The Guardian, 29.4.07
The 2007 World Cup will be remembered for its ridiculous ticket prices and quite so: they were not nearly high enough. Another 50% and no one would have attended the games at all. As it is, there are now people who have partaken personally of its protracted tedium and seen with their own eyes what a sorry state international cricket is in. And they will talk: in fact, they should.
The International Cricket Council and the local organisers have borne the brunt of criticism for the interminable nature of the competition, which proceeded with the same stately drabness as a Victorian family's timetable of mourning. But for the sterility of the spectating experience, they are not entirely to blame: it is not as though the addition of a few conch shells and a steel band or two would have turned the tournament into a pageant of galácticos. The real problem in the World Cup was on the field. Australia and Sri Lanka aside, a great deal of the cricket, involving ostensibly world-class teams, drawing on greater coaching resources than at any stage in the game's history, brought to concert pitch by psychologists, physiotherapists, sports scientists, ghost writers and spiritual gurus, was . . . well . . . pretty mediocre.
One-day cricket is a batsman's game: people go to watch big hitting, innovative placement, quicksilver running. But in only five games did both sides score more than 250. The sine qua non of the limited-overs format, meanwhile, is the close finish. Yet only six games were decided by a margin of 10 runs, two wickets or fewer. And, while it is thought a bit infra dig to comment on absolute standards in this resolutely relativist world - we prefer assessments that are more exercises of taste like "interesting" or "boring" - many players seemed to be struggling with the game's basics.
There were batsmen who could not cope with the merest sideways movement, who struggled when they could not hit through the line and rely on their beefed-up bats to get them out of trouble. There were bowlers who could not manage basic line and length, incapable of moving the ball consistently and going through variations as if by rote. There were tactics so stereotyped as to make Stephen Fleming, merely a quite good captain, look as inventive as Thomas Edison. There were players so anonymous, so joyless, so self-involved as to be unable to communicate, by a deed, a gesture, or even a smile, that they were playing other than for a living.
Sometimes the standard was laughably poor. In New Zealand's game against Canada the new ball was taken by Anderson Cummins, who bowled fast in the 1992 World Cup for West Indies but whose physique now testifies to his years in IT. His first ball was a slow-medium outswinger, as was the rest of the over. New Zealand's Lou Vincent, prodding forward, did not lay a bat on the ball. He finally got off the mark after a painful quarter of an hour with a panic-stricken flail that just cleared cover before hacking and hoicking his way to an indistinguished hundred.
The second semi-final through which Australia coasted then involved ritualised public humiliation of Big Brother intensity. South Africa, according to their coach, Micky Arthur, intended asserting themselves early to disrupt Australian momentum. Against an opening attack bowling a disciplined line and doing just enough with the ball thanks partly to a stiff cross-breeze this became as intelligent a plan as trying to stop a train by standing in front of it.
Gerald Majola, chief executive officer of Cricket South Africa, told his team off for lacking "mental strength" - and this he could not understand. The team had a support staff of 12 - including, presumably, an expert mental strengthener. "We are dealing with these issues at the High Performance Centre," he concluded. Maybe that is part of the problem.
This event has, I suspect, exposed the effect of a secular shift in the way cricket talent fructifies. Bowlers especially, but also batsmen, are arriving at international level with relatively little first-class experience: elite junior competition, high-performance hothouses and specialist coaches are expected to equip them with the knowledge that used to be inculcated by playing alongside experienced team-mates in state, county, provincial and club cricket. The result is batsmen with biomechanically perfect stroke production inexperienced in building an innings, bowlers with every conceivable variation who struggle to organise a spell and plans like South Africa's that, as they say in the military, do not survive contact with the enemy.
Fans in the West Indies know their cricket; they do not sit there waiting for the next beach ball to bounce along or Mexican wave to wash over them. Maybe it was not only exorbitant ticket prices that kept them away. Maybe they saw this spectacle for what it was: a bunch of overcoached, overcooked lookalikes providing third-rate content for Rupert Murdoch. Perhaps the idea all along was to soften us up for the inexorable advance of Twenty20 cricket. It has never looked better.