There were World Cups before South Africa came back into cricket, and they matter, and all have their own appeal. But through sheer drama, hissy fits, counting errors, dropped sitters, 12th-man sledging, panic-running, Richie Benaud rain calculations and the c word, South Africa have owned the World Cup like no other team since 1992. The only thing they haven’t owned is an actual winner’s trophy. Last tournament they tried to positive-mindset themselves with the “C is for Champions” tag. Clearly New Zealand missed that memo and they went about ensuring that South Africa mentally collapsed.
This time they arrive with AB de Villiers having made the quickest hundred in ODI history. They have Amla. And Steyn. They have hard hitters, tall bowlers and wristspin. They are well set up for this tournament. But they are South Africa. That means they will probably crush the Associates, play tough, good cricket against the Test-playing nations, and then the knockout games come along. No matter what you have planned, daughter’s wedding, first kiss, tickets to see Tom Waits, if South Africa are playing a World Cup knockout match, you can’t afford to miss it.
The only group who disappoints more at the World Cup than South Africa is the ICC. It has made a mess of so many tournaments, in so many formats, with so many playing conditions, that at this point the biggest surprise is that people still care about the World Cup. People started complaining about the tournament from the moment it was announced. At first the ICC wanted to limit the teams to Test-only, which made people angry. Then it let the Associates in, and that made other people angry. Then when the schedule was looked at, and people realised there is over a month of cricket before a real possibility of major teams going home, that made people angry. So the real thing to watch out for is other reasons this tournament will annoy people. Actually you don’t need to watch out for them – they will find you, annoy you, and moan at you for about six weeks, maybe seven. Though it will feel like longer.
India’s chase for 500
Among all those seemingly meaningless games there will be a game that you might think at the moment there is no point in watching. India are playing UAE at the WACA. Now you might wonder why this is a game worth watching. Well here’s why: If India bat first, they have a chance of scoring 500. Yes, they do. India have evolved beyond other teams in terms of ODI batting. They had to, because with their bowling, normal batting would not be good enough. They seem to believe that they can hit the ball into the rope, or crowd, as often as they want, and they have no fear. In the old parlance of the game, they bat like millionaires. And they are actual millionaires.
No other team has as many batsmen who can win a game, make a hundred, or a double-hundred, or emotionally destroy bowlers. And no other team has an MS Dhoni. Scoring at ten an over for a normal team would be near impossible, but for a team with this line-up it is possible. And then they have the fast and bouncy wicket against the old and slow UAE bowlers. We could see world records tumble, we could see two batsmen make double-hundreds in the same game, or one make a triple-hundred. We could see anything. Or UAE could bat first, which might ruin it all.
Perhaps the biggest villain at the World Cup, with apologies to Mr Srinivasan, is the fingerspinning elbows. It is interesting that Cricket Australia, which has always hated chucking, ECB, which has been very careful with chucking, and the BCCI, which has committed to a behind-the-scenes campaign to stop chucking, would take over world cricket, and then suddenly the many dodgy actions around the world are all called on the eve of a World Cup.
Even those who believe chucking should be part of cricket couldn’t argue that the old system was pathetic. Bowlers seemed to travel around the globe with actions that were clearly a problem, and while you can argue that Saeed Ajmal and Sunil Narine were making cricket more exciting, you could also argue that Kane Williamson and Marlon Samuels were not. Now many players have been cleared after improving their actions, and the ICC has promised a quick response on players who are called mid-tournament, so elbow watch will a major part of this tournament. Perhaps the best elbow to watch is that of Prosper Utseya, the Zimbabwean offspinner, who the ICC said was cleared but can’t bowl offspin. It did say his slow and medium-paced deliveries are legal, so he should light up the World Cup with them.
The other thing that people tried to stop for this World Cup was the Associates. The original schedule had no time for the countries who have given so much to the World Cup over the years. They weren’t even allowed to qualify. Which, considering Ireland’s recent record, seems extraordinary. When the World Cup squads were announced, Ireland players had scored more ODI hundreds than England players. UAE brings in the oldest players – two are over 43 – and the most inexperienced squad into the tournament. And Scotland have great shirts.
1992 World Cup shirts
There will be many shirts bought during this series, but many will be inspired by the 1992 World Cup shirts. You can buy them all around Australia and New Zealand at the moment. They are cheaper and easier to find than the official team shirts. It’s partly because it was the first time a World Cup had coloured shirts. And partly because they are awesome. They match each other. Have great colours. A simple design. And look good no matter your figure. They are the ultimate performers. No cricket wardrobe is complete without at least one.
West Indies’ selection
West Indies already look incomplete. Dwayne Bravo, picked for the ICC 2014 ODI team of year, is not in the national squad. Neither is Kieron Pollard. Clive Lloyd said that the reasons they weren’t picked were based on their performances while playing for West Indies. In the squad West Indies picked two players who had never played an ODI for their country before.
Lloyd also said West Indies had to look at the future, towards young players. This West Indies side has an average age of 29. Bravo is 31, Pollard is 27. Jonathan Carter is also 27. Jonathan Carter is one of the players who played no ODI matches for his country before his World Cup selection. West Indies’ push for youth included one player under the age of 25. Their captain. West Indies now become a side to watch to see how badly they perform, for you to imagine how Bravo or Pollard could help them. The biggest shame was Lloyd having to make up cricketing reasons that a casual fan could see through to justify not picking two players the WICB just didn’t want in the squad.
World Cup weirdness
World Cups have had Bob Woolmer’s death. Andy Flower and Henry Olonga’s armband. West Indies being stoned mistakenly. But this tournament has already given us weird things before it has started. The England captain has already been involved in a blackmail case. And Bangladesh’s Rubel Hossain was arrested on charges of making false promises of marriage to an actress. Those are both pretty bizarre stories, and we’re not in February yet.
Masakadza has been in international cricket for 14 years. If you follow cricket closely, his name will be familiar. He has played 144 ODIs. He’s also played about 30 T20s and about 30 Tests. Made a Test century before he was 18. You know, he’s been around. On February 15 he will probably take the field for Zimbabwe against South Africa. It will be his first World Cup game.
The final will be an important game, but will there be many games of cricket more important than when Afghanistan take the field for their first World Cup game?
Taj Malik is a legspinner. Taj Malik is a right-hand batsman. Taj Malik is a cricket coach. Taj Malik is a cricket selector. Taj Malik is a cricket administrator. Taj Malik is Afghanistani cricket. Taj Malik is no longer involved with Afghanistani cricket.
In 2001, when Taliban fighters were fleeing their country as the US bombed them, Taj Malik went the other way. He had some clothes, a cricket bat and a ball. Taj was on his way to Kabul from Pakistan. Taj’s dream was to start an Afghanistan cricket team and take them to the World Cup.
On February 18, Taj Malik’s dream will come true. Taj Malik did it. He has given his country something amazing: a positive story during some of their darkest days. He’s given them sporting heroes. He’s given them victories. And he’s given cricket Afghanistan. They will lose more games than they win, but them playing is one of the most amazing victories in cricket history. A victory for the country, the sport, and Taj Malik, cricket hero.