Michael Simkins on why the old cricket matches of yesterday are in need of a facelift.
Cricket's 50-over cup may be in dire need of a makeover
Over the next few weeks - six, to be precise - the eyes of the sporting world will be on the Indian subcontinent, where the 2011 Cricket World Cup will make its lumbering progress towards the Grand Finale in Mumbai some time in April.
The celebratory opening ceremony - staged at Dhaka in Bangladesh at the staggering sum of $30 million (Dh110.2 million) - gave a sample of the brouhaha to come. In a spectacular display, the captains of the 14 competing nations were driven around the outfield in garishly coloured rickshaws, accompanied by ear-splitting rock music, dazzling light shows, and an improbable game of aerial cricket involving a laser beam. Wonderful stuff it was too. If the cricket is half as good, we should be in for a treat.
But there's the rub. The signs are that it won't be. The need to satisfy the rapacious demands of the TV schedulers and the sponsors threaten to turn this once-svelte enterprise into a guzzling, overblown gargoyle.
When the original 50-over Cricket World Cup was first attempted in England in the summer of 1975, it was a memorable, pulsating event, shoehorned into three breathless weeks and competed for by teams who'd fully rested and prepared beforehand. What's more, the format was thrillingly simple - no endless round robins and zonal groups: instead, a rapidly accelerating dynamic up to the grand final at Lords.
The result was sporting magic. Who could forget the final, with the West Indies matched against Australia at the home of cricket under cloudless skies? There was a glorious hundred from Collis King, and three extraordinary run outs in the field just as it appeared that Australia might be prevailing in their unlikely run-chase.
But 36 years on, and this year's competition will be barely halfway through by then. The straggling itinerary involves no fewer than 49 separate games, competed for by cricketers who are so worn out by the travel that they can hardly raise themselves off the physiotherapist's bench.
Take England for example. Andrew Strauss's battle-scarred troops have only just returned from Australia, where they've won a wonderful but necessarily bruising Ashes encounter, followed by a stream of various one-day competitions. By the end, they could barely raise 11 fit players, what with torn muscles, back spasms and general fatigue. If only I'd been holidaying out there, I reckon I might have got a game myself.
Yet upon returning to Heathrow last week, the beleaguered party had a small matter of three days at home before having to haul their weary carcasses back to the airport: barely time to put your laundry through the washing machine and feed the cat.
Yet in truth, there's another equally serious marketing problem with the current format, one that can't merely be solved by giving the players a few weeks off. The fact is that the 50-over competition, which seemed so fresh and new back in the days of flares and sideburns, now seems decidedly middle-aged when compared to its newest, youngest sibling. As the Indian batsman Navjot Sidhu said: "If 50 overs is pyjama cricket, T/20 is cricket in your underwear."
But the answer is surely not to provide more of it, as the organisers seem hell bent on doing here. For too long now these four-yearly 50 over beanos have been bloated, overblown affairs, none more so than the last one in the Caribbean during 2007, when a profusion of low-octane contests and hiked admission prices went beyond the range of the very locals who were supposed to benefit from the event. It resulted in both apathy and burn-out.
Reflecting on the previous debacle, the Bangladeshi prime minister Sheikh Hasina said: "I hope that the games will be memorable and exciting." So do we all, for if not, the 2011 vintage could be the last. While having lunch with a former England captain turned media pundit recently, I was shocked when he announced casually over dessert that "the 50 over format is dead. Within a few years, it simply won't exist." His words may be premature, but he's often right.
Still, if the authorities want to rediscover the winning formula, they need only to look back to 1975. Life was so simple back then: beautiful weather, full houses, and fit and enthusiastic cricketers participating in a handful of matches, each of which genuinely mattered.
"Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety." Such was once said of Shakespeare's eternal beauty, Queen Cleopatra. The 50-over World Cup by contrast, may soon be in need of some cricketing Botox.
Michael Simkins is a writer and actor based in London