13 November 2019 01:06 PM

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SREELATA S.YELLAMRAZU | 25 JUNE, 2019

The Perils of a Long Cricket World Cup

ICC has a real headache on its hands


Expectations of an exciting tournament from reduced team participation in the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 has been offset by the lengthy tournament with the added problem of abandoned matches due to rain.

What does one do in a ten team tournament when half the participating teams virtually rule themselves out of contention even before the halfway mark of the round robin stage?

The International Cricket Council (ICC) has a real headache on its hands. Inclement weather, inappropriate scheduling and outmoded draining techniques robbed what should have been a scintillating start to cricket’s premier tournament. Returning to the uncomplicated system of round robin matches where every team plays each other, this edition of the ICC Cricket World Cup was expected to be not only open in terms of deciding the winner but also, an exciting one with teams forced to play every other team.

But even before the first ball was bowled, the game went for a toss.

The ICC would have been in full knowledge ahead in time about the possible weather forecasts at this time of year in England as well as of the fact that the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) do not boast of adequate, let alone world class, draining facilities. It makes sense why even when the rain relented, unlike at the Wanderers in the 2003 ICC Cricket World Cup, most matches in the second week of the tournament refused to get underway due to wet outfield deemed too dangerous for fielding teams.

“We are playing some good cricket. We’re not too worried about where we stand.” Virat Kohli, the Indian captain, could afford to say that after India’s match against the New Zealand was a non starter for precisely those above stated reasons. But not all teams have been that comfortably placed and neither is the ICC.

In a tournament as long as the ICC Cricket World Cup, it is absolutely vital to sustain interest on a constant basis, day in and day out. With a week’s detachment from fans hoping to stay glued to television screens and instead being dished out with inane conversations in television studios substituting for the live action on the field, and the subsequently swift sifting of the teams into the contenders and the also-rans, there is a feeling amongst fans that the winner could be decided tomorrow if the existing top teams were asked to have a go without doing the farcical rigmarole over the next three weeks.

For a 45 match tournament, not including the two semi finals and the final, over a period of six weeks and with a curtailed number of teams, it became almost imperative that every match become a huge draw and every game yield a result befitting a World Cup, aka, close and edge-of-the-seat. Yet only two matches at the most at the end of three weeks and one of them involving the already languishing South African team lived up to the billing in the end.

If rain drowned out the chanting voices of rejuvenated fans, some teams failed to show the consistency that would put them right on top and in strong contention for the business end of the tournament. The mercurial nature of Pakistan and the West Indies have been exposed once more. Sri Lanka have been a non starter and Afghanistan have been far from being the team labelled to cause upsets in the tournament.

In an ‘open’ World Cup, South Africa donned both hats, under dogs and minnows, alternately, proving to be the tournament’s biggest disappointment by a mile. Although no heroics were expected, it was dismal watching a team that got out of the gate running in earlier editions staggering to come to terms with the occasion and their opposition. By the time South Africa showed fighting spirit, as revealed in the match which ultimately went New Zealand’s way, their hopes have been virtually scorched.

When it comes down to mathematical equations, complicated by the rain rule that accords one point each to the two competing teams in the event of an abandonment, it is hard to concur with the ICC’s logic that since many teams have been affected by the rain, it evens the scales.

The West Indies edged out others in the qualifying tournament prior to the ICC Cricket World Cup to make the cut. Six months later, they ignited hopes in the hearts of even the likes of Sir Vivian Richards of seeing the team once again lift the ICC Cricket World Cup trophy. When it comes down to it, no one would like to see any team get to the semi- final, leave alone win a tournament the proportion of the World Cup, by benefitting from points garnered from a washed out match.

The ICC may have its reasons for why the reserve days were not a favourable idea even though exactly two decades ago, when the World Cup was being staged in England, it accorded reserve days for the matches. There is merit in the concern about the logistical nightmare it would present. But given the length and breadth measurement of the country, the ICC could have cut down on travelling time from venue to venue, training days and tightened up the schedule to make the tournament more competitive if it could not cover for the weather. It could have postponed the tournament by saving that much time in the hope of better weather.

