ICC World Cup 2019: Set for thrills, spills and heartbreak
It has survived! The World Cup is alive and kicking and once again we are salivating over the prospects of all those involved in this the 12th incarnation of the tournament that goes back to 1975.
There was a time when we all feared the imminent demise of 50-over cricket. It had become too formulaic, too predictable, too dull. Now that teams have worked it out that they can play mostly T20 style cricket for pretty much a whole day, the format has been given a real shot in the arm and has become an adrenalin rush.
In England anticipation is as high as it could be. Eoin Morgan’s team are the favourites and on home soil and we have never had as good a chance as this to actually be World Cup winners. He is a most impressive person and an outstanding one day captain, in my book the best in the world. When you meet him, he has the steeliest look in his eyes you have seen for a long, long time and he fixes his gaze firmly on you, emphasising his command of that and any situation. I’d follow him to most places but not, as the cliché says, through a brick wall. That is just dumb!
The harbinger of change
He has overseen the most dramatic change in England’s white-ball teams, ditching the outdated, outmoded approach that cost them in the previous World Cup, picking the players he wants and not the bunch that he inherited last time, and, most importantly giving them the belief that they can perform beyond accepted bounds. Boy, has it worked.
It would be easy to point at the massive totals his batsmen have compiled recently and say that this is where the confidence is most evident but it is widely acknowledged that his greatest triumph is giving Adil Rashid the confidence to bowl to take wickets (now there’s a novel idea) and to become a vital part of a top team.
However, despite the hype, we are all, Morgan included, aware that a bad half an hour at an important time can derail even the best. Mike Gatting’s ill-timed (in both senses) reverse sweep in the 1987 final handed the game to the Aussies and Graham Gooch’s team in 1992 had been the best side in the tournament, albeit New Zealand had pushed them hard, but still lost on the back of a couple of questionable decisions and a brilliant burst of fast swing bowling from Wasim Akram.
At least some good came out of it. Imran Khan was able to dedicate the win to the people of Pakistan and build his cancer hospital and look where he is now. Whether had Graham won that day, he would be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is more a moot, not to say bizarre, idea but we could do with something uplifting from the sporting world in the UK right now in the same way that Ian Botham distracted the country from social and industrial unrest in 1981.
One should not forget either that there are some extraordinary cricketers and some very strong sides in this competition, all of whom have ambitions as strong as Morgan’s. My top four teams are England, India, New Zealand and a resurgent Australia. By no means out of the frame are South Africa, West Indies and Pakistan, who have the admirable habit of finding someone to inspire them in the latter stages of an ICC world event and take them to unexpected triumphs, such as in the last Champions Trophy.
One expects the better teams, those with the greater depth of talent and reserves, to come out on top of what will be a demanding schedule, at least by modern standards. Playing every other side in the initial stage is good but time consuming when teams are allowed so long gaps between matches. I had forgotten until I saw the quote recently from my colleague in the 1983 World Cup, Graeme Fowler, that the tournament, admittedly with fewer games to play, moved at a rapid pace in those days. As he put it, it was “Play, get pissed, travel and play again”. It didn’t seem to do us any harm as he and I both made a stack of runs only to come unstuck at the worst time, losing our semi-final to India at Old Trafford.
Gains from India’s 1983 win
Again, if one looks on the bright side, our loss was cricket’s gain. With India becoming the first team to wrest the trophy from West Indies’ grasp, one-day cricket became more interesting to the subcontinent, which brought a massive market to the world game and led in turn to the IPL. I wonder to whom we should cede the trophy this time for the greater good?
As an aside, I would favour the tournament occupying a shorter time frame. Of the 38 consecutive days of cricket that precede the semi-finals and final on only seven of those days are two matches being staged with start times staggered at 10.30 and 1.30. If I were a player with 4 or 5 days between games I’d be bored.
You might recall I was never a huge fan of training and whereas the 1983 schedule of “play, get pissed, travel and play” would not suit the modern game, it is not beyond the wit of the ICC and the broadcasters and sponsors to accept that it is possible to schedule and watch more than one game at a time more often. In the days I was still allowed to present and commentate on the event I recall standing on the set in the Sky studios saying “Welcome to start of the ICC World Cup. Only seven and half weeks to go!” And I was only partly tongue in cheek when I said it. Now I think of it, it’s probably why someone else has that gig now!
Back to the current day, we are blessed with brilliance all around the world. There will be personal contests with the event to see who is the best batsman or the best bowler and the best fielder. There is strong competition in all fields.
Field of Exciting batsmen
England have Buttler, India Virat, New Zealand Williamson, and Australia Smith. I could add all sorts of names to that list of batsmen but by the end of it I would be almost naming entire squads! That is how exciting batting can be in this era and totals will be compiled and games won not just by one man alone.
It was interesting to hear Virat a few days ago cautioning that the gung ho, ultimate positive cricket that has become the norm in the most recent years might not work so easily at the business end of the tournament when the stakes are highest. But in the meantime there will be undoubtedly some massive batting efforts. Pitches in England can be mighty batsman friendly and it is not as though touring sides are unfamiliar with either the country or those conditions.
Bowling will be key
I join with all those who have already cited the bowling as being the key. I have mentioned Rashid as a key figure for England and whose rise to prominence has only come because his captain understands how to use spin in ODIs. England have also quite rightly included Jofra Archer, who has proven in IPL, an excellent training ground for pressure cricket, what an extraordinary array of talents he possesses. Anyone who can conjure wickets at any stage of the 50 overs has value. Again I could cite a list of talented players from each and every one of the teams but an example was set in the warm up game between India and New Zealand, when Trent Boult in effect sorted the game right at the top of the Indian innings. Think too of the defining moment in many ways of the last final in Melbourne. For Australia to dismiss McCullum in the first over the match was the body blow from which the Kiwis could not recover.
The stage is set, the players have rehearsed their lines solidly for the last 4 years. There will be drama, upsets and entertainment. I wish I were part of the merry band that gets to add their knowledge, judgement and wit to the broadcasts that will occupy the airwaves around the world until that final on July 14th, when I will at least be watching from the comfort of a Lord’s box with a glass of Lord Marland’s champagne in hand, celebrating at the end with whichever of the 10 captains has his hands on the trophy.
(David Gower will be writing a weekly column for HT for the duration of the World Cup)