Van winkle’s world cup

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The ICC has ensured that the tournament goes on and on — so India can have a better chance

Dileep Premachandran 
ASSOCIATE EDITOR, CRICINFO

Illustration: Saurabh Deb

IT WAS the inimitable Woody Allen that said: “Eternity is really long, especially near the end.” Such was his love of sport that he named one son after Moses Malone, a basketball player, and another after Satchel Paige, the baseball icon. Given that we don’t know his feelings about cricket, we can’t confirm whether the quip about eternity was prompted by watching the cricket World Cup, an event that can seem to last forever, even for those taking part.

Gary Linekar, the English centre forward, once said: “Football is a game for 22 people that run around, play the ball, and one referee who makes a slew of mistakes, and in the end Germany always wins.” We could say something on the same lines of the last two cricket World Cups. A lot of games were played, some fancied teams were sent packing early, and Australia emerged unscathed to win the trophy.

The International Cricket Council (ICC) clearly doesn’t believe in small being beautiful or less being more. Consider this. The first World Cup, played in England in 1975, involved eight teams and six venues. It was over in a fortnight. In its current avatar, the competition has expanded to 14 teams, and the 49 matches will take a whopping six weeks to complete. If Rip Van Winkle decided on a snooze after the inaugural game between India and Bangladesh in Dhaka on 19 February, chances are that he’d be awake again in time for the final on 2 April

Why does it take so long for cricket’s premier competition to find a winner? A comparison with the most-watched sporting event of all is instructive. The football World Cup in South Africa last year featured 32 teams, more than twice as many as will traipse around the subcontinent over the next month. It also had 64 matches. Yet, it was over within a month.

The Olympic Games, the other great sporting spectacle of our times, lasts a little over a fortnight. Even the now tarnished Tour de France doesn’t go beyond four weeks. Why then is cricket’s showpiece event so interminably long? Just cluelessness on the part of the game’s administrators, or that most common of the deadly sins, greed?

We’d say it’s a bit of both. The ICC hasn’t managed to settle on a format for the competition. Talk to most former players and serious fans and they’ll tell you that it was best in 1992 when each of the nine participating teams played each other in a round-robin format before the semi-finals and final. There was no question of avoiding certain teams and Pakistan, who were on the brink of elimination at one stage, found their A game at just the right time to win the trophy.

Why is cricket’s showpiece event so interminably long? Just cluelessness on the part of the game’s administrators, or the most common of the deadly sins, greed?

When the subcontinent hosted it in 1996, we had two groups of six and then the knockout stages. South Africa, who had been in imperious form while winning their group, slipped up in the last eight, undone by the brilliance of Brian Lara. Four years later, the group stage was followed by the Super Six, with points being carried over.

The same format was employed in 2003, only this time there were 14 teams instead of 12. By 2007, there had been another change of heart. This time, there were 16 teams in four groups of four, with the top two from each making it to the Super Eight. The idea was clearly to make the top teams lay as many golden eggs as possible. Instead, with India and Pakistan making their exit in the first round, the ICC ended up with a gigantic omelette on its face. The ‘dream’ match-up in Barbados between India and Pakistan became Bangladesh against Ireland, and thousands of hotel-room cancellations made it a disaster for everyone concerned.

That experience has so scarred the ICC that the format for 2011 more or less ensures that none of the fancied teams can miss out on the quarter-finals. But what it means is that you can skip the first phase and not really miss anything. Each team will play six matches and in theory, even two wins could get you a place in the last eight.

For the minnows, like Ireland who made such a good impression last time, it’s also a last chance to leave their imprint on the competition. It’s already been announced that they won’t be part of the World Cup four years from now, and this competition offers Ireland, the Netherlands and others the perfect opportunity to embarrass the game’s administrators.

THE ICC’S rationale for limiting the 2015 event to just the 10 member countries was to reduce the number of games and prevent player fatigue. But that could so easily have been done even when including four or six associate teams. If cricket is really serious about expanding the game’s scope — let’s not forget that Afghanistan’s progress, brilliantly chronicled in Out of the Ashes, is one of sport’s most heartwarming stories of recent times — it should consider a 24-team World Cup on football lines.

For that to happen, the obsession with India and the money that its sponsors and advertisers generate has to end. A governing body cannot plan a competition solely to make sure that India is around to play the final stages. You could easily have four or six groups of four, with the top eight teams then progressing to a knockout phase. That way, more teams would get exposure on the big stage and you’d be spared umpteen mismatches that devalue the tournament.

When a Canada or Bermuda play three games against the big boys, most fans can appreciate the Cinderella element. So many still remember Dwayne Leverock’s stunning catch from the last World Cup. But ask the minnows to play six games, as is the case in 2011, and the feel-good factor is replaced by boredom at one-sided thrashings.

Given the way Twenty20 has enraptured administrators across the world, it’s doubtful whether we’ll even have a 50-over World Cup in 2019. If it does die, we can only blame those eternity-seekers that allowed it to bloat to such unwieldy proportions.

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