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Every edition the World Cup gets bigger, but is it better?

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Non Plus Ultra
Getty Images (From Outlook, February 21, 2011)
Non Plus Ultra

A glance at Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack for 1976 shows that 19 Test matches were played around the globe during the preceding year. By astonishing contrast, the latest Wisden contains details of 41 Tests. Further, Wisden 1976 covers a total of 15 one-day internationals—all World Cup matches—while Wisden 2010 reports 150 one-dayers plus 48 matches in the newest format, Twenty20.

So reflect, if you will, on the enormous growth of the limited-overs format, against which the purest form of the game (Test cricket) has somehow managed to survive. Small wonder, then, that someone like me looks back over the nine previous World Cups with mixed feelings. Was it better when smaller? Did it have more meaning when fewer countries competed? Bigger is better seems to be the belief of those who control the game. And there is no denying that some of the biggest thrills have come from minor cricket nations beating senior countries.

The first of these upsets occurred at Old Trafford in the second World Cup, in 1979, when Sri Lanka beat India by 47 runs. I was doing the ground announcements that memorable day, and vividly recall the sense of shock, not least among the Indian spectators. It was a further pointer to India’s failure to come to grips with the limited-overs format with either enthusiasm or technical know-how.

Four years earlier, in the very first World Cup match, India had puzzled and angered many by refusing to seek runs at any sort of rate after England had piled up 334/4 in 60 overs. Sunil Gavaskar patted his way through the entire innings for an unbeaten 36, seeming to believe he was still resisting a West Indies fast battery in a five-day match.

Viv Richards’ 138 n.o. pole-axed England in the ’79 Cup final

West Indies, of course, crushed all opposition in the first two World Cups. Clive Lloyd’s century and direct-hit run-outs by Viv Richards remain the outstanding features of that first final, the captain’s knock being matched four years later by Richards’ furious assault which put the 1979 match out of England’s reach.

By the time of the third World Cup, it seemed to me that India really didn’t want to be there. They simply seemed unprepared to join into the spirit of limited-overs cricket. So in previewing the 1983 tournament, I felt compelled to write that India might as well withdraw from future competitions if it was so alien to their character and thinking.

What, if any, part this played in motivating Kapil Dev’s team to win that year I’ll never know. Suffice to say that I was as delighted as any Indian when they bowled West Indies out for 140 to win by 43 runs, Kapil’s catch to dismiss Richards living in the memory forever. That evening I rocked with the rest of the fans at the large hotel across from Lord’s, and watched misty-eyed as Kapil danced an elegant bhangra. For an hour or two I was Indian!

Aussie captain Allan Border holds the Cup aloft in Calcutta, 1987

But soon afterwards I received an indignant letter from an Indian fan saying that since I had written off India, I should now eat my words, if I was any sort of a gentleman and sportsman. This I duly did, helping the ink and paper down with wine, before witnesses. Quietly, ever since, I have felt inclined to take a smidgen of credit for India’s success. India, it may be recalled, had recovered from 17/5 to deny Zimbabwe their second upset win—Zimbabwe had earlier stunned Australia.

Then, after the first three tournaments had been staged in England, the 1987 World Cup was financed by the subcontinent and expanded, with 21 cities staging matches. There were some thrillers along the way: Pakistan beat Sri Lanka by 15 runs; England beat West Indies by two wickets; New Zealand beat Zimbabwe by three runs; and Australia beat India by only one run at Chepauk in Madras, ‘Ice Man’ Steve Waugh bowling the final over: all of this in just the first three days of the event. With Pakistan sneaking a one-wicket victory against West Indies at Lahore, they and India made it to the semi-finals, and it was hoped locally that they would contest the final.

