Cricket’s heart beat ranges from the measured rhythm during a Test spread over five days, to a frenzied artery-popping thump witnessed in the game’s shortest version — the Twenty20. This mind-numbing spectrum that has historical resonance and instant gratification at its opposite ends, finds its middle path and team-bragging rights through One-Day Internationals, especially manifested in the quadrennial World Cup.
The International Cricket Council may have its rankings across formats, but the 50-over World Cup is the eventual full-stop to all debates about which is the best outfit. There is no ambiguity and the unit that wins, can pop the champagne and strut. “We walked across London with style, hinting, ‘Hey, you know what? We are the champions man!’” former India captain K. Srikkanth once said about the morning after June 25, 1983.
The previous evening, the cricketing globe had turned upside down and the crestfallen West Indians ignored their pre-ordered crates of beer and rum after Kapil Dev’s men caused the mother of all upsets. It was a seminal moment which was on a par with earlier instances like when shepherds struck a ball with a clump of wood in the English countryside and led to cricket’s birth or Kerry Packer’s addition of chutzpah, coloured clothing and floodlights to ODIs.
Emergence of India
The game’s financial core moved instantly to India where fans and corporates showered adulation and money. Sociologist Ashish Nandy later quipped: “Cricket is an Indian game accidentally discovered by the British!”
It all started with a World Cup and as the latest version is set to commence in England on May 30, it is time to gaze at the crystal ball. A recent tweet mentioned that water-cooler conversations will move from India’s general elections to World Cup trends. Such is the allure of a championship which despite not matching the universal reach of its counterpart in football still has the power to cause a phenomenal stir.
Host England may fancy its chances. Interestingly, from the land of the doughty Geoff Boycott and the languid David Gower have emerged batsmen who can muscularly maim bowling units. Players like Eoin Morgan, Jason Roy, Jos Buttler and Joe Root besides all-rounder Ben Stokes can hammer. Plus, England has a bowling unit tuned to the home conditions, though the pitches have got flatter and 300-plus scores seem the new normal.
Since the World Cup’s inception in 1975 when Clive Lloyd’s West Indians had a firm grip on it, the superstition was that the host never wins. But that theory was busted when India and Australia prevailed in the last two editions in 2011 and 2015, respectively. England will draw heart from that and strive to win its maiden World Cup crown.
Australia and India are also part of an exciting mix. Steve Smith and David Warner, wending their way back after a year’s ban following their role in the ball-tampering crisis, will aspire for a redemptive shot and reclaim their lost halo. That could drive Australia forward, besides its innate tough-as-nails attitude and players who revel on the big stage.
India meanwhile is leaning on its medley of aggressive batsmen and incisive fast bowlers with a few mystery spinners adding guile. Skipper Virat Kohli wants this event to add lustre to his legacy while his predecessor M. S. Dhoni is keen to sign off on a high. In Jasprit Bumrah, India perhaps has the finest death-over specialist, and that augurs well when batsmen explode, fielders scatter and commentators lose their throats.
Besides these top three teams, you get the quintet of South Africa, New Zealand, Pakistan, the West Indies and Sri Lanka.
All five can test the best of opposition and their motives vary: South Africa continues its eternal quest to shed the chokers’ tag; New Zealand wants to go beyond its flutter act that somehow wanes in the climactic phase; Pakistan, the mercurial mood-swinger, hopes to attain consistency; the West Indies is itching to relive those halcyon days of the 1970s and 1980s; and Sri Lanka, on a downward spiral, is also looking at its own performance as a probable salve to heal the deep wounds inflicted on the island nation by the Easter bombings.
Add to the mix, Bangladesh, which famously offered the banana peel to India in the 2007 World Cup in the Caribbean Islands, and Afghanistan, a bunch of men who honed their skills at the refugee camps in Peshawar and in the Afghan hinterland to the surround sound of exploding bombs!
Thankfully, the tournament has embraced a round-robin format. It is long drawn, but by going beyond the group dynamics of earlier editions, the eventual winner can proudly say, “You know what, we played against all teams and lasted the distance.” Ultimately beyond the immediate matrix of quaint grounds, finicky English conditions where the sun and rain can dish out a mind-boggling tango, it boils down to the captain with the largest heart, exhorting his men to prosper. Lloyd, Kapil, Allan Border, Imran Khan, Arjuna Ranatunga, Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting, Dhoni — all imposed their will and also empowered their key cricketers. Leaders with nerves of steel and outstanding players believing in doing the improbable form the cog that would determine who would hold the Cup aloft after the summit clash on July 14 at Lord’s.
The World Cup is a base where fresh talent catches the eye like Inzamam-ul-Haq did in 1992, and it also offers the final curtain to ageing legends.
This time around, Chris Gayle and Lasith Malinga have opted to bow out and there is speculation about Dhoni’s future beyond July. It is time to savour the cricket and applaud new stars, while also keeping that tissue box handy when an old favourite rides into the twilight.
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