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Is the World Cup still what it was? Two challenges raise doubt

The trick of hiding the best weapon for the best of the opposition is no more workable in cricket

Jesse Ryder
Jesse Ryder. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

The twelfth edition of the cricket World Cup starts on May 30 at the Kennington Oval, London, and hosts England meet four-time semi-finalists South Africa in the inaugural clash. A total of 10 teams are participating in this edition which will be held where the game was invented. England are hosting the World Cup for the fifth time since its inception in 1975 and the first time since 1999. For a change, the Three Lions are being considered top favourites to win their maiden trophy this time.

The World Cup is always a top draw in the cricketing world for it is the biggest tournament the sport sees in terms of assembly of the best of talents and commercialisation. The World Cup was rather an innocent event till the early 1990s and the 1996 edition changed the way it was seen. Today, it’s the biggest commercial event in the game of cricket, thanks to a whole lot of factors.

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However, as cricket goes on witnessing new changes and innovations in the way it is played, is the World Cup’s charm guaranteed over the future? Or will overdose of cricket curb its appeal in an unforeseen future?

There are mainly two aspects about the World Cup that makes this question relevant.

Democratisation or reservation for elite – What serves WC best?

First of all, there is a dilemma over the democratisation of the tournament. The idea of cutting down on the number of teams in the World Cup this year has not gone down with a lot of member states of the International Cricket Council (ICC). While on the one hand, the ICC is granting international status to games played by teams that are yet to accomplish high standards, the decision to make the World Cup an exclusive event has seemed contradictory to many. This is the first time that the World Cup doesn’t even include all the Test-playing nations as Zimbabwe and Ireland miss out.

World Cup with more teams or less teams?

Is there an inconsistency in this? From the elite point of view, it is good to have a World Cup without the flab. The fast few World Cups (the worst being the 2007 edition) have seen a number of teams joining who only made the tournament geographically diverse and generated more off-the-ground interest. On the ground and where it mattered more, the World Cup turned paler, thanks to the massive difference between the standards of the accomplished sides and the newcomers. The lack of competition made the World Cup look dull.

But from those who see it bottom-up, the World Cup gives new teams an exposure that helps them scale the heights. This theory has applied better for Asian teams as Bangladesh and Afghanistan have risen through the ranks fast. But for teams like Kenya who made the semi-final in the 2003 edition but their cricket never made it where they could have. Even Zimbabwe, a team which has played in the World Cup in each edition between 1983 and 2015, remained travellers barring some flashes in the pan.

FIFA WC has expanded but there’s difference between cricket and football

In the football World Cup, the 2026 edition is set to become a 48-nation affair – an analogy those who favour an expanded World Cup may point out to but the case of football is different from cricket. In the slam-bang T20 format, one could still fancy an expanded World Cup but as the format expands, it brings into relevance better skills that many of the new teams are found lacking overall. In football, teams undergo rigorous qualifying rounds where they take on the best to advance to the tournament. In cricket, the lesser teams hardly get to play against top teams and qualify for the big event after competing in second grade qualifiers featuring only lesser teams. As long as the class distinction remains in cricket, the World Cup will succeed little in levelling the field.

Club vs country: The question from football now haunts cricket

The other question that challenges the World Cup is the club versus country debate. This is something that puts cricket and football more on an equal pedestal. The dominance of club competitions in football and the money involved in it undoubtedly makes club football the bigger draw in the game than the FIFA World Cup which has become more of an academic national pride. Players who are known for their supreme performance in club cricket are often expected to duplicate the same in events like the World Cup but somehow they fall short of expectations. Is country still the benchmark in an age of intense globalisation of football? This is an eternal debate that traditionalists and modernists engage in and there is no quick solution it to for sure.

Cricketers are frenemies now; nations’ clash more like an entertainment

In cricket, too, something similar has happened over the last decade or so. The game was more about clash of nationalisms till the concept of franchise cricket emerged. Now, the ‘enemy’ becomes a ‘friend’ overnight and vice versa as cricketers from around the globe are regularly rubbing shoulders in the same jersey and same dressing room. Since cricket is a more limited sport geographically, the talent pool is less diverse compared to football and that makes players of diverse nationalities play with each other more than against each other. This has gradually eroded the nationalistic barrier in the game and granted the World Cup a moderate image. If Sir Viv Richards ensured that each of his outing against England scripted a counter-colonialism statement, England’s desperation to include Caribbean-born Jofra Archer in their World Cup squad proves the game is less about clashes of pride but more about a positive profession.

The trick of hiding the best weapon for the best of the opposition is no more workable in cricket as a Rashid Khan spends two months with David Warner in the Indian Premier League before taking him on in the World Cup. Meanwhile, Adam Zampa gets to know the secrets of Rashid’s arsenal at the Big Bash League. Is the World Cup still a platform for clash of skills or it is more about a make-believe clash of nationalisms that the spectators love to feel entertained with?

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