Carnival of Cricket
When England last hosted the World Cup in 1999 it did little to enhance the nation’s reputation for sporting competence. The weather was as insipid as the host team’s performances, the opening ceremony fireworks didn’t fire or work and fans who attempted to take non-official sponsor drinks into the ground were apprehended the same way Virgil van Dijk apprehends the brief flashes of hope in opposition forwards’ eyes.
This time round things have so far gone a bit better. The opening ceremony, held on The Mall, was deliberately low-key, although before the first match a leotard-clad lady did deliver the trophy onto the The Oval pitch by abseiling down something that looked rather like the spidercam rigging. England then secured a grinding but merciless win in their first game, against South Africa on Thursday.
There have, though, been a few quibbles. In a tournament that was reduced to ten teams to improve its competitiveness, that many games have been so one-sided has been unfortunate for the ICC. Ireland’s Andy Balbirnie tweeted to helpfully remind the game’s governing body of what he was doing four years ago (beating the West Indies in the World Cup) and what he was doing on Thursday (watching Game of Thrones). Many associate nation players and fans, going by their disgruntled comments online, would quite happily borrow Daenerys’ dragons and set them on the ICC’s Dubai headquarters.
First game of the #CWC19...
4 Year Challenge
— Andy Balbirnie (@balbo90) May 30, 2019
Gripes aside, the atmosphere at games has been excellent, with Bangladesh's vociferous support inevitably leading the way in the ear-wrecking stakes. Some matches even featured classic rock riffs played on cricket bat electric guitars. This might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it did give viewers of South Africa-Bangladesh the chance to hear Mark Nicholas singing the opening lines of Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water. Which again, admittedly, might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Still, Rameez Raja’s version of Highway to Hell should be worth a listen.
Bird? Plane? Super Zen?
After his infamous Bristol nightclub punch-up, Ben Stokes has been on a zen journey. Having Moeen Ali as one of your closest friends must help anyone achieve inner peace, and with every passing game Stokes seems to be developing a more and more relaxed air. You never see him berate team mates for a misfield or dropped catch and, in England's opener he was nearly run out by a bad call from Jos Buttler but responded with a mere giggle. Although, in truth, anyone seeing Buttler smile coyly while resplendent in England's excellent World Cup kit would probably forgive him anything.
Stokes later displayed his shaman ways in the field by making time stand still as he somehow caught an Andile Phehlukwayo bullet slog off Adil Rashid during South Africa's forlorn chase. Though he has taken stupendous catches before, this one was simply stupid, his leaping grab an affront to the laws of both physics and physiology. In a further nod to his egoless manner, Stokes later jokingly chided himself for not being far back enough on the boundary to start with. Everyone else was too busy trying to comprehend what they had witnessed. Well, everyone perhaps except Imran Tahir who, with his habit of wildly celebrating wickets off his own duff balls, may well have just been thinking, "Well bowled, Adil".
This will come as a surprise to absolutely no one, but just to make it official, congratulations to Ben Stokes who is the first winner of @Nissan #POTD for his outrageous catch against South Africa at The Oval! 🔥🏏 pic.twitter.com/hvJOSDrljI
— ICC (@ICC) May 31, 2019
Many believe Pakistan are their at their most dangerous with their backs to the wall. So, sensibly enough, in this World Cup they decided to unleash their “Cornered Tigers” strategy within two hours of their first match starting. Bowled out for 105 by a pulsating West Indian attack, after just 21.4 overs of their tournament Sarfaraz Khan’s men were very much already a stripey beast in an angular recess. Sadly they failed to follow through on the second, more important comeback element of the plan as their opponents cantered home to a seven-wicket win.
There was much made of Pakistan's late decision to name both Mohammad Amir and Wahab Riaz in their squad after other pacers’ abject bowling displays in the pre-tournament ODI series defeat against England. With the ball doing so little for them in that 4-0 loss, it was thought the reverse swing of Riaz in particular might add some potency. No one told the veteran it would also be his job to set the opposition a big enough target for reverse to even become a factor, but walking out at 81 for 8 that was exactly the fate that befell him. He landed, as so often, a few lusty blows but his side were already down and out.
