I ENJOYED an anecdote from Steve James in the Telegraph last week.
The former Glamorgan and England cricketer recalled how a friend had asked him whether he thought England would make it past the quarter-finals of the World Cup.
“Of course,” replied James. “They will beat Wales and Australia in their pool and then they will probably meet Scotland in the quarters. They’ll win that.”
James’s response drew a quizzical look, as though his friend had just asked him what the weather forecast was like and he had answered: “It’s just coming up to half-past two.”
“It was then that it dawned upon me,” wrote James, a one-time cricket writer who is now rugby union correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph.
“The question was about cricket, not rugby.”
James, who retains an avid interest in all cricketing matters, could be forgiven for getting his wires crossed.
After all, as the sub-heading to his article unambiguously stated, the “Cricket World Cup is a forgettable and tediously long tournament that few in England – and the players themselves – can bring themselves to look forward to”.
Of course, there are some, myself included, who would find it difficult to get particularly worked up about a rugby World Cup either, seeing as we might have spent our schooldays faking illnesses and injuries to get out of playing the sport in case we got crushed in a tackle.
But James’s point was well made and carried even greater weight when he added: “I have always been an advocate of the 50-over game, and still am.”
James’s view on the cricket World Cup is by no means isolated.
Scyld Berry, cricket correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, recently wrote of the event that started in Australasia on Friday: “The first month will consist of little more than meandering and meaningless middle-practice as we wade through 42 matches which will end up telling us what everybody knew in advance: that the four main teams in each group are stronger than the three minnows.
“It is an appalling waste of an opportunity to showcase the sport.”
Simon Hughes, the former Middlesex pace bowler and present editor of The Cricketer magazine, added his voice to the debate when he declared: “Instead of looking forward excitedly to the CWC, players, commentators and journalists actually dread it.”
Ringing endorsements they are not.
Yet for those who enjoy the 50-over stuff, there was surely never a more urgent time to showcase the merits of the format.
Even the staunchest advocates of 50-over cricket would accept that it is being increasingly squeezed between the other two modes of the game, with Test cricket providing what James rightly calls the cricketing challenge and Twenty20 the dosh.
If ever the 50-over game needed a good World Cup it is now, with a quickfire competition providing an appetising diet of relevant fixtures.
Instead, the seven-week tournament has been structured in such a way that the leading nations are all-but guaranteed a place in the quarter-finals, only at which point will the whole shebang threaten to become remotely entertaining.
When asked whether there was any alternative to the predictable structure of the event, Dave Richardson, chief executive of the International Cricket Council, said: “I don’t think so,” before adding the telling words “in this rights cycle”.
In other words, it all comes down to brass and television contracts, which, as everyone knows, are more important than the quality and integrity of the cricket on offer.
In the 2019 World Cup in England, the format will indeed be more competitive as there will only be 10 teams compared to the current 14.
Some would argue this goes against the spirit of a “World Cup”, which should be to give lesser nations exposure on the global stage, among other objectives, but there will still be a pre-tournament qualifying process to separate the wheat from the chaff, of which there is surely too much this time.
Yet, as Scyld Berry sagely observed, two simple tweaks would have made this World Cup considerably more interesting throughout, regardless of the ICC’s principal aim to maximise revenue. “Cut out the quarter-finals, firstly, so that only the top two teams in each group go through to the knock-outs, and immediately the qualifying games become dog-eats-dog.”
“Secondly, if teams finish level on points, net run-rate should be the deciding factor.
“Suddenly the mis-matches become relevant: England have to score 500 in beating Afghanistan, for example, to go through to the semis. And if Australia go too hard too soon against Bangladesh to up their run-rate, the chances of David beating Goliath are increased.”
It is difficult to argue that logic, but instead this World Cup consists of 49 matches, of which only the last seven – the quarters, semis and final – threaten significance.
Had the ICC cut out the quarters, of course, they would have missed out on four extra opportunities to generate cash.
Consequently, unless the likes of Afghanistan spring a shock along the way, the group stages will be of limited concern to those outside such cricketing hotbeds as Kabul.
The upshot will be more mis-matches than you can shake a cricket bat at, a glut of games which go in one eye and out of the other, as, indeed, do most one-day internationals and T20 games when you think about it.
If I might labour you further with a personal rant, I can see only two possibilities for 50-over cricket.
Either scrap it and accept that, in a T20 era, it has had its day or else play it in significantly smaller quantities.
When I was nobbut a lad, England would play five Tests each summer and a handful of games in the old Texaco one-day trophy.
Nowadays, they play seven Tests and 10 one-day internationals each season, which is too much for the taste of a good number of players and spectators alike.
By staging five Tests each summer and, say, three ODIs, it would free space in the schedule that is so desperately needed and also enable England stars to play more county cricket.
Sadly, that is not going to happen, and, in the absence of any apparent willingness by cricket’s administrators to cut back on the congested calendar, the 50-over stuff only clogs things up.
In his Telegraph piece, James floated further reasons why cricket World Cups pass their critics by. “Maybe it is because England have never won the damned thing,” he wrote. “Or maybe it is because you just have to be there.
“Maybe it will be different in 2019 when England host the CWC.”
However, James concluded with this prediction: “Not that they will have won it by then, of course.”
And another thing...
ON the subject of the World Cup, the BBC have run a poll to find the greatest one-day international XI of all-time.
Tens of thousands of votes were cast, with the only criterion that players must have appeared in a one-day international.
Predictably, it was not without controversy as the chosen side contained neither the greatest cricketer of all-time in Garry Sobers, nor indeed one of the greatest batsmen of all-time in Ricky Ponting.
Instead, the likes of Chris Gayle and Brett Lee – admirable cricketers though they are/were – got the nod.
Predictably, too, AB de Villiers was picked after his 31-ball hundred the other week, perhaps proving the old adage that people have short memories, with the inclusion of Viv Richards the only nod to the fact that cricket did not start some time around 1990.
De Villiers, however, is a serious player – one who might just end this tournament with a winner’s medal.
For the record, the side selected by the great British public was: Chris Gayle, Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara, Viv Richards, AB de Villiers, Adam Gilchrist, Jacques Kallis, Shane Warne, Wasim Akram, Brett Lee and Glenn McGrath.
Pick the Englishmen out of that lot.