A World Cup of favourites and dark horses
The immigration officer at Heathrow airport raises a suspicious brow when I tell him the purpose of my visit. But his lady colleague in the adjacent glass box assures him that there is an ICC World Cup about to begin in England. On the Piccadilly Line in London’s Underground - which takes you from the cluster of airport terminals to the centre of the city - there’s a newspaper occupying a seat by itself. It is today’s edition of Metro, the tabloid with the highest circulation in the United Kingdom. The first (and last) mention of cricket, or the forthcoming World Cup, is on page 57 (out of 60).
The page carries a large picture of England’s Eoin Morgan and India’s Virat Kohli from the captains’ press conference held the previous evening. But in the highlights box below, a mug shot of Aaron Finch sits besides a quote by New Zealand’s Kane Williamson. During the journey the newspaper is picked up and read by several passengers and in all that time the only discussion of trophies that could possibly be won by Englishmen occurred when two officegoers spoke extensively about Lewis Hamilton and the forthcoming Monaco Grand Prix.
Cricket is the second-most watched team sport on these shores but its showpiece event still receives none of the hype and build-up that the equivalent tournament in football does; not a week away from the opening fixture anyway.
Unlike the football World Cup, which was last played in (and also won by) England in 1966, the cricket World Cup has indeed come home. And it threatens to stay here too, given just how strong Morgan’s squad has shaped up to be in the lead up to the big one. Kohli in fact even said during the captains’ presser that he believes England will most likely be the first team to break the 500-run ceiling in ODI cricket and that it could well happen at the World Cup. If that were to happen, surely then the fanfare would spill on to the streets and the pubs. But until the action begins, the anticipation of this World Cup is drowned out by louder matters of national interest - Nigel Farage and the royal baby and an all-English UEFA Champions League final.
Mania or no mania, the campaign for the two clear favourites to win the 2019 edition, England and India, begins in the form of warm-up matches on Saturday; against Australia and New Zealand, respectively, both dark horses. Somehow, magically, this World Cup has set itself up to be a tournament of just that, favourites and dark horses and seemingly no outright losers. If the stars were to align just so, even Bangladesh (who have with them the best-ranked all-rounder in ODIs) and Afghanistan (who in turn boast of the best-ranked bowler in ODIs) could well push for semi-final berths and no one will really be surprised.
The expected evenness of this World Cup is as much a nod to the resilience of the 50-over game (whose obituary has often been penned and yet has only gotten more thrilling) as it is a nod to the group-stage format of the upcoming tournament. The last time each team took on every other team in a single pool of 10 teams - back in 1992 - it produced arguably the most competitive World Cup edition, what with underdogs Pakistan returning from the dead to win it.
That particular tournament was also the last time England, who finished runners-up, were alive and kicking at the business end of a 50-over World Cup. Twenty seven years is a long time for a proper cricket country to have not made a dent in the most important tournament of a sport that it birthed. That distressing record is most probably going to change over the next eight weeks. And as it does, so will the palpable indifference of the public.