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A boring World Cup highlights deeper issues in cricket

ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 Trophy (Photo: @cricketworldcup)
The 1992 cricket World Cup reserves a special place in the living memory of the cricket fan. The coloured jerseys, the white balls, and the day-night matches are remembered for their then novelty; you can still find fans holding on to memorabilia from that tournament as if an ethereal truth about cricket was woven into them. When the International Cricket Council (ICC) announced a return to the 1992 format for the 2019 edition— each team was to play everyone else in the round-robin stage —fears about a ten-team World Cup were mitigated by nostalgia for a time when everything seemed just right.

But like many fond memories from younger days, even the 1992 World Cup is tarnished now. Nostalgia, it turns out, can deceive one badly. As the 2019 competition makes the case for it to be called the most boring World Cup ever, the myth about the essentially good format is busted. There is nothing inherently great about a long phase where each team faces off against the others. In fact, it can be mind numbingly trite.

The 1992 World Cup, however, still scores on one count. The tournament at least expanded the number of teams from before – unlike this year’s edition. Now we have a closed house party where the exit door does not open for days, no matter whether you are enjoying it or not. We are stuck. With nineteen matches left, at the time of writing, and the identity of the semifinalists already known.

Perhaps, the 2007 Super 8 stage should have served as a cautionary tale. Then, the gap between the best and the rest ensured plenty of dead rubbers. But at least, Ireland and Bangladesh had earned the right to play that round. In the current format, mere qualification ensures nine matches for a participating team – unheard of in any other sport. Cricket’s peculiarities are to be celebrated but it should not come at the expense of competitive and meaningful contests.

So, why is it that we find ourselves at this juncture? The competitive gap in cricket is wider than ever before. India, Australia, and England, the richest teams, are ahead of everyone else in terms of resources and personnel. New Zealand, the other semifinalist, is still living off its exceptionally talented team that reached the final four years ago.

The rest of the teams find themselves a few miles behind. Bangladesh is once again proving its mettle at the big stage but, beyond its experienced quintet, the team carries players of mediocre ability. South Africa is in decline, ravaged by Kolpak departures and huge financial losses. So is Sri Lanka, for different reasons that are too complex to elaborate here, and Pakistan is stuck in its old ways thanks to the deliberate exclusion of its players from the IPL. West Indies is a T20 team playing ODI cricket while Afghanistan is on the margins of the food chain that feeds international cricket.

In the prevailing situation, one may wonder if even ten teams are too many. However, by defining the World Cup within the limited boundaries of competitive cricket, we risk foregoing something very precious. It is worth emphasising that every major cricket tournament is also an opportunity to celebrate the drive towards democratisation that must inform the development of the sport. We watch the World Cup not just to cherish the best cricket, but also to experience the best stories.

Due to the inordinate focus on the best performing nations, rarely do we get to see and read about those who play away from the limelight. A World Cup provides the opportunity to centre those stories and show how cricket can spread beyond its traditional strongholds. By having more teams at the World Cup, the ICC will also be able to work with a format that incentivises success and introduces multiple risks of elimination. The long, dull path to semis can be energised by a competition that divides teams into multiple groups with a possibility for more knockout fixtures.

This should be an important concern for cricket because a dull World Cup is likely to put off the casual watcher rather than gaining new fans. Journalists and tourists across England have noted an absence of buzz around the tournament ever since it started on May 30. Instead, it’s the FIFA Women’s World Cup that is dominating the conversation among sports fans.

It is not difficult to see why that is the case, especially if we note that the economic strength of the cricket World Cup is financed by very few south Asian countries. Half the teams in the tournament are from this region and India alone provides the lion’s share. Boosted by the massive numbers and the relative wealth that accrues on their basis, cricket may think it has little to worry about but sterility may sneak up on the sport before it realises. Moreover, a growth in cricket’s popularity cannot be serviced by one country alone.

So, where does the World Cup go from here? Its current structure almost ensures that the 2023 event will not be any different; possibly even more skewed in favour of the powerful teams. If so, cricket must worry about the legacy of the 2019 World Cup. The damage it has already caused to the exalted status of the 1992 edition, albeit long overdue, could prove to be the least of cricket’s worries.

Priyansh is a writer based in New Delhi. He tweets @Privaricate

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