Saturday, 5 March 2011

Cricket World Cup 2011: The revival of the 50 over format?

Kevin O'Brien celebrates his century against England (BBC Sport)

Two weeks ago, 50 over cricket was supposedly on its deathbed and the 2011 Cricket World Cup was to be one last hurrah for a format that was soon to be superseded by Twenty20 as the dominant form of limited overs cricket.

Obituaries were freely written for a version of the game regarded as increasingly outdated and irrelevant while the ICC decided to exclude associate members from future World Cups in favour of expanding the fledgling ICC World Twenty20.

Although the opening rounds of this World Cup have had their fair share of whitewashes, they have also produced enough surprises and epics to suggest that there is life yet for this form of the game, while the performances of associate nations such as Ireland and the Netherlands have put pressure on the ICC to reconsider its decision to contract the size of the competition.

The cause of the 50 over game had not been helped by the last two World Cups in South Africa and the West Indies, which were lacklustre, poorly organised and seemingly never-ending.
Political issues plagued the 2003 event as England and New Zealand pulled out of games in Zimbabwe and Kenya respectively on security fears and forfeited points that could have permitted them to advance in the tournament, which lasted for a staggering six weeks.

The 2007 World Cup promised a carnival of Caribbean cricket yet is widely regarded as the worst organised in history as low attendances, high ticket prices and restrictions on what could be brought into the ground stifled the atmosphere.

An unprecedented 16 teams entered which resulted in many one-sided contests and the early exits of India and Pakistan from another lengthy tournament.

The farcical nature of the competition was epitomised by the final itself after Sri Lanka were forced to bat the final three overs of the game in virtual darkness, having already conceded defeat in their run chase and the PA announcer declaring Australia the champions.

Combined with the tragic death of Bob Woolmer, the tournament took its toll on players and fans alike who became disinterested and fatigued long before its conclusion.

Since the last World Cup final, Twenty20 cricket has witnessed a significant increase in popularity with three editions of the ICC World Twenty20 being held and the formation of the Indian Premier League.

Indeed the 2009 and 2010 World Twenty20s were more entertaining than the previous two World Cups with the 2010 tournament in the West Indies providing a far more authentic Caribbean atmosphere than the 2007 World Cup.

It was in this climate of disillusionment that the 2011 World Cup began. After an average opening game between co-hosts India and Bangladesh, the tournament sparked to life in the clash between England and the Netherlands.

The Netherlands famously beat England in the opening game of the 2009 WorldTwenty20 at Lords and the Dutch came mightily close to repeating the trick in 2011 as a Ryan Doeschate inspired side narrowly lost to England after posting an impressive 292.

More exciting contests were to follow as Bangladesh, a test-playing nation, were pushed all the way in their victory over associate member Ireland, while Pakistan beat Sri Lanka by just 11 runs. However, the best was yet to come as two games both involving England would really set the tournament alight over the space of four days.

Billed as the biggest game of the tournament so far, England and India arrived in Banglore for a match that would reveal much about both teams’ tournament aspirations. Talismanic batsman Sachin Tendulkar scored his 47th ODI century and his fifth in World Cups as India set England a daunting run chase of 339, the fourth highest in history.

With India firmly on top, England’s steady start gave the team belief and Andrew Strauss’ superbly crafted century undermined the Indian’s confidence while the crowed became deathly silent.  England looked as though they were cruising to victory, but India took vital wickets that thrust them firmly back into the ascendancy.

As England looked as though they were about to throw the game away, Graeme Swann and Ajmal Shahzad recovered to put England in a position to win off the final ball. Requiring two runs to win, England scored just one to tie the game.

In an exhilarating game which saw the initiative pass back and forth between both sides, England and India produced a perfect advertisement for the 50 over game. The match witnessed most runs ever scored in an ODI, the spectacular centuries from Tendulkar and Strauss would not have been possible in the frantic and impatient world of Twenty20.

After the drama against India, England remained in Bangalore to face Ireland in another contest that would not only demonstrate the merits of 50 over cricket, but also argue the case for associate members inclusion in World Cups.

Ireland slumped to 111/5 during their chase of England’s 327, but Kevin O’Brien’s stunning century, the fastest ever in World Cup history, led the Irish to victory.

The match demonstrated how 50 over games can be turned around in the middle overs with victory snatched from the jaws of defeat as Ireland secured a famous win which cast doubt over the wisdom of the ICC’s decision to reduce the number of teams in Cricket World Cups .

Perhaps responding to criticisms regarding the competitiveness of certain matches and the lengths of World Cups, the ICC decided before the 2011 tournament that only ten teams would compete in the 2015 World Cup.

Critics of the decision argue that it removes the chance for associate members to participate in tournaments with the biggest teams and that it removes any opportunity for the game to expand beyond being a post-colonial legacy.

The ICC have countered this claim by promising to expand the World Twenty20 as they feel the format is the best vehicle for expanding the game to new countries. While this may be true, much of the cricket played in associate nations is 50 over and the set up of their national team is geared towards potential qualification for the World Cup.

Unless the ICC provide associate nations with an opportunity to qualify for future World Cups and regular matches against the full members, nations such as Ireland and the Netherlands will have no platform to prove themselves in what still remains the dominant one day format and there will be no method of evaluating nations for potential accession to the realms of test match cricket.

Twenty20 may yet surpass it in terms of popularity, but the opening two weeks of the 2011 Cricket World Cup has proved that there is life in the 50 over game and that there is no need to abandon it just yet. However if it is to continue to thrive, then associate nations need a chance to compete unless it is to become the preserve an elite few.

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