When the ICC Cricket World Cup first took shape in 1975, it was predictably along modest lines. The sport had chosen to traverse uncharted territory; limited-overs cricket itself was in its nascent stages, not many countries played the abridged version domestically with any regularity, and no one was sure how much the format, and the competition, would appeal to the most important stakeholders, the fans.
Perhaps because the event was staged in England, it became a roaring success. The 15-day, 15-match tournament attracted nearly 160,000 fans to the six venues, this despite the presence, through invitation, of unfashionable (at the time) Sri Lanka and a hotchpotch outfit representing East Africa, alongside the then six Full Members of the ICC – hosts England, Australia, New Zealand, West Indies, India and Pakistan.
For their conquest of Australia at Lord’s, Clive Lloyd’s West Indies took home the winners’ purse of 4,000 pounds. Just to put things in perspective and explain how big a deal the cricket World Cup has come to be, the winners of the 2019 edition, which will culminate with the final at Lord’s on July 14, will be richer by a cool US $4 million. Nice!
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As the tournament grew in both stature and numbers, organisers grappled with the ‘ideal’ format from all conceivable points of view, with competitiveness and commerce the paramount driving forces. Several options were considered and jettisoned; some were tried out with disastrous consequences, like in the Caribbean in 2007, when India and Pakistan failed to progress beyond the first stage and the tournament fell flat on its face. That misadventure forced the authorities to first acknowledge and then endorse the money-churning potential of an India-Pakistan face-off at a global event. Almost every ICC tournament since has pitted the cross-border rivals against each other at least once. Not one of those games has failed to live up to the hype.
The continued tinkering with the format has now thrown up a blast from the past. After much toing and froing, the 12th edition of cricket’s grand extravaganza will embrace the same system that Australia and New Zealand unveiled in 1992, when the tournament travelled to the southern hemisphere for the first time. All participating teams will play all others in a round-robin league stage, at the end of which the top four will make it to the knockout semifinals. When England host South Africa at The Oval in London on May 30, it will be the first of 45 league matches, each of which will be crucial not only to qualification beyond the first stage, but also to the overall robustness and vibrancy of the tournament as a whole.
There is much to commend about the all-play-all system that will even out some of the kinks which are bound to surface during an event of this magnitude. The compact number of participants is one of the primary reasons for this situation; had there been even 12 teams as opposed to the 10 that will scrap for glory in England and Wales, the number of league matches would have mushroomed by an unwieldy 21, and the World Cup itself would have been an impossible 69-match affair. Not viable for so many different reasons.
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Because each of the ten participants will play at least nine league matches, all other things being equal, there is very little chance of the odd spectacular result here, the occasional stunning upset there, upsetting the qualification applecart. This is a system that demands consistency, but also concentration, endurance, stamina, preparation, smarts and versatility. This is also a system that will allow for one or two off-days. In some ways, this tournament obliquely necessitates teams to showcase all the traits that are non-negotiable in Test match cricket, but customised to suit the requirements of a series of 50-over games with so much hinging on the outcome of each of those matches.
Not even the much discussed fickle English weather can decisively alter the dynamics of the round-robin league unless a particular team is so desperately unlucky that it attracts the wrath of the elements no matter which part of the two host countries it plays in. It is impossible that a few matches will not be affected by the weather, and that messrs Duckworth, Lewis and Stern will not be called into action from time to time. But again, if your fate did rest temporarily on the clicks of a mouse, you’d rather it happened when you know you have the luxury of nine matches, rather than just three or four as has been the case in the past.
Beyond the obvious, which is more matches for each of the protagonists, where this format will separate the men from the boys is in adaptability and being canny enough to be able to switch game plans during the heat of battle. Unlike a bilateral series where backroom planning becomes a lot easier, a tournament like the World Cup places immense demands on the decision-making group on various counts – the constantly changing nature of surfaces, overhead conditions and, most importantly, the quality of the opposition. Every third day, the game plan will have to be fresh; what worked against Pakistan in Manchester on Monday, for instance, will have no relevance in Birmingham on Friday against New Zealand. The kind of work that goes in behind the scenes between Monday and Friday are as vital to a team’s progress as on-field performances on the said Monday and Friday.
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Think-tanks will also grapple with the issue of workloads, and whether it is possible at all during the round-robin skirmishes to occasionally rest the odd fast bowler without compromising on the team’s balance and prospects. Players are used to playing a succession of high-intensity matches in a short span of time in this era of franchise cricket, but 17 T20 matches during seven weeks of the Indian Premier League is massively different from fronting up in 11 50-overs games over 46 days of the World Cup. There will be tactical selection changes depending on the strengths of each opponent; whether teams will also resort to tactical resting of resources to keep them fresh for the business end, which they might be in danger of missing out on if their tactics backfire, ought to make for an intriguing spectacle.
One thing is for sure. The four teams that make it to the last week of the tournament will know they have been in a scrap. Once they get to the semis, the challenge for them will be to recover mentally as quickly as possible, and hope to ride on the adrenaline rush to the finish line. From the marathon of the first five and a half weeks, to the sprint of the last seven days – this will certainly be a race to savour.
Kaushik is a veteran cricket writer who has reported on over 100 Tests. He co-authored VVS Laxman's autobiography '281 and Beyond'.
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