Last Saturday saw 14 teams head to New Zealand and Australia to compete in the oldest international, one-day tournament in the cricketing calendar. The question to be asked, though, as the tournament gets into its stride, is whether the explosion of T20 cricket has ruined this once-undeniably great competition. Certainly, there are players in the world – Ian Bell springs to mind – who see this competition as the pinnacle of their international, limited-overs career, as they don’t regularly play T20. There are many, though, who would argue that the World Cup has in fact become a minor distraction to many players, despite the obvious benefits it brings.
Although the Cup has traditionally been dominated by the big playing nations, it has become a stage for some of the second-tier countries to try and make an indelible mark on cricketing history. Who can forget Ireland beating England in 2011, courtesy of Kevin O’Brien and his fastest ever World Cup hundred? It has also, more recently, become a stage for politically-troubled nations to make a name for themselves in the international sporting spotlight. Henry Olonga and Andy Flower’s black armbands in 2003 served to represent their anti-Mugabe feelings, and this year sees Afghanistan represented in the Cup, in spite of its recent history. It is, therefore, a very important tournament for these minor cricketing nations, and if asked, all their associates would surely claim that the World Cup is emphatically worth it.
Yet what about the major countries? Will the fact that the Big Bash has just ended affect crowd figures in Australia? One certainly hopes not, but sadly it is a realistic possibility. Saeed Ajmal chose to miss the World Cup in order to perfect his action, but for a man of 37, the World Cup would surely be something you would rush back to. A similar situation arises in the West Indies, where pay disputes between board and players have temporarily ended the careers of players like Keiron Pollard and the Bravo brothers. If the World Cup was truly important to the WICB, would they not want their best players present? Even Indian fans, famed for their passion for all things cricket, are not as enthused about this World Cup as with previous ones, instead generally preferring to discuss the looming IPL 8 this Spring.
It is, however, unfair to criticise the major nations as a collective. The likes of Australia, England and South Africa have shown their intent to take the competition seriously and have prepared in an extremely thorough and professional way. It is no surprise, therefore, that these three nations, along with New Zealand and Sri Lanka, are tipped to progress far in the competition, with many pundits suggesting that one of the two hosts may indeed win the Cup. It is also unsurprising they have taken preparation seriously considering the seamer-friendly conditions likely to be encountered in the majority of the venues, and thus favouring the make-ups of these teams.
In a recent interview, the Irish player, Ed Joyce, expressed his disappointment at the ICC’s decision to contract the 2019 World Cup, due to be held in England and Wales, to only 10 teams, which leaves space for only two of the associated members to qualify. It does indeed seem a strange decision for the ICC to take such a step back from a 14 team competition to just 10 and therefore prevent many countries from taking part. It also places an added emphasis on the qualifying for the World Cup and where it takes place. Next time around, a huge advantage will be afforded to Bangladesh, and may prevent the likes of Ireland and Scotland from putting up a good fight.
Further, a competition that occurs only once every four years should be structured to allow the greatest number of teams and standards to enter and compete to enter. Imagine the FIFA World Cup being open to the top few teams in the world, with one or two others qualifying – there would be outrage throughout the world. Granted, cricket is nowhere near the global phenomenon that football is. But as a sport whose popularity is rising, especially in the Middle-East and Far East, surely it is a great advert for the game if these kind of teams could feel they had a genuine chance at making a major tournament. As for the established nations, it is hard not to hope that in spite of the other competitions that take place between World Cups (T20 World Cup, Ashes, IPL etc…), the competition receives the respect that it should as the pre-eminent one-day competition in cricket. If that is the case, this upcoming World Cup could be one of the greatest ever, with many twists and turns along the way. Ultimately, one would hope, ending up with a surprise captain lifting that famous trophy on the 29th March at the MCG.