x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

World Cup fever? Come back and see when the quarter-finals start in five weeks

The Cricket World Cup has been give the tag of "The Cup That Counts", but with Twenty20 growing in popularity each year and Test cricket the truest form of the game, that nickname doesn't stand completely true for the 50-over tournament.

Ricky Ponting, the Australia captain, arrives at the opening ceremony in a rickshaw at Bangabandhu Stadium in Dhaka yesterday.
Ricky Ponting, the Australia captain, arrives at the opening ceremony in a rickshaw at Bangabandhu Stadium in Dhaka yesterday.

While pondering the value of World Cups in sport, Ed Smith, the former England batsman turned leader writer for The Times, suggested they have one essential failing. Namely, they render all the other intervening events in that sport more or less meaningless.

"World Cups are sport's grey squirrels: once they've scuttled their way into the system, they dominate the whole ecosystem, killing off all rivals," he wrote in last month's edition of GQ.

"Strangling more deserving competitions is what World Cups do best."

Cricket's version is like the daddy of grey squirrels, but with a masochistic bent: it is so tireless in its attempt to suffocate the game, it actually squeezes all life out of itself, to the extent that all other cricket is a joy by comparison.

Sorry to start off on such a downer. Come back to me in five weeks time, when the quarter-finals, and perhaps some excitement, are about to start. If cricket's version of water torture has not done for you by then, that is.

Happily for the powers that be, the players remain on side.

"I don't really have to say much about people thinking the tournament will start from the quarter-finals," MS Dhoni, the India captain, said at the opening press conference.

"I think it will be interesting right from the very start. Don't forget it was the boring games which took the whole excitement out of the last World Cup."

By that last sentence, he meant the predicted mismatches, like Pakistan versus Ireland, were the ones which gave the World Cup in the West Indies its colour.

Ireland's stunning victory over Pakistan was one of the highlights of the 2007 tournament.

Yet his clumsy phrasing conveyed a far more accurate picture. Too many non-matches make the World Cup dull for too long.

"I think the format is perfect this time, not like in the last World Cup," Shahid Afridi, the Pakistan captain, said. "Now you get a chance to play each and every team."

He would say that. The group stage is so long now, Pakistan will probably be able to fit in at least three of their trademark meltdowns and still cruise happily into the knockout phase.

To their credit, the International Cricket Council (ICC) have heeded the criticism. The next World Cup will only be for the 10 best teams in the world.

As a counterweight to that, the pool of non-Test playing nations participating in the World Twenty20 will mean an expansion of that competition to 16 teams.

However, flaws remain. Cricket's supposedly most important trophy is played for in a 50-over format which is neither the game's highest form, nor its most popular anymore.

Even the tournament's tagline - "The Cup that Counts" - is debatable. For many, it remains far less sought after than an ancient little urn.

The Barmy Army, England's travelling supporters group, numbered thousands for the recent Ashes series in Australia, compared to a few hundred making the trip to India.

"There is no doubt we'd prefer to win The Ashes," Paul Burnham, co-founder of the Barmy Army, said when given the choice of Ashes or World Cup success.

"It is absolutely the biggest event in cricket as far as I am concerned. The World Cup is OK

" Our people are not professional layabouts. They had been saving up to go to the Ashes in Australia since 2009."

The muted regard for the World Cup in England and Australia contrasts with those on the ground in the subcontinent, where the tournament will be jointly hosted by India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, according to the powers that be.

"The board was pleased to hear that excitement was reaching unprecedented heights around the [World Cup]," Haroon Lorgat, the ICC chief executive, said in a press release after this week's executive board meeting in Dubai. "All indications and reports point towards an eagerly-awaited event as teams look forward to annex "The Cup that Counts".

"Whether it is in Bangladesh, India or Sri Lanka, the interest in the event is evident and we are grateful to the three hosts for their splendid efforts in preparing well for the tournament.

"The World Cup promises to be a showpiece full of colour and passion and will be the pride and joy of each host nation."

This tournament had originally been pencilled in to be staged in Australia and New Zealand.

The Tasman countries have not had the 50-over flagship since 1992 - four years before the last Asian World Cup - so, by the previously established run of events, this was their turn.

However, in 2006 the ICC did away with the cyclical process, and staged an open bidding process.

Not surprisingly, the all-powerful Asian block won out, and they successfully argued that every third World Cup should be staged on the continent as it is the main market for cricket.

So Asia will also stage the 2023 and 2035 events. If man - and 50-over cricket - is still alive.

As part of the trade off, Australia's right to stage the competition was edged back four years.

England got the 2019 event, and were handed the sweetener of a new competition for 2009, the then-yet-to-be-branded World Twenty20 Championship (now the World Twenty20).

Who really got the booby prize there?

Australia and New Zealand suffered most from the deal, but England did all right.

They were laughing all the way to the bank when T20's popularity suddenly exploded.

The fixture between India and England at Lord's in the 2009 World Twenty20 is said to have attracted the biggest television audience ever for a single cricket match.

India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have been left with a bloated, fossil of an event, played in a format of dwindling popularity.

Yet, apparently most importantly, the 50-over version of the game remains a cash-cow that can be milked.

According to IS Bindra, the influential Indian cricket administrator who headed the 2006 Asian bid team, the promise of US$400 million (Dh1.47 billion) extra in profits from the competition swung the vote in their favour.

He did not stop there with the grandstanding.

"We can promise that the 2011 Cricket World Cup will be as big as the football World Cup," Bindra was quoted as saying at the time.

Now there is nothing wrong with ambition, but really? Bigger than the football World Cup? Not quite sure on what level that forecast will stand up.

In terms of spectators, they have no chance.

For the least appealing match of the 2010 football World Cup in South Africa, a group fixture between New Zealand and Slovakia, 23,871 people turned up to watch.

They will be lucky to get a 10th of that when Kenya play Pakistan in Hambantota in Sri Lanka. When Canada meet Zimbabwe in Nagpur, there will almost certainly be more security guards than spectators.

And possibly even more big grey squirrels.