The Best Laid Plans of Men and Mice
An airtight plan for a World Cup?
If past precedent is anything to go by, South Africa’s exit from the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 is an upset of World Cup proportions. In the present compact edition, without the minnows and with South Africa playing like one, the idea of an upset has been given a makeover.
It took three weeks since its commencement for the World Cup to receive its first round of shakeups. Until then it appeared that the top teams had virtually pre-booked their spots in the semi-finals. England, Australia and India looked a shoo-in for the business end, despite even the deluge of rain that marred the sport in the second week. New Zealand were better placed, not having lost a single match yet, to be the fourth team through.
It appeared that with the ICC deciding that the associate member nations needed only two qualifying spots in the ten-team tournament, that too after going through a World Cup qualifier that also included the bottom two ranked ODI teams, it had insured the top teams against the very idea of an upset.
The ICC was taking out the minnows, leaving the teams to figure out the intriguing proposition of an underdog and the dark horse between themselves, one of the factors that makes World Cups so enticing. In a battle of equals, there would be no upsets.
An airtight plan for a World Cup? Not for one that lasts a month and a half, where so many variables come into play.
A conspiracy theory doing the rounds when a ten-team was announced, was that the sustenance of ODIs and indeed the ICC Cricket World Cup depended on the notion that the top teams – by that, read the richer, more influential cricket boards – would need to remain in contention right until the business end of the tournament, if gate revenue and TRPs mattered.
Forgotten in the din was the excitement of an underdog, given the chance, rising up to match a champion.
Previous editions had revealed uncomfortable truths about the lack of preparedness of teams such as England, who appeared merely passengers coming along for the ride. Ireland won laurels in 2011 for their stupendous success, only to find themselves out in the cold as far as the 2019 edition is concerned, and this after being awarded Test status. The same goes for Scotland who have been the most predominant of the lower-ranked teams to have gotten the better of England in recent times.
The television broadcasters naturally pitch for a tournament of equals, for the mere fact that they want every match to go down to the wire and grab maximum eyeballs. Rather than raise the overall competitive levels, this closeted World Cup was considered more “viable”. Yet the idea that choking the available slots will tighten up the contest has not held water, not until this past weekend anyway.
Afghanistan, without looking like they wanted to cause an upset, found themselves suddenly staring the lion in the jungle in the eye. India, flatfooted perhaps after more engaging encounters and resounding victories, took their foot off the accelerator and were nearly caught napping.
Sri Lanka, as through much of the tournament were slow to get off their haunches in their match against England. And yet somehow they managed to spook the firm favourites on their home turf, turning the points table suddenly into rush-hour traffic for the final two spots.
The West Indies, however, came out of the gate galloping at a heart-stopping pace, and it appeared that the team from the Caribbean islands had finally risen after decades to jump-start the World Cup.
And a jump start was exactly what this sort of World Cup needed, with the possibility of an upset very nearly ruled out, in a calculated manner unnatural to tournaments of this proportion.
It is why the football and the rugby world cups attract audiences not normally drawn to the sport, because every team that qualifies brings with it fans who believe their team stands a chance, no matter the odds. That is how World Cups are usually stacked.
But the seesaw nature of Pakistan and the West Indies have kept the assorted organisers on tenterhooks, worried about the possibility of more matches going the way they did in the first week, when play was possible but toss dependent: one-sided, foregone conclusions.
The organisers would claim the washed-out second week in hindsight made the upsets possible by crunch time the week past. But sadly the weather and scheduling were the biggest upset. Fortunately for the ICC and company, the World Cup came alive even as the weekend was winding down.
Afghanistan’s points table will show six matches played, six matches lost. What it won’t show is that the neighbours nearly got the better of a sloppy India, and that it took a World Cup hat-trick from Mohammad Shami for them not to pull off the first major upset of the tournament. A true upset by traditional World Cup standards.
Without the associate members making their normal guest appearances, Sri Lanka’s doldrum performances’ giving way to a shock win over England became the talking point. On another day, calling a win by 1996 World Cup winners Sri Lanka an upset would be an insult. Not this time, where Sri Lanka have been drifting in a lone boat on the ocean by themselves.
And New Zealand’s win over the West Indies by just five runs, while not quite a feat of David and Goliath proportions, can still be described as them scraping through.
On the whole, without the likes of Kenya, Ireland, Scotland and other such teams, it was South Africa that proved to be the non-starter. They became the first major team to exit the tournament at the halfway mark. After their close encounter with New Zealand they were already on the edge of an outside mathematical equation, and their uninspired efforts against Pakistan only highlighted why, when they came out to play against England, World Cup 2019 was bracing for a different kind of upset.
By tournament standards and ODI rankings, South Africa’s defeat at the hands of a clinical Bangladesh would have been termed an upset. However, their contest against England showed tell-tale signs of a team that was simply not quite put together. Bangladesh on the other hand did everything right by the book.
The chasm between South Africa’s current level of performance and the teams billed to lift the trophy – England, India and Australia – is so deep, that even if South Africa had somehow pushed the mathematics of the points table, they would have been questioned on the legitimacy of their presence among the top four.
Likewise, as things stand it would be another tournament upset if either England or New Zealand, tussling for points, were suddenly to drop out of the top half of the table.
But cricket is a game of glorious uncertainties – and nothing glorious will remain if it goes on being played in the interests of the ICC and the broadcasters and the boards, in keeping the World Cup a closed and clubby affair.
It has to be remembered that the West Indies, like Afghanistan, came through the qualifying tournament that saw Zimbabwe edged out. Each win for the West Indies, therefore, is a World Cup upset, sadly irrespective of the team’s rich legacy.
One can only speculate what a rainless second week might have done for the points table or the teams’ preparation. But if the top cricket boards have indeed conspired to keep out the associates and ensure a World Cup of top-tier teams at journey’s end, they may have to close ranks further still.