Before the start of the tournament, all the talk was about how the Men’s Cricket World Cup was shrinking, making cricket infamous, then a novelty, then an infamous novelty among major sports events. Everyone has their reasons as to why we should have more teams at World Cups, and to elucidate mine, I’ll borrow from Tyrion Lannister: "What brings people together? Not fear, not gold. There’s nothing more powerful in the world than a good story."
Stories will fuel the growth of the game in most places (not the subcontinent; here it is stars). So after the league stage, which team has had the best story?
Australia will be happy with theirs; they will play their Ashes rivals in a bout they have never lost in World Cups, but six months ago they were waning. Two vertebrae had been ripped out of their batting spine by the Newlands scandal, and the lacunae thus caused ignited a period of uncertainty in selection. Their captain seemed unable to shake the homing beacon on his front pad and the target on his back. But perhaps more than any other team, the Australians have drawn from folklore in this World Cup. Like a snake going back into a familiar skin, they have slipped into the persona of the unbeatable Australians.
Half of England may feel they are in a massive party where bottoms up is the only way to drink. Their bish-bash-bosh brand of cricket has been exposed by slow pitches but accelerated by flat ones. After being obstinately English about their methods, they have roared back into the semis, much to the delight of half the country. For the other half, the World Cup is the one the Lionesses were playing in France, and was being aired on free-to-air TV. So the most exciting thing about the prospect of England being in the final is that cricket will be on FTA, after which half the country may ask, ‘Is Andrew Flintoff still playing?’
India have surprised while being predictable. There has been no (Virat) Kohli hundred, their spinners aren’t dominating, but the team has suffered just one loss going into the semis. And yet the narrative is about instability rather than consistency. But does it matter? This World Cup begins a heady period for India, with the country hosting two major ICC events in the next four years, and the faithful will turn up regardless. So what if India lose the semi or the final, as long as they get there by playing the most number of games.
Meanwhile New Zealand have continued to perpetuate the narrative of turning up at global sports events despite having more sheep than people and less people than Mumbai. No one gives them much of a chance against the 'Big Three', which is exactly why they may go on to win the thing. And even if they don't, their bigger contribution to this World Cup might be the reopening of the debate about whether Net Run Rate is the best way to separate two teams on equal points. And whether a World Cup should be held in England ever again.
Stories matter to some countries more than others. Afghanistan needed a feel-good story from this World Cup, but they left with no wins to their credit, a record that no one in world cricket will be happy with. Against all hopes Sri Lanka managed three wins, one a miracle against England, and it will soothe some of the scars of the recent terrorism in the country. South Africa cost the bookmakers a lot of money by becoming the second team to crash out of the tournament. The common thread between all three is a strong government hand in the affairs of sport. Perhaps the heartbreak of this World Cup will make them angry enough to change things.
The West Indies were supposed to be the dark horses of the tournament; instead they gave us the bounce-them-till-they-fall plan and then fell. Bangladesh took up that mantle, with Shakib Al Hasan almost single handedly dragging his team to greater things. Both were upstaged by Pakistan, a result few others saw coming. Except the people who were talking about 1992; they saw a World Cup coming. Then Pakistan upstaged them too.
Perhaps one of the most unfamiliar stories to emerge has been that of the dominant Indian team. Yes, they have a soft underbelly (read middle order), but also shades of inevitability. The Bench is brimming with so much talent that some of it retires in frustration. Hardik Panyda is threatening to be dependable. Rohit Sharma is proving as much. In the image of the captain, there is an arrogant confidence about their cricket, which sadly overflows on social media as condescension now and then.
Now it comes down to the last few games and whether preparation withstands context. Because that is why World Cups are important to people. Context makes the stories what they are. And stories make the sport.