Wednesday, January 14, 2015
The big stage, slowly assembled
Now 40, the World Cup has the worries of a 40-year-old. The self-doubts have increased. Will that bright new kid on the block, T20, take over as the World Cup representative of a centuries-old sport?
It was in the nature of cricket, an English sport, that its world champion would be decided by consensus rather than through a single tournament. In keeping with the land’s unwritten Constitution, cricket had no formal world champion for nearly a century after the first-ever Test was played.
For decades, the Ashes were a kind of world championship, since only England and Australia had consistently good teams. South Africa first beat England in 1905-06, and since England held the Ashes then, a case could have been made for South Africa as world champion. But only three countries played Tests, and there was no urgent need to discover team ranking. There was no television to insist on it either.
The first attempt at playing off for a title, the ‘Triangular Test series’ in England in 1912 was a disaster. Perhaps it was an idea ahead of its time. But it was a wet summer and a dispute over money meant that six top Australian players were absent. Public apathy ruined it further.
In 1930, the first football world cup was played in Uruguay; hockey had its own world cup only in 1971, the same year as the world cup in pea shooting was established. Cricket took its time getting there, after volleyball, table tennis, badminton, rugby league already had had their ‘worlds’.
Cricket was different. For one, it was restricted to very few countries. For another, it strove hard to maintain its eccentric, illogical image. There was the tea break, for instance, such an integral part of the game. There was too the possibility that a match spread over five days might end in a draw. All sports loved to boast that results did not matter, it was about how you played the game. Cricket alone made a fetish of the undecided match. And the unofficial champion.
In 1971, India called itself world champion, thanks to an algebraic calculation. It beat the West Indies away, and then the Ashes-holding England too away. South Africa had thrashed Australia 4-0 and might have been a superior team, but the country was banned for Apartheid.
That period was significant for another reason. In order to give the crowds something to cheer after rain had washed out play in the Melbourne Test in January 1971, England and Australia played what, in retrospect, was dubbed a one-day international. Over 46,000 people turned up, but it was another year and more before cricket took the hint.
England had been playing a one-day championship, the Gillette Cup since 1963, but other countries were not interested. “I don’t give a damn about it,” was Australian captain Ian Chappell’s response to the new format, born, in a variation of the Biblical technique, by removing a bunch of ribs from the parent body.
Invented by accident, the one-day international had indicated how a World Cup could be played in a five-day sport after all: abridge it and eliminate the draw.
The final of the inaugural women’s world cup was being played in 1973 when the ICC decided on a men’s version. First over-arm bowling, now this. Women continued to contribute to the game’s evolution.
Now 40, the World Cup has the worries of a 40-year-old. At 12, he was allowed to go out on his own, but had to wear white clothes and be back home before dark. At 16, he wore coloured clothes and could stay out late under the lights. At 24, now a smart young man, he returned where he began, richer for the experience of having been twice to the Asian subcontinent and once to the southern hemisphere.
At 40, self-doubts have increased. Will that bright new kid on the block, T20, take over as the World Cup representative of a centuries-old sport? If the 50-over match is Test cricket on speed, then how do you characterise a 20-over match? Has the older game exhausted all its tactical possibilities? Will we learn something new this World Cup? Will a creative leap take a 20th century sport into the 21st century?
Perhaps a paradigm shift is not restricted to scientific revolutions, but is at the heart of sporting ones too. We will find out in the next few weeks.