pedigreed, if not complete, ODI side; a familiar narrative is peeping out over the horizon.
South Africa are not as starry now as some of their recent World Cup sides were, so expectations are lower. But that might not be such a bad thing given their history at these events. New Zealand have a proper last-dance vibe going - as many as nine players from the 2019 squad and five from 2015. Throw in a couple of upgrades and a settled bowling attack (three of whom were together in 2015) and nobody can claim to be surprised if they do make the knockouts.
Strap in now. And soak it up over the next month and a half because who knows if we will see a World Cup like this again.