Ten days into the World Cup and - shout it from the rooftops - it’s been really, really good. Perhaps that should not be such a surprise; it is, after all, the sport’s showpiece tournament. But given that three of the past four World Cups were damp squibs, it is a relief that this one is shaping up to be excellent.
We’ve witnessed world-class performances from New Zealand, Australia, and India. We’ve seen comically inept outings from England and Pakistan. We are still missing a close finish but almost every match has had its share of impressive feats, including Brendon McCullum’s alpha-aggressive captaincy, Virat Kohli’s hundred in a cacophonic atmosphere against Pakistan, Chris Gayle’s double-ton, and Tim Southee’s magnificent swing bowling. Lapping all this up have been capacity crowds in beautiful - and beautifully different - venues, from the massive Melbourne Cricket Ground to a variety of scenic outgrounds. Watching on television has felt like an ongoing tourism advert for Australia and New Zealand.
The most enjoyable games to date have featured the associate nations. Ireland continued their pattern of beating full members with their triumph over the West Indies, the United Arab Emirates gave Zimbabwe a fright, while Afghanistan’s bowlers have proven themselves superior to many of the full member sides. Even Scotland, who was probably the least fancied team before the tournament, reduced England’s innings to a stuttering halt for much of the middle overs and took seven New Zealand wickets in defense of 142.
These nations have made the World Cup into a festival of cricket. Which makes it all the more absurd that the next tournament, in 2019, will be a ten-team affair that may not feature any associates at all. The International Cricket Council’s chief executive, David Richardson, justified this by saying that the World Cup “without exception should be played between teams that are evenly matched and competitive.” Cue lots of sniggering when England was destroyed by New Zealand and when Pakistan collapsed against the West Indies.
Richardson’s point would have been valid until recently: Mismatches were common and the minor nations were tolerated more than welcomed. Worse, they were often figures of fun, such as Bermuda’s overweight Dwayne Leverock making a catch in the slips and the United Arab Emirate’s Sultan Zarawani batting to Allan Donald in a sunhat.
Even in the 2011 World Cup, although Ireland and the Netherlands were competitive, Kenya and Canada were drubbed in every game. It was not just that the gap between them and the top teams was vast for they also lost heavily to Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. Many agreed with Ricky Ponting when he said, “I’m not sure how much a lot of the teams actually learn when they’re getting hammered.”
It is only now that the ICC is reaping the reward for their investment in global cricket. This enlightened policy, begun in the mid-1990s, has professionalized the top sides such as Ireland and the Netherlands and allowed the likes of Afghanistan and Nepal to rise through the ranks.
There are only two big problems: Firstly, the ICC reversed course last year and effectively reduced the amount of funding to global cricket, jeopardizing all the good work done to date. And secondly, as epitomized by the decision to reduce the teams in the next World, Cup, the top associates have hit a glass ceiling that shows no sign of breaking.
The first few days of this tournament have been great, and the rest of it is shaping up to be equally strong. Enjoy it, for we many not see its like again.