It was not to be. I remember sitting in the Wankhede stadium and being bedazzled by Graham Gooch’s strategy. Almost every ball that came his way from Maninder Singh and Ravi Shastri was swept. It was an amazing statement of intent, and the spinners simply held their heads in disbelief. Gooch made 115, England won by 35 runs and were in the final. Australia beat Imran’s Pakistan in the other semi, and so we had an Anglo-Australian final after all, and the general disappointment across the subcontinent was palpable. The final is remembered for Gatting’s rash reverse-sweep at the climax and Australia’s seven-run triumph. You might say that on that steamy night in Calcutta, as the fireworks exploded, an era was kickstarted.

Imran Khan felt like he had lifted the ’92 Cup all by himself, or so his comments seemed to suggest

The next World Cup was staged in Australia and New Zealand in early 1992. We now had coloured clothing, flood-lighting for the majority of the 36 matches, and two white balls. Again, it was noisy and all-pervading, and went on for 33 days in which 39 matches were played, leaving players and everyone else utterly exhausted. Pakistan won it (or Imran Khan did personally, to judge from his remarks at the press conference afterwards), defeating England with lavish late swing under lights in the clamorous bull-ring of the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

India struggled in this World Cup too and faded away after a comfortable win over Pakistan. But I resisted the temptation to write any further gee-up editorials. There would always be another tournament.

Sri Lanka captain Arjuna Ranatunga celebrates with team members after the ’96 Cup win against Australia

And sure enough, India made it to the semis in 1996 in another giant event. It was plainly tedious at times, suffering the smaller competitors (UAE, Netherlands, Kenya) in predictable matches, and even seeing forfeits when Australia and West Indies felt it too dangerous to play in Colombo. India had the satisfaction of beating Pakistan in Bangalore and making it into the semi-finals, but there, at Eden Gardens, they met both Sri Lanka and undignified extinction when the wild behaviour of the crowd forced an abandonment and the awarding of the match to Ranatunga’s team. Sri Lanka went on to beat Australia in the final on a steamy evening which for me was unforgettable for the tension and the deafening jubilation of the Sri Lankans in the packed arena at Lahore. My abiding vision is of Australia’s team bus leaving the stadium around midnight, Shane Warne sitting at the front, cigarette between those magic fingers (which had just failed him: 10-0-58-0), gazing glassy-eyed ahead, seeing nothing—nothing except crushing disappointment.

The ICC didn’t learn. The next World Cup, back in England in 1999, featured 42 matches, and we sat glazed of vision through much of it. India captured headlines by losing to Zimbabwe at Leicester by three runs, before beating champions Sri Lanka in a run-fest at Taunton, Ganguly and Dravid belting 318 for the second wicket; England and Pakistan were also overthrown by Azharuddin’s men. But India hadn’t done enough. Australia beat Pakistan in the final at Lord’s, and everyone went home to recuperate.

It was the start of an Australian hat-trick. Steve Waugh was succeeded as skipper by Ricky Ponting, whose assault on the Indian bowling in the 2003 final at Johannesburg made sure that, despite rain and frantic recalculations of run rate, the Aussies were champions again. The World Cup grew even fatter here: more matches, more money, more commercialism.

Wearily the matches played themselves out until shock semi-finalists Kenya were ousted by India at Durban. Australia’s victory in the final was quite comfortable in the end, but there had been moments when the rain interruption might have made it mathematically extremely interesting. How the Indian fans cheered when the covers were pushed over the pitch, knowing that their side’s chances would improve as the run-rate calculations advanced! My abiding memory of that final was of a drizzly evening after the match, and of Indian flags lying forlornly in the puddles on the road outside the ground.

As for the most recent World Cup, staged in the Caribbean, and the first I had not witnessed ‘live’, it turned out to be a good one to miss. Again it lasted too long; the administration was muddled; admission prices were too steep and the grounds lacked atmosphere. The climax itself was a shambles, the umpires proving inadequate for the task of deciding when the late-night final actually ended. The mess caused by the maladministration was somehow heightened by the sinister darkness which enveloped the occasion. Lessons learned? We shall see when the tenth World Cup begins next week. No forecasts: I dislike the taste of printer’s ink.

David Frith is former editor of The Cricketer and Wisden Cricket Monthly, and author of 30 books

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