What is even worse is that when so much of the future of the fifty overs format hinges on the ICC Cricket World Cup, even at the risk of the tournament running longer – it is already controversially running at over six weeks for a ten team tournament when the football world cup is a month long affair with over thirty teams in contention, it should have made room for reserve days. The contention that rain could have played spoilsport even on reserve days is but an excuse when the ICC has thrown all of the one day internationals eggs in one basket. It owed the game that much.

The whole idea behind the ruthless culling of the hopes of a hundred plus strong associate members hoping to make the cut for the ICC Cricket World Cup was with the idea to make the tournament more competitive and therefore, appealing for television broadcasting rights. Yet while the last edition of the ICC Champions Trophy made for a compelling case of a closed World Cup dress rehearsal played over a period of less than three weeks, it was not financially lucrative enough for the ICC to keep the tournament around.

Furthermore, it would appear even fewer lessons were learned from the event since the current tournament played over six weeks finds itself adrift not unlike the edition in the Caribbean islands in 2007. The commencement of the ICC Cricket World Cup is too far removed from the final to continue to hold an absorbing and intriguing thread through the story over the span of six weeks. When inclement weather – expected, it should be added – interrupts a tournament as it did in the second week, that story begins to wane thin as does the momentum of some of the teams.

With dead rubbers becoming a reality in the latter half of this tournament already, the strong contenders having already announced themselves in the form of England, Australia, India and now New Zealand, one can only speculate whether the television broadcasters and the ICC are scratching their heads wondering where they went wrong. With fans having burnt holes in their pockets for matches that either turned out to be ticketing blunders or abandoned games, it would not be surprising to see the ICC point fingers once more at the beleaguered one day internationals for the failings of the premier tournament.

What cannot go unnoticed is the fact that it is with deliberate intent that a tournament of World Cup size proportions is spread over a month and a half, with the danger of less than a handful of teams staying competitive. It brings into question the merit in the ICC awarding the tournament to England, particularly at a time when it is common knowledge that colder, rain-prone weather is in the offing at this early start to England’s summer.

As some of the players fall off the charts, with injuries becoming more frequent over the lengthier duration of the tournament, there is every bit the danger that teams whose fate hinged on their star players could lose some of the steam and their clout. For India, it was Shikar Dhawan to a significant extent thus far. For South Africa, Dale Steyn’s being ruled out already threw a spanner in the works. And now stumbling out of the closet with increasingly frequency is the injury concerns to England’s Jason Roy, West Indies’ Andre Russell and others of their ilk who are not only potential match winners but also, tournament draws that fans pay good money to watch.

The idea that injuries could occur at any time holds merit. But there was always going to be the added risk with a tournament as protracted as this and the break between matches and the training sessions inevitably producing their spate of worries.

Another burning contention is that even with England being the hot favourites to overturn their nearly five decades old tag of ‘always the bridesmaid’, the ICC Cricket World Cup is a communal affair, drawing fans from across the world, paying good money to watch matches live in the expensive United Kingdom on the brink of a Brexit fallout. With that being an obvious consensus, the ICC owed it to make the matches, the scheduling and indeed the facilities including ground coverage paramount to the successful staging of the World Cup to crowded stadium match after match. After all it was the criteria the television broadcasters and the ICC claimed as a prominent reason to make the ICC Cricket World Cup an incestuously small club.

Sunil Gavaskar was not off the mark when he asked for the ICC to penalize the ECB for not taking adequate measures to ensure better ground coverage in the event of rain. But to take it a step further, awarding the tournament to a host must meet certain criteria and standards. With the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) showing a clear preference for the Ashes over the ICC Cricket World Cup even in the year when England have been the top contenders in decades in the fifty overs format, it must be brought into question in the course of the post mortem the logic and the decision making to let England run its course while the ICC did not even bother to insure the tournament with reserve days.

What does one watery week do to a six week long World Cup? It holds the potential to become the game’s Waterloo, a dangerous pause in the game leaving bare the larger game of two halves – teams that have put themselves in the driver’s seat and those simply going along for the ride – or forced to go along for the ride given the nature of the tournament as also, its duration. It generates a negative cascading cycle of increasingly disgruntled voices (which will only will grow if teams end up fighting the mathematical battle on the points table). It indelibly marks the occasion and none for the better.

Let the blame games begin.

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