For 94 years, Test cricket was the sport’s only international format, played over five days, sometimes six and once even 10, though the 1939 ‘timeless’ Test between South Africa and England ended in a stalemate as the English had to catch a ship back home.
Then, on January 5, 1971, One-Day International cricket reared its head tentatively, almost apologetically, in Melbourne. The first three days of a scheduled Test were washed out. Instead of a meaningless two-day Test, officials from Australia and England agreed on a 40-over, eight-balls-an-over face-off, a revolution that took cricket by storm with the subsequent advent of coloured clothing and day-night skirmishes.
The two versions co-existed reasonably peacefully for 34 years. From time to time, the overwhelming popularity of the 50-over game would lead doomsday experts to sound the death-knell of the longer version but the five-day game has more than managed to hold its own.
The dramatic emergence of an upstart, however, has threatened the establishment over the last decade and a half. Dwindling audiences at first-class matches forced English authorities to think out of the box. The result – the Twenty20 brand of slap-and-dash, of instant gratification, of entertainment and sport that has dazzled newer, younger, diverse fan-bases.
The unchecked proliferation of domestic, franchise-based T20 leagues has catapulted the sport’s most condensed version to the top of the popularity charts. Ironically, while its growing fan-following was expected to eat into the Test-viewing populace, it’s 50-over cricket that has suffered the most.
It doesn’t help that a vast majority of the players publicly refer to it as an extended T20 game. There is a touch of predictability to the way most games unfold, and the constant tinkering with rules doesn’t help. The increasing inequality between bat and ball is a further spoke in the wheel; the adrenaline rush that accompanies the ball sailing long in T20 cricket rapidly dissipates when a similar spectacle unfolds over seven hours and 600 deliveries.
So adios, ODI cricket? No. Not by a country mile. For all the reverence Test cricket attracts, and for all the excitement the 20-over game throws up, cricket’s flagship event remains the 50-over World Cup. No singular cricket competition generates as much excitement.
There is a growing opinion that the ‘world’ has been taken out of the World Cup because, in the UK this time around and in India four years hence, only ten teams will battle it out. Associate nations in particular are miffed that they have been deprived of the opportunity to showcase their talents on a global stage, but that’s a discussion for another day.
It’s worth pointing out though that non-participation in either the World Test Championship, beginning this August with nine teams in the running, or the slightly more inclusive T20 World Cup has not triggered the same angst that missing out on the 50-over World Cup has. What else can we make of it, other than that within the cricketing landscape, this event remains the most towering edifice housing the most coveted trophy?
Even for men like Sachin Tendulkar, the lack of a World Cup winner’s medal hurt badly, going into the 2011 edition at home. By then, the maestro had become the first to stack up a staggering 50 Test centuries and had been named Player of the Tournament at the 2003 World Cup, but even that could not compensate for the inglorious hiding at the hands of Australia in the final. Come 2011, and surely his last tryst at World Cup glory, Tendulkar desperately wanted to wrap his hands around the trophy.
As if ordained by the stars, India rode on a groundswell of home support all the way to the title. The celebrations that April night in Mumbai, in India, and among the Indian diaspora across the world, remain unparalleled.
The arresting, compelling, magnetic pull of the World Cup is as unquantifiable as it is inexplicable. Each edition, the event manages to retain its core value of celebrating the sport. The host country unites as it seldom does at the T20 World Cup, for instance, or a Test series. There is a sense of pride, a feeling of belonging, a yearning to be recognized as the best host, evidenced by a sea of volunteers.
From a playing perspective, the tournament offers unique challenges. The planning needs to be smart, diverse and painstaking, because every four days, a new opponent looms. For all but one team, the conditions are unfamiliar; for all sides, the pressures remain the same. Those with stage-fright are rapidly found out. Even acolytes of other formats will acknowledge that no one single tournament demands greater fortitude and endurance than the 50-over World Cup.
“Everyone has to be at his best from the first match itself, you don’t have any room for complacency,” Kohli emphasised ahead of his team’s departure to London. “That is why it is the World Cup; that is why it is the most important tournament in the world.”
Every now and then, the relevance of the 50-over game might be questioned, its coexistence along the stately five-day game and the thrill-a-second 20-over showdown scoffed at. But when it’s World Cup time, even the cynics take a break.
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