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Like any other sport, cricket has gradually evolved into a money-spinning industry. The avant-garde Twenty-20 format has been increasingly threatening the survival of the game’s longer version at the international level. But there are no major signs of it being seriously classified as a pariah when the very mention of the World Cup is made.

Over the best part of the next six weeks, there will be a flurry of excitement when the playing fields of England and Wales would be staging 48 fixtures of the ICC World Cup 2019 from May 30 onwards for the biggest purse on offer this time. The winners of the July 14 final at Lord’s will be rewarded a record $4 million out of the total allocation of $10 million. On top of that, approximately 1.5 billion cricketing buffs are poised to watch their favourite teams and stars on television with all the modern-day gadgets adding to the attraction.

Following the accidental birth of One