The much-touted ICC Cricket World Cup is finally here. That overflowing Cup of dreams, opportunities, excitement and intrigue designed to draw millions of eyeballs — not to forget sponsors — to the TV screens and stadiums once every four years. The fans await explosive action by the best and the brightest in international cricket, and the players are primed to showcase their finest game. But will World Cup 2015 live up to all the hype and expectations?

When Australia hosted the Cup for the first time in 1992, it created a format that stood out, for it tested the potential of the best teams in the business. Each team played the other and the best four competed in the semi-finals. It was a format appreciated by all nine teams, including Zimbabwe, which was on the verge of being granted Test status that year. It helped the young team assess its calibre against cricket’s elite.

In terms of the quality of cricket it was, arguably, the best World Cup — barring a ridiculous rain rule that presented South Africa with the impossible task of making 21 runs off one ball to win against England in a semi-final at Sydney. Not everyone was complaining, however. Thanks to the rain, Pakistan was spared early embarrassment after being bowled out for 74. The match was abandoned, and Pakistan, gaining a point from the washout, went on to lift the Cup eventually.

The best advertisement for the 50-over game now returns to Australia, the land of aggressive, positive and entertaining cricket. But would it satiate the appetite of the cricket fanatics, rooting for close, combative contests on seemingly ideal pitches?

On the back foot

In terms of participation, cricket is handicapped by its low popularity in many parts of the world, notably Europe, America and most of Asia. In football, the best of 32 teams, after a gruelling qualification system, fight it out on the big stage for the FIFA World Cup. Most other sports also have tough qualifying rounds between several contenders, with some, like hockey, allowing the host an assured spot in the line-up.

Cricket, sadly, has failed to grow globally. In its 138-year existence, the game has not added a decent Test team to the original club of Australia, England, South Africa, West Indies, New Zealand, India, Pakistan and, later, Sri Lanka. The last two entrants, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, have pulled off a few stunning wins, but rely on poor talent pools. The latter, with fantastic mass support for the game at home, has two great World Cup wins over Pakistan (1999) and India (2007), but little else to boast of. It continues to be a work-in-progress. Zimbabwe, on the other hand, suffers from administrative challenges, and has just about survived, thanks to financial assistance from the International Cricket Council (ICC).

World Cup 2015 has 14 teams in the fray, with only a handful of them skilled enough to take a realistic shot at the title. Australia has been the best World Cup team with wins in 1987, 1999, 2003 and 2007. India and the West Indies follow with two titles each, and Pakistan and Sri Lanka one each. England has lost in three finals — 1979, 1987 and 1992. The minnows like Afghanistan, Canada, Kenya, Scotland, Ireland, United Arab Emirates and The Netherlands, essentially make up the numbers, win an odd match, and fade away long before the coin is tossed for the quarter-finals. In a glorious exception, Kenya made it to the semi-finals of the 2003 edition, but could not capitalise on the feat, failing to qualify this time.

Former South Africa captain Graeme Smith says, “With no disrespect to the smaller nations, the ICC is trying to grow the game, expose them to top teams in events like this, but it creates a very long tournament that has too many soft games. In a World Cup, you want there to be tension throughout. One team that stands out is Ireland. They’re getting exposed to a high standard of domestic-level cricket, which in turn is improving their international game. Every ICC tournament, they’ve given us a shock.”

Sadly, the rest of the minnows have remained minnows, the predictable nature of their matches taking way from the charm of an event of this magnitude. No wonder, the next edition of the Cup in 2019 will only have 10 teams, with the eight top-ranked ODI teams (as on 30 September, 2017) gaining direct entry and the remaining spots going to the finalists of the qualifying tournament to be held in Bangladesh in 2018.

Over the years, the schedule too has become incredibly demanding. This year is no different — with 49 matches in 44 days. The 1992 Cup, in comparison, was over in 34 days with 36 league matches and three knockouts. It did, however, have eight Test-playing nations vying for the crown, compared to, say, the 1975 edition, which had eight teams, including two non-Test-playing squads. The champion in 1975 was decided after 15 matches alone — 12 league matches on three playing days, followed by the knockout stage.

Money spinners

In a cricket-crazy nation like India, the organisers cut a sorry figure in 2011 when teams were greeted by empty stands, except when host India was playing. The trend is unlikely to change in Australia and New Zealand, where fans prefer to save their free time and money for meaningful matches featuring home teams.

Unsurprisingly, the economics of this showpiece cricket event is at the heart of the tournament’s structure. India and Pakistan find a place in the same group, ensuring a massive viewership across the world. It’s no secret that the two neighbours attach more importance to a win against each other than the Cup even. Pakistan, however, is yet to beat India in a World Cup meeting. In the 2007 edition, when the two nations were placed in different groups and eliminated before the knockout stage, the tournament suffered huge losses, with most knockout matches recording poor attendance. This time, the India-Pakistan clash is slated for the second day of the tournament!

It took a while before commercial interests gripped the ICC and eventually changed the face of the World Cup. The playing conditions and format were tweaked repeatedly to attract more fans, and it morphed from a 60-over game in the first three editions in England to a 50-over one in 1987, and introduced white balls and coloured clothing in 1992. The event has also allowed Australia and New Zealand to promote tourism, a first for cricket. The co-hosts have also tied up with the local police to deal with any corruption at matches.

The introduction of drop-in pitches for the knockout stage is to ensure the contests are not affected by the nature of the playing surfaces in Australia and New Zealand. Also, the use of two new balls from either end should challenge the batsmen in a game that has seen bowlers suffer due to lopsided rules.

Seen as the biggest commercial vehicle for the world body, every effort is made to reach out to Indian sponsors and fans. Cricket, it is universally acknowledged, is sustained largely by funds that India contributes. On the field though, Indians are battling form and injuries. Nothing but the Cup would keep their fans happy, but the team is yet to find the winning combination in Australia. The Tests and the One-day tri-series have been disappointing too, as India goes into its first World Cup without its best-known legends Sachin Tendulkar (1992, 1996, 1999, 2003, 2007 and 2011) or Sunil Gavaskar (1975, 1979, 1983 and 1987).

This is a young India riding on the strength of Dhoni’s confidence and Virat Kohli’s brilliance. The absence of Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Yuvraj Singh, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh from the winning combination of 2011 has placed added responsibility on performers like Kohli, Suresh Raina and R Ashwin, who tasted some success in the last edition of the Cup. India, regardless of its recent show, remains a favourite along with the rest — because, in cricket, every Test-playing nation is a favourite at the World Cup.

Next over

This edition of the World Cup, with its emphasis on young combinations, will have 14 teams divided into two groups with the top four from each progressing to the knockout stage. This effectively means the Cup will only gain momentum from the quarter-finals, given the results at the league stage can be quite predictable. India, Pakistan, South Africa and West Indies should qualify from one group, and Australia, Sri Lanka, New Zealand and England from the other.

Every team is projected as a potential champion. Every match, if you go by the ‘experts’ on television, is “crucial, important, great”. Most of these experts are perhaps busy doing their homework on the minnows of the tournament, especially the little-known squads of UAE and Afghanistan. As far as the players are concerned, the strategy is no different from a marathon — save your breath for the last leg, play three good knockout matches and lift the Cup. As they say, it’s same same, but different.

(Vijay Lokapally is deputy editor Sports The Hindu)

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