Is it all over for World Cup cricket?

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File picture of an IPL match
Image caption,
"Twenty20 is the new kid on the block"

Is the 50-over World Cup cricket approaching its expiry date? Leading sports writer Suresh Menon examines the possibility.

The ongoing World Cup is likely to be the final one for some of the biggest names in the game - Tendulkar (possibly), Muralitharan, Kallis, Ponting, Chanderpaul - and that is in the nature of things.

Players may come and players may go, but the World Cup goes on forever.

Except that it might not.

One-day cricket might be the illegitimate child of what was once thought of as the "real game", the five-day Test match, but in just four decades the format seems to be approaching its expiry date.

Those old enough to remember the ODI (one-day international) as the interloper would be amused that the interloper is now establishment.

There's a new kid in town: Twenty20.

Niche fans

Among all sports, cricket alone is fortunate to have so many possibilities within it.

Three formats use the same equipment, follow the same laws and use many of the same players, but each is a distinctly different sport with its own ethos, its own texture and its own rhythms.

Not just the players, but the fans too become specialists.

Image caption,
"For all we know Yusuf Pathan’s fans do not watch Test cricket"

Those who follow Twenty20 need not care for Test cricket. For all we know, Yusuf Pathan's fans do not watch Test cricket and Rahul Dravid's fans can't be bothered about Twenty20.

The lines are clearly drawn between the five-day game and the one that lasts three-and-a-half hours. Where does the 50-over game fit in?

The World Cup is 35 years old and on the verge of a life-altering experience.

The 43-day tournament could either see its rejuvenation after being pushed towards extinction, or it could see its final hurrah.

It has played its role as the herald of a new era but is now lacking in imagination, and is neither one thing nor another in cricketing terms.

The 50-over contest has become a game of three parts, with the essence and the excitement confined to the first 10 or 15 overs and the last 10 or 15 overs. Less interesting are the middle overs, where the batting team merely tries to keep wickets in hand while the bowling team pushes through overs quickly and painlessly.

That's the time for the viewer (either at home or at the stadium) to attend to his correspondence, catch up on his reading or social networking.

The hosts for the 2015 tournament have been chosen (Australia and New Zealand), while England, which hosted the first three tournaments since 1975, and then a fourth in 1999, has been nominated for the 2019 tournament.

But - and this is the question the current tournament might help answer - will the format itself survive until then?

It is entirely possible that had India not won the 1983 World Cup, the format might be already dead and buried.

'Perfect game'

In recent years, it has been reduced to the level of tic-tac-toe, that "perfect" game where every move is known, every move can be anticipated, and there can be no surprise for either teams or spectators.

Had a nation not endorsed the format in the way India did after 1983, with its enormous fan base, emerging middle class with disposable income, ready-made heroes and potential for generating funds, the one-day game might have struggled.

Image caption,
"The 50-over game is lacking in imagination"

Thanks to India's new status, new tournaments were played, new venues opened up (significantly, Sharjah in the desert), new opportunities arose.

And that is the hope that the World Cup carries now. That somehow the most important cricketing nation will breathe a new life into it.

And should India win the title, that might ensure a longer life for the 50-over game than is being predicted today.

Considering the upheaval in world cricket after India won the Twenty20 title in 2007, it is not difficult to imagine the fallout of a home triumph this year.

Patterns and so-called inevitabilities become clear only in hindsight, of course, but if Indian fans and corporates do not take to the game in the manner they did in 1983, then, frankly the format is in trouble.

Six days after the World Cup ends, the local franchise-based Indian Premier League is set to begin.

This could either be highly symbolic, with the old order giving way to the new, or a test of the resilience of the old format.

It is no longer a question of who will win the World Cup, but will the World Cup be the winner?

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