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World Cup test of status

Outlook (India), 21 February

The 10th cricket World Cup opens with the format, and the event itself, on trial. That’s curious, for through most of its history, the World Cup has been an extraordinary success story. It came about more by accident than design (to plug a gap left in the English season by the ouster of apartheid South Africa), but the enthusiasm of fans and the ingenuity of players turned it into a premier attraction. Administrators eventually converted that achievement into a vast money-spinner, and the World Cup became the centrepiece of cricket’s tryst with the global market, the world’s third most watched sports tournament (after the FIFA World Cup and the Summer Olympics).

Then came the 2007 World Cup in the West Indies: a dismal disappointment, a choice example of a modern mega-event gone awry. Disengaged from local life, overpriced, over-policed, with few high-quality, competitive matches and a final that ended in chaotic anti-climax.

But it’s not just the legacy of 2007 that the 10th World Cup has to overcome. The rise of the Twenty20 format and the establishment of a Twenty20 World Cup and an annual IPL season have raised doubts about the future of the 50-overs-a-side format and the significance of its World Cup showpiece. For years, it was thought Test cricket was in danger of being squeezed out by the apparently inexorable rise of the ODI. Now the ODI, and especially the World Cup, are feeling the sharp elbows of Twenty20.

It’s interesting to compare the care with which FIFA has protected the exceptional value of its quadrennial jewel in the crown with the carelessness displayed by cricket’s governors in regard to what they repeatedly declared was their own prize property. In cricket, the World Cup has to compete with the ICC Champions Cup, three or four triangular ODI competitions staged each year, plus the separate and unrelated cycle of major Test series and now the burgeoning claims of Twenty20.

It’s been obvious for years that over-scheduling posed a threat to the quality of cricket, especially the status of the ODI. For one thing, it makes it more unlikely that the world’s best players will hit top form at more or less the same time—something from which the football World Cup also is beginning to suffer as it competes with the Champions League. Nonetheless, a football World Cup meeting between, say, Ecuador and Switzerland, carries much greater import and creates much wider public interest than will, say, South Africa versus the Netherlands in the coming cricket Cup.

For all its declarations of intent about “growing” the game globally, the ICC has little to show for its efforts. The gap between Test-playing countries and the rest is wider, if anything, than it was a decade ago. Kenya made the semi-finals in 2003—but Kenyan cricket seems to have moved backwards since then. Ireland were responsible for the greatest upset of 2007 by defeating Pakistan—an event which some observers felt ruined the later stages of competition—but they are unlikely to pull off anything similar this time. No new cricket markets lurk on the horizon and the breakthrough into North America remains perpetually postponed. FIFA can look to Russia and even Qatar, but the ICC must return again and again to the same traditional heartlands.

The last World Cup staged in South Asia, in 1996, was very much a statement of ambition. It projected a globalising India at the heart of a globalising game, an emerging market with a new culture of unfettered competition and personal success. That fact that the Cup was jointly staged with Pakistan, as well as Sri Lanka, was itself seen as a harbinger of progress. If the region remained bogged down in internal conflict, it could not fulfil its destiny on the global stage. This time around, Pakistan has lost its place as co-host, not because of any rupture in what remain extremely fragile India-Pakistan relations, but because of a crisis that is internal to Pakistan and at the same time enmeshed in a global conflict that goes way beyond the modest confines of World Cup cricket. In any case, Pakistan’s absence is a sad reminder that the hopes of regional peace associated with the 1996 World Cup remain unfulfilled.

In contrast, the financial bonanza ballyhooed by the 1996 event did come to pass, climaxing (or so it seemed) in the heady success of the IPL. Since 1996, India’s cricket-business-media-politics nexus has grown more intricate and more profitable. As the World Cup will witness, patronage has grown ever more lavish and the competitive clamour for it ever louder. Ways and means of carving out a piece of the action have proliferated. From pitch-side branding to naming rights for ‘performance awards’, from hospitality, catering, mascot merchandising, construction, outsourced broadcast rights to product placement of every kind—the ICC has maximised its product and its “global partners” have maximised the value of their investment in that product.

The winners of the first World Cup, in 1975, received £4,000 in prize money. This time around they’ll take home $3 million. More significantly, the sponsors of the first World Cup, Prudential Insurers, paid £1,00,000 for the privilege. Its successors—today’s ICC “global partners”—forked out about $500 million for their involvement with the 2011 event.

The big escalation in cricket profits began in the 1990s, driven by the liberalised Indian market. Since that time, public trust in the game and those who run and play it has worn ever thinner. There were questions raised at the end of the 1996 event about financial transparency and administrative accountability. Tragically, they went unanswered. Now, these questions have been amplified many times by the IPL scandals. As the Cup begins, the spectre of corruption haunts both the game and the public life of the major host country. Cricket no longer offers an assured relief from political and economic worries, because it is now so much part of the same malaise.

This is not, of course, a matter than can be addressed by resolving the Twenty20 versus 50/50 question. Many complain that the ODI format has become stale and predictable, and point in contrast to the range of innovations coming out of Twenty20. But the staleness has more to do with over-scheduling, and the pace of innovation more to do with the relative newness of the format in question, than with the intrinsic qualities of either. There’s every reason to worry that in time Twenty20 would come to display exactly the same foibles that have turned people off the longer ODI format: routine tactics and one-sided contests.

Let’s hope the 10th World Cup shows there’s life left in the 50-over game. I still like to see someone build an innings that lasts more than half an hour. And for me, dramatic swings in mood and fortune need time to ripen if they’re to stir my jaded spectator’s soul. Because Twenty20 remains such a creature of accident and miscalculation, success in it means less than prevailing in the 50-over game, which at its best (unlike the 2007 version) is a much more convincing demonstration of cricketing superiority.

The ICC would be foolish to allow the World Cup to drift down from its place at the summit of the game. The fact that ‘World Cups’ of all kinds in all sports have proliferated in recent years is testimony to the enduring power of the idea. We relish the prospect of the world’s best competing at their best. Twenty20 is unsuited for this particular function and as yet a true Test cricket championship remains speculative. So that leaves the prematurely aged 50-over format as our best bet for the kind of spectacle fans imagine when they hear the magic words ‘World Cup’.