The last tournament, held in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in 1996, made only a modest splash in this country. Our team performed embarrassingly, and the tournament was poorly televised. This was a shame, as it was compelling for several reasons. It showed, first, that the moving-and-shaking power in world cricket was no longer England, but India: it was Indian audiences that drove the television rights to new levels and Indian crowds that provided the boisterous atmosphere the cameras needed. The cities of the subcontinent draped themselves in flags, banners and cardboard cut-outs of top players. And there was an entertaining advertising tussle between the official sponsors, Coca-Cola, and the cheeky outsiders, Pepsi (nothing official about it). The game knocked everything else out of the newspapers: the Times of India ran a dutiful box on the front page which read: "The news other than cricket".
The tournament emphasised, too, the sense in which one-day cricket was real cricket. Gavaskar's snooty disdain for the bish-bash game is still a common enough view, especially in this country: limited-overs contests are routinely disparaged as bastard versions of the original, as if they were the loud-mouthed black sheep of some fine and ancient family. Of course it goes without saying that a five-day Test match is a deeper, more subtle and more conclusive duel between bat and ball; but one-day cricket, in an important and sometimes forgotten sense, is cricket. It is the game we play at school and for clubs at the weekend, the game where a couple of hours is long enough for a century, the game where you can bat and bowl without having a sleep in between.
The 1996 World Cup indicated, finally, that cricket was capable of shaking the bit out of its mouth and entertaining an impatient modern audience. Sri Lanka's victory was in part a strategic triumph - Arjuna Ranatunga's team was the first to appreciate the scoring potential created by new fielding regulations; but above all it was a tribute to the team's spirit of adventure. Sanath Jayasuriya and Aravinda de Silva collared opening bowlers as they had never been collared before. The bewilderment of England's hapless attack, when Sri Lanka smashed 121 off the first 15 overs, was only one of many memorable episodes in the competition.
There were lots of others: De Silva coming out in the semi-final, when Sri Lanka had lost two wickets off the first two balls of their match against India, and stroking fours as if there were only three overs to go. The Sri Lankan foreign minister who retorted, when Shane Warne said the bomb threats had made it unsafe to go shopping in Colombo, that "shopping is for sissies"; the newspaper story in Pakistan which recorded the nation's traumatic loss to India beneath the bittersweet headline: "India Plunged into Euphoria". The bravado shown by the captain of the United Arab Emirates, the Ferrari-driving Sultan Zarawani, in coming out to face Allan Donald without a helmet, and getting a horrendous crack on the head for his pains.
The emphatic hitting of Sachin Tendulkar. The succession of caressed boundaries from the bat of Mark Waugh. The unbelievable West Indian batting collapse (eight wickets for 40 runs) which allowed Australia to sneak through to the final. The hot chaos of the opening ceremony, when a Bengali wind played havoc with the laser show, and the models wore jeans because their saris were stuck in traffic. The jumping excitement of Kenya's portly wicketkeeper as the West Indies stumbled to another improbable defeat. The racy century (the second fastest in World Cup history by one ball) with which Brian Lara stunned the haughty South Africans. The ghastly succession of dropped catches with which England opened the tournament in Ahmedabad. The poetic resonance of Sri Lankan names: Aravinda means "lotus flower". The crash when a mobile crane toppled onto the pitch in Bombay, raising the spectre of a unique new cricket phrase: crane stopped play.
Will it be like that this time? Not likely. But this is an important moment in the history of English cricket, a chance to re-ignite a fading public appetite for the game. In Pakistan, the joke doing the rounds was: Faisalabad, Hyderabad, England are bad. It was an exaggeration, but not by much. We should not have been surprised when Jayasuriya raced to 84 in about half an hour against Peter Martin and Phil DeFreitas. A couple of years earlier he had struck his first ball in Test cricket (off John Embury) for six. But we were surprised, utterly. Our whole approach to the game - coaching, administration, the whole tired culture of English cricket - was badly exposed. Of all the major teams in the competition, ours was the slowest to cotton on to the shift in the ideology and habits of one-day cricket. We marched forward in the same old way, and were mown down.
Have we learned anything in the intervening years? We are about to find out. Conditions favour us, and the team is better prepared this time round. In England the last 10 overs, and wickets in hand, might prove to be more important than the first 10; and this should suit our players better. The besetting problem - the eternal stodginess of our domestic sport - continues to cast a shadow over our chances. But cricket is just as funny an old game as football. No one expected India to win the last World Cup held in these parts, but they tip-toed their way through to the final and astonished everyone by outflanking the then-mighty West Indies. So who knows? It is a game of two halves, and all about 11 against 11 on the day. Perhaps all that is needed to rouse the public is extra time, penalties and a semi-final against Germany.
Robert Winder is the author of "Hell for Leather", the story of the 1996 World Cup (Indigo, pounds 7.99)Reuse content