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World Cup: affirmative answers

The Hindu, 20 March

At the outset of this World Cup, both the format and the event were on trial. Questions about its pre-eminence in the global game had been raised not only by the best forgotten 2007 instalment but even more by the rise of T20 and the IPL. While it’s too early to say, at the half way point the tournament seem to be answering these questions in the affirmative. At least that’s what it looks like sprawled in front of a TV screen in faraway London.

First, it’s clear, surely, that the 50 over format has plenty of life left in it and remains a much richer, more satisfying spectacle than T20.

Fifty overs allows the batsman to build an innings; indeed, it demands it. It’s not just a question of the amount of time but how to use it effectively. Changing gears – which means having more than one or two gears to change through – is an art unique to cricket batting and it plays no role in T20. What’s more, to succeed over the longer duration batters need to play strokes all around the wicket, exploiting the full 360 degrees. It might be said that whereas T20 matches are won by the field placings thwarting the batsman, 50 over matches are won by the batsman thwarting the field placings.

The new wrinkle of the batting “powerplay” (I wish they had thought up a less macho name) has proved unpredictable, tactically demanding and in some cases decisive. This moveable five over stretch has expanded the room for comebacks – real comebacks from a losing position that are much more convincing than the helter-skelter swings of the pendulum of T20.

When a 50 over match is close – and already we’ve been treated to a number of hard fought engagements – the occasion is memorable and the result meaningful in a way that T20 battles rarely are. Close contests may be more frequent in T20, but their results are more arbitrary, less the resolution of a dramatic tension and more the upshot of accident and luck.

The fifty over format has been derided for its “boring” middle overs. All that matters, critics say, is the first ten and last ten (which, it should be noted, is all you get in T20). But in this World Cup the middle overs have provided plenty of twists and turns, as spin bowlers come into their own and batsmen have to think hard. In contrast, T20 is a boom or bust game: ball by ball it’s either success or failure. That’s in keeping with contemporary neo-liberal ideology, but as a spectacle and an ethos, it’s crass and second rate.

As before, the early stages of the tournament have been accompanied by debate about the role of the “minnows”. When they play poorly, and the gap in quality yawns, it’s a let down for everyone. But strangely, the minnows are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. In 2007, there was much irritation that unexpected wins for Ireland and Bangladesh deprived the later stages of the tournament of Pakistan and India, two of its biggest money-spinners. As a result, the ICC decided that from 2015 the number of minnows in the Cup would be reduced.

For many years, the ICC has invested in associate members in the hopes of spreading the game globally – something cricket administrators talk about as if it were a sacred duty. But in this World Cup the dreams of global status have once again come up against the realities of the geographical distribution of the game.

Nonetheless, all those predictably one-sided contests are the necessary context for the singular treat that only World Cups can offer: the upset victory of the underdog, where and when it matters most. Apart from England fans, the world as a whole rejoiced in Ireland’s and Bangladesh’s victories. There’s not much more compelling and uplifting than to see what had been deemed improbable, implausible or downright impossible transformed in a matter of hours into the actual, the indisputably real. For a moment, hierarchies (historical and economic as well as cricketing) are turned upside down. It’s a brief glimpse of the day when the last shall be first. Moments like these may be fleeting, but they are one of the reasons why we look forward to sporting contests like the cricket World Cup. It does us good to see giants knocked from their perches. It’s the kind of triumph on which we all congratulate each other (provided we’re not on the losing side). Even hardened journalists smile and applaud. What’s more, the possibility of such impossibilities is what keeps the game, and specifically anything called a World Cup, honest.

The rulers of sport have an ambivalent attitude towards its inherent unpredictability. They want to finesse the contest, to shape the drama according to their own priorities (in the case of the World Cup, ensuring that the major south Asian audience draws make it at least to the semi-finals). They want to be Hollywood producers, tacking on happy endings and deleting controversial scenes, but the autonomy of cricket is refractory and resilient, and in the end always produces better drama than anything the administrators could invent. If the big fish have so much trouble swallowing the minnows, then maybe they’re not such big fish after all.

Compared to the World Cup, the IPL is a controlled, contrived experience. The “nations” that compete in the Cup are multi-faceted, fluid entities that sometimes bring out the worst in the game and the fans, but at least they refer to some kind of shared historical experience, which cannot be said of the fly by night IPL franchises.

While questions regarding the merits of the 50 over format and the World Cup as an event have been answered positively for the moment, the same cannot be said about the deeper, more intractable questions haunting the game, especially in India. Questions about probity, accountability and transparency which the BCCI and others remain unwilling to address, and which will loom as large after the World Cup as before.