Here comes the golden chance to rejuvenate the game in England, which now only comes around every two decades. All the best cricketers in the world have arrived and they are about to compete for the biggest prize in the international game. A festival of cricket awaits.
Even the odd English cricketer has whispered that it would be preferable to win the World Cup rather than the Ashes, a view that was once considered a heresy. This makes sense. England may have won the Ashes too infrequently for our liking but they have done it several times. They have never won the World Cup despite being in the final on three occasions.
Now Eoin Morgan and his men travel the country in their quest to make the last four, the lowest acceptable goal for the England team. This summer there are matches from Chester-le-Street to Taunton, 45 of them before we reach the semi-finals, and the stands should be full whoever is playing. Just about every side fancies their chances.
There will be some massive scoring especially at the start but the volume of runs may well decrease as the tension mounts. As the tournament heads towards a conclusion the batsmen may not be quite so cavalier as the stakes rise at a deliciously rapid rate because the World Cup matters far more than any other one-day internationals.
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We know this is the case because of the images that keep flooding back. Somehow they act as signposts to every one of the 11 tournaments that have taken place since 1975. Most of them are heartwarming, reminding us of potential treats in store in the summer of 2019.
There’s Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson at the end of the inaugural tournament still running between the wickets late on a glorious summer’s evening at Lord’s in a frantic, preposterously optimistic attempt to overhaul West Indies’ total even though spectators, under the impression that the game is over, are invading the pitch. Four years later at the same venue the King, Vivian Richards, is disdainfully flicking a delivery from Mike Hendrick into the Mound Stand to complete the West Indies innings, 138 not out to his name.
Another four years pass and Kapil Dev is running back to catch the master blaster in front of the Tavern Stand with his side defending a modest 183. He ensures his hands are in the right place and suddenly a combination of West Indian panic and Indian inspiration produces a stunning victory that prompted the Indian nation to be converted to one-day cricket. The game would never be the same again.
The 1987 tournament was the first to take place outside England. Mike Gatting led his team combatively but what image comes to mind? His reverse sweep in the final against the first ball of Allan Border’s spell. It may not have been the defining moment of the match (Gatting was caught by the wicketkeeper from that sweep) but it’s the one we all remember.
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England might easily have won again in Melbourne in 1992 but Imran Khan’s “cornered tigers” prevailed in a tense affair in front of more than 87,000 onlookers. England had played superbly throughout although South Africa, in their first appearance, were their aggrieved opponents in the semi-final, forever haunted by the message on the electronic scoreboard in Sydney after a rain delay: “South Africa need 21 to win off one ball.” Ten minutes earlier before the interruption they had needed 22 off 13 balls. That rain regulation was one of those Richie Benaud insights that did not work terribly well.
In 1996 we were all enchanted by the prospect of Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana assaulting new-ball bowlers twice their size. Then a little more delicately Aravinda de Silva would do the same. Sri Lanka beat Australia in the final in Lahore to almost universal delight; they would have beaten India in their semi-final in Calcutta but for rioting at the ground as the Indian run-chase disintegrated. The match referee, Clive Lloyd, rightly awarded the match to the Sri Lankans.
Back in England in 1999 the comically inept opening ceremony was mirrored by performances so poor from the home side that they were out of the tournament before the World Cup song had been released. Fortunately England’s ineptitude was eventually overshadowed by two epic contests between Australia, the eventual winners, and South Africa. At Headingley there’s Steve Waugh trying some mental disintegration – “You’ve just dropped the World Cup, Herschelle.” A week later at Edgbaston one of the great one-day games, albeit at 213 runs apiece, was tied. Australia went through and cruised to victory in the final.
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The images of the South African and West Indies tournaments are less cheerful (though not because the Aussies prevailed both times). The issue of whether it was safe to play in Zimbabwe and Kenya haunted the 2003 tournament while the World Cup in the Caribbean was blighted by the sudden death of Bob Woolmer, who was coaching Pakistan. Moreover the commercial men were aghast when India failed to progress and went home within a fortnight. That could never be allowed to happen again. Two home victories eventually came to pass in 2011 and 2015 when we said a big hello to MS Dhoni in Mumbai and a sad farewell to Martin Crowe in Melbourne.
What will be the signpost image this time? Which captain will raise the trophy to the skies on 14 July? England, unprecedentedly, are the favourites, which constitutes an incredible turnaround under the guidance of Morgan and Trevor Bayliss since the team was so dire in the last tournament in Oceania four years ago. In fact England have been awful in the World Cup since that final defeat to Pakistan in Melbourne. That’s 37 years and six tournaments of awfulness. So it is best not to put absolute faith in the ICC ODI rankings.
England, three times finalists, remain one of the three “old” sides never to have won the tournament. The other two are New Zealand and South Africa. New Zealand reached the final for the first time in Melbourne in 2015 after a brilliant campaign in their own country; South Africa have yet to reach a final anywhere despite possessing some powerful teams in recent times. No one should discount either side. New Zealand, led by Kane Williamson, who bats brilliantly in all formats, are always brave and innovative. South Africa, now that AB de Villiers has gone, do not look quite so threatening but they may well enjoy a lower level of expectation. They do not lack experience. Five of their squad are over 34 with the ubiquitous Imran Tahir, the oldest participant, now into his fifth decade.
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Australia have won the tournament five times in 11 attempts. Their recent self-destructive streak may now have passed; the pragmatic one has returned. David Warner and Steve Smith have been restored to their squad; Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins should be fit. They all have plenty to prove. West Indies have not reached a final since 1983. Yet opponents will be wary and spectators intrigued.
Chris Gayle, at 39, is embarking upon his swansong. He’s likely to have at least one final, wondrous fling but against whom? Shai Hope and Shimron Hetmyer represent the next generation in a squad calmly led by Jason Holder, a veteran captain at the age of 27. However the expectations for West Indies remain low (T20 has been their forte recently) but not as low as those for Sri Lanka, who have still not recovered from the loss of so many great players in swift succession.
Pakistan, the great survivors, undaunted by being denied the chance to play international cricket in their own country, seem to have a steady conveyor belt of potent bowlers, now marshalled behind the stumps by the magnificent Sarfraz Ahmed. India have Virat Kohli, perhaps the most charismatic contemporary cricketer and it is not just his expectations for the team that are high. They travel so much better now; they have pace bowlers of quality and fielders too and MS Dhoni is still there behind the stumps coolly checking all the angles.
Bangladesh keep improving. They qualified automatically for the tournament – unlike West Indies – yet it would be a massive surprise if they won it. But in most parts of the globe Afghanistan will be the second favourite side for cricket fans. Their recent rise is one of the most uplifting tales in cricket. But their presence at the top table has been sufficiently longstanding that they now command respect from everyone. Indeed England may be the only country left for Rashid Khan, their gifted young leg-spinner, to leave his mark.