Has World Cup really breathed new life into the 50-over game?
The ICC's chief executive Haroon Lorgat says so – but there's reason to be sceptical
After 41 days and 48 matches, almost all of which have often seemed interminable, the final is now at hand. It is a small miracle that the 10th cricket World Cup has managed to conjure precisely the right pairing in India and Sri Lanka, the main hosts.
Or maybe that was the International Cricket Council's cunning plan all along and the only way to ensure its successful fruition was to have a tournament beginning in the mists of time, so that by the end people had forgotten that there had been so few plot twists in the narrative. The upshot is that 50-over cricket may, just, survive for a few more years.
From the outset it was imperative that India had a long run deep into the business end. Tournaments in which the hosts are eliminated usually stagnate. India have frequently looked laboured, their fielding still too often stranded in the past, their bowling lacking resilience and resourcefulness.
But they have done enough and that is what counts. Nor should the weight of expectation be underestimated. The scenes of unbridled joy throughout Chandigarh on Thursday night after the semi-final win against Pakistan told how much it all meant.
The legendary rugby union commentator, Bill McLaren, would sometimes say after a particularly incisive piece of play, usually involving a Scot, that folk would be stopping the traffic and dancing in the streets of some unpronounceable Scottish town that night. On Thursday in Chandigarh, that is exactly what happened. Perhaps this sort of adulation is why the team led by MS Dhoni is so detached. It is the only way they can function.
Sri Lanka have regularly punched above their weight, but then they always do. They are the cricketing equivalent of Jimmy Wilde, the long-ago flyweight champion, ghosts with hammers in their hands. They have the most enviably blended bowling formation in the tournament, enough classy batsmen to get them going and a gentle swagger.
The end, however, cannot come soon enough. To hear the words of Haroon Lorgat, the chief executive of the ICC, the other day it is as though the world has just witnessed one of those imperishable sporting events to set alongside the football World Cup of 1970, the Olympic Games of 2000, the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle" of 1974 and, yes, the small but perfectly formed inaugural cricket World Cup of 1975.
Lorgat, an infectious enthusiast as well as a pragmatic administrator, told an audience in Colombo: "The evidence to prove that 50-over cricket is far from finished has been plentiful. The television audiences have been the biggest in history and the India v England match in Bengaluru on 27 February is the most watched game in the history of ODIs. And the crowds have been outstanding. The scoring rate of five runs an over is the highest in history."
All true, but all slightly selective too. Lorgat knows that there have been far too many games, that few of them have been gripping in any context, that the tournament has gone on too long to reach this stage and that the imbalance between teams has been too large. It has enthralled in India partly because it has been impossible to miss in the same way that the Premier League in England is papered on every wall.
If the right teams, from a commercial and romantic perspective, have reached the final, the team of the tournament may well be England. All their seven games – including their quarter-final when they were swept aside by Sri Lanka by 10 wickets – had something going for them. The most crucial of these was the match against India to which Lorgat referred.
When that finished in a high-scoring tie, a match that both teams might have won, but did not, the tournament was set up. There was a feeling in India at least that you had better not take your eyes off in case something happened. That was caused not only by the result but by the combatants. Had it been New Zealand and South Africa, say, it would not have been the same.
Fifty-over cricket still needs help. It is impossible for the format to prosper when so few countries have domestic competitions featuring it. In England again this summer, for example, there will be no 50-over cricket. There will be plenty (too much) of 20 overs, lots of 40 overs for no reason that is remotely compelling and the usual diet of Championship and Test matches.
This is the scheduling of halfwits, and makes Lorgat's claims look taller than they are. Nor is England alone because cricket boards all over – Australia and South Africa to name but two – have decided the scheduling panacea lies outside 50 overs.
Lorgat is right in some ways. The format has enough going for it because there is time for ebb and flow, for crash and wallop and, occasionally, studious reflection. But he needs support. The memoirs of Lorgat's predecessor, Malcolm Speed, called Sticky Wicket, were published yesterday.
In them Speed, who was ousted after a clash over the probity of Zimbabwe cricket's financial affairs in 2008, warns of India's commercial power. Television rights mean, for instance, that an Indian tour of Australia generates five or six times more money than an England tour Down Under.
"Finding the right balance between India's commercial power and the interests of the other countries is a big test," said Speed. If India win tomorrow that will only become more difficult.
As for 50-over cricket, Speed said: "There is a risk that 50-over cricket will lose its popularity, but the current World Cup has shown that the good matches will achieve good ratings." And if India win tomorrow, 50-over cricket will have been given a kiss of life it could receive from nowhere else. Sri Lanka, quite rightly, have other ideas.
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