Saturday, April 11, 2015

When was the last good Cricket World Cup?

Written By: Jonathan Wilson

The fault is probably mine. When you work in a sport, the tendency, perhaps, is to assume everybody is as wrapped up in it as you are; to believe your obsessive knowledge of the subject is normal. I think the football World Cup is too big and too bloated, that it would benefit from being scaled back with a more stringent qualification process, but I still watched every game it was possible to watch, made my notes and drew my conclusions. The cricket World Cup was rather different, and perhaps it's because of that it came as such a surprise to see it being so widely hailed as an overwhelming success.

The first I saw of the World Cup was Martin Guptill and Brendon McCullum laying into Nuwan Kulasekara and Lasith Malinga. It was 3am in Mumbai and I was struggling to adapt to the time difference. I was then struggling on a treadmill in the hotel gym as Steven Finn took the most pointless hat-trick in history against Australia. That was some Valentine's Day. I watched India v Pakistan on a big screen at a wedding where the lone Pakistani guest was mercilessly patronised.

I played some cricket and came home. The World Cup went on. Every now and again I'd see some before I went to bed. Most mornings I'd turn on the television and then either turn it off because there was no game (the schedule seemed utterly incomprehensible; the football World Cup is far from perfect, but at least you can work out who will be playing on each day without having to refer constantly to a guide), or because the game had already become dully one-sided.

I was out for Ireland v UAE and followed the tense ending on Twitter. New Zealand v Australia had finished by the time I woke up. I quite enjoyed Zimbabwe's defeats against Pakistan and Ireland, and Afghanistan's win over Scotland. Bangladesh's victory over England had a certain comic-epic quality. New Zealand's semi-final win over South Africa was a bona fide classic. And that was it.

But is that enough from a tournament that went on for six weeks? Four of 49 games went to the last over. Thirty-three games were won by more than 60 runs or with more than five overs remaining. A tight finish, of course, isn't a guarantee of quality, but a poor game can be redeemed by tension. And even the greatest achievements - blistering centuries, ferocious spells of bowling - lose some of their significance when a game is one-sided. At least to an outsider, somebody whose engagement became increasingly casual as the tournament went on, this was a tournament of spurts of individual excellence and disappointing games.

And suddenly it was over. Barely had the quarter-finals - four games as one-sided as could be imagined - begun than the tournament was won. The denouement of the World Cup felt like Ernest Hemingway's description of bankruptcy: it came on first gradually and then suddenly, an interminable jockeying followed by an unfulfilling dash for the line. This, surely, can't be the best format for the tournament.

In that regard, cricket has the opposite problem to football. Football has created a bloated World Cup because so many people want to be involved. It is the global game and so there's a sense that every part of the world needs to have its representatives in the grand festival (that's the justifiable explanation; the sleazier side is politicians offering additional World Cup places in return for votes, which is the only explanation behind Michel Platini's suggestion that participation at the finals be increased from 32 to 40 teams).

Cricket has created a bloated World Cup because there's too few teams of the requisite standard (although perhaps rather more than the ICC acknowledges). The big teams have to get through or revenues drop (thank goodness England were there to play the maverick and ruin that scheme). It's an abiding irony that the tournament that had the most logical structure, 2007, when there were four groups of four with two going through (although to an eight-team group, when two four-team groups or quarter-finals might have been preferable), was undone because the supposedly weaker sides turned out to be stronger than expected and Ireland and Bangladesh made it to the Super Eights at the expense of India and Pakistan.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect is that even when much of the cricket is objectively excellent - highlights packages featuring innings by Kumar Sangakkara, AB de Villiers and Martin Guptill and bowling from Mitchell Starc, Trent Boult and Wahab Riaz could make this look a stunning spectacle - the tournament itself was only average (at least to me). That suggests a fundamental problem of format.

Maybe I romanticise the cricket of my youth. I tend to grumble about modern football tournaments as well (no good World Cup since 1998). But really, when was the last good World Cup? 1996? 1992 seems cast in a rosy glow now, but the round-robin and the rain rules seemed farcical at the time. Maybe there hasn't been a good World Cup since 1983. Maybe I'm just getting old.

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