The 1992 ICC World Cup was a groundbreaking event. It was the first time South Africa, still playing under the apartheid flag, was welcomed to take part in the global showpiece. It was also the first time the tournament was hosted in the southern hemisphere, with Australia and New Zealand hosting nine teams who, also for the first time, wore coloured clothing.
This quirky first allowed for one of the most enduring images in cricket. Before the first match, all the players and their coaching staff gathered aboard the HMAS Canberra in Sydney Harbour, offering a multicoloured visual delight.
Today, in an age of guardian press officers, hectic schedules and demanding sponsors, there is almost no chance of collecting every player from every side for a gathering. Instead, we’re given a couple of hours with the 10 captains who are whisked in and whisked out as if operated by a zealous train conductor.
Not that they offer too much anyway. And who can blame them? One misspoken word taken out of context could land a careless skipper in hot water. This is why they are media trained and why media days such as the one in trendy Dalston in London’s East End on Thursday 23 May looked better than it sounded.
But between the cracks of platitudes and throwaway soundbites four standout themes emerged that look likely to dominate the conversation for the next six weeks.
More than just a game
The only time the inhumanly calculated Indian captain Virat Kohli lost his cool was when a member of the press asked him and his Pakistani counterpart Sarfaraz Ahmed why the two rival nations no longer compete against each other outside of ICC events.
“My own opinion is not important, you need to ask the respective boards about that, we don’t make the decisions,” a visibly agitated Kohli shot back.
“My answer is the same,” came the more jovial response from Ahmed who nonetheless looked uncomfortable with the request to act as both statesman and athlete.
The rivalry between Pakistan and India in cricket is fierce as it gets in any sport. Throw in the rise of nationalism on both sides, a recent flareup of the decades-long struggle in the disputed Kashmir region and the Indian board’s decision to allow its players to wear camouflage-style caps in a one-day match earlier this year and an already tense clash on 16 June takes on greater significance.
Some teams don’t need any external influence for discomfort or unease within the dressing room. Aaron Finch, Australia’s captain, will lead David Warner and Steve Smith on the biggest stage they’ve played on since that infamous Test in Cape Town last March when a piece of sandpaper stuffed down Cameron Bancroft’s pants sent a seismic shockwave through Australian cricket.
“I’m not aware they’ve needed extra security,” Finch replied when asked a question that came as news to almost everyone in the room. “They’ve been brilliant in the change room and are focused on the task at hand. They’ve been great for morale.”
It’s not all bad though. Afghanistan’s participation is the feel-good story of the competition and will bloody a few noses courtesy of the truly world class spin twins Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Ur Rahman.
“We have peace and cricket is part of that,” said the softly spoken captain Gulbadin Naib.
As for the hosts and favourites England, rather than bloody noses they’ll be searching for blockbuster knockouts and will do so with a multicultural side that includes players born in Cape Town, Dublin, Barbados, Christchurch and multiple parts of the UK. This is a side that represents the demographics of its people. For a nation lurching further to the right, this is something worth celebrating.
Not that identity politics will count for much once the umpire calls for the start of play on Thursday 30 May. Sport is the great equaliser and when it comes to clearing the ropes, some batting units are more equal than others.
“They seem to be obsessed with getting to 500 before everyone else,” Kohli said half in jest, pointing to England captain Eoin Morgan stationed just to his right. If anyone can do it, England certainly can.
Since the last World Cup, the side’s apparent anchor, Joe Root, has hurtled along at a strike rate of 91. Even leg-spinner Adil Rashid, a comparative bunny alongside Jonny Bairstow, Jos Buttler, Jason Roy and Ben Stokes, averages 20 and strikes at over 100.
But it’s not just England who possess destroyers wielding weapons of mass destruction. There are monsters lurking in the dressing rooms of the West Indies, New Zealand, Australia, India and South Africa. Further tipping the balance in favour of these brutes with the bat are the almost seamless Kookaburra balls – two per innings – that lose interest in moving laterally before the shine has left. Someone’s going to score 500 over 50 overs at some point. It could well be here.
That is unless the bowlers, those poor toilers reduced to cannon fodder by overgrown bats, tiny outfields and dull balls, have anything to say about it.
When all the captains were asked which player from any opposing camp they’d like in their side, most selected bowlers. “Jasprit Bumrah,” said Protea’s skipper Faf du Plessis. “Kagiso Rabada,” pleaded Finch. More than a few singled out Khan’s leg spin.
When Mohammad Ali rope-a-doped his way to the summit of the boxing world, he did so by outsmarting and outlasting his heavier-hitting opponents. At the 2017 Champions Trophy, Pakistan’s bowlers carried them to victory when all other sides chased big totals.
Du Plessis and South Africa will be looking to follow suit. “When the wickets are as good as they’re going to be, I think bowlers win you tournaments,” he said. “We believe we can match anyone in the world with the ball and back ourselves to defend small targets.”
Are you in?
As far as tag-lines go, this one from the ICC couldn’t be less self aware. Only 10 teams are competing at the World Cup, cut from 14 in the previous two and down from 16 in 2007.
With Ireland and Afghanistan recently gaining Test status and the US joining the list of ODI sides, the game is showing signs of growth the world over. Why then would the governing body seek to draw a tighter circler around one of its flagship events?
There is a case to be made that minnows getting routinely thrashed serves no purpose but there have been enough upsets in the past (see Bangladesh’s win over India in 2007 or Ireland’s win over England in 2011) not to write off the less equipped nations. And besides, a good shellacking hasn’t stopped rugby and football world cups from expanding their base.
This World Cup might be the best yet. With every team capable of beating each other on their day and with at least seven capable of winning the thing, 2019 might be the year of ODI cricket’s rebirth. It’s such a shame that only the elite get to serve as midwife.