The other consequence of Pakistan's collapse was that many fans at Trent Bridge were only able to see the second innings of the game. Having been forced to pay for the privilege of having their tickets mailed to them - the ICC are seemingly unaware some spectators may own mobile phones or printers - they then found their pricey tickets, ironically for a match held at a ground with postage stamp dimensions, failed to arrive. Pick them up on the day these supporters were told, but when many arrived in Nottingham the collection queue was so long they were still in it as Oshane Thomas and co wreaked havoc. A few Pakistan fans might have been pleased to miss their team's abject display. For most spectators, though, it was a silly, anachronistic and unnecessary mess.
Zings are not what they seem
“Get into the groove”, Madonna once implored a boy to do as a means of proving his love to her. She certainly wouldn't have to ask the same of the bails at this World Cup. They love the groove. They cling to it like Ben Stokes clings to leather meteors. So much so, in fact, that two batsmen already, Quinton de Kock against England and Dimuth Karunaratne against New Zealand, have been saved when the ball clunked into their stumps but the bails resolutely refused to budge.
What is causing this phenomenon? Have the ICC, concerned at these low scoring mismatches, stolen Faf du Plessis’s famous stash of lollipops, given them to umpires and demanded they apply sticky saliva to the bails when setting up the wickets? Has cricket’s recent clampdown on sandpaper also been extended to stump manufacturers, leaving them to produce grooves rougher than Desperate Dan's jowls? Are the zing bails themselves engaged in some sort of existential crisis, protesting against their own role in cricket’s relentless march towards schmaltzy T20 glitz? The game’s current greatest mystery must be solved and fast.
Unlike pakistan, South Africa are striving for success by completely inverting their knock-out tournament stereotype.They played their part in the World Cup’s first truly enthralling game against Bangladesh on Sunday but ultimately it was their second loss in two games. As widely noted, it makes it harder to choke at the business end of a tournament if you never even get there. Bangladesh were largely superb, continuing the fine, intense form they produced in winning their pre-World Cup Tri-series with Ireland and the West Indies. South Africa at The Oval looked groggier than Anthony Joshua had a few hours earlier in New York.
Data analysts Cricviz are this World Cup providing cricket fans with fielding titbits, showing how many runs a player saves during an innings. They are also measuring the distance between fielders and, football-style, highlighting how sides keep their shape as they walk in with the bowler or set themselves behind the wicket. Some of these may prove more popular than others, but throughout Bangladesh's innings (and in fairness South Africa's) they could also have measured the distance between the ball and players’ fingers as numerous fumbles, drops and complete misses ensued. Kagiso Rabada’s grassing of Mahmudullah was particularly costly, the man who knocked England out with a century in the 2015 event going on to notch a crucial 46 off 33 at the death. Faf du Plessis’ side looked, very uncharacteristically, a shambles.
In an interview with Cricinfo this week, Rabada called Virat Kohli "very immature" because, the South African bowler claimed, the Indian captain gives out abuse but "when you give it back to him, he gets angry." Practicing dealing with abuse, not least from their own supporters, looks like something this Proteas team might have to be very adult about as the tournament progresses.
Three lions get people shirty
So it’s been a pretty decent start to the tournament. It's probably not quite true to say Britain has gone cricket crazy, but there are signs the World Cup is seeping into the mainstream conscience. The gambling industry, for instance, has got in on the act by adapting their adverts to cater to the event. Normal betting adverts in Britain feature serious-looking men in pubs staring intently at their phones while watching football. Now, though, betting adverts in Britain feature serious-looking men in pubs staring intently at their phones while watching cricket. These marketing agencies certainly deserve to get the big bucks.
The tournament organisers have also spotted a football-based opportunity. At the end of the England match, The Oval DJ played “Football’s coming home” but, in a move to rival the nation’s bookmakers’ creativity, the lyrics had been changed to “Cricket’s coming home”. The crowd’s appalled reaction made it very clear that Mark Nicholas’ musical efforts were far from the worst to be heard at the World Cup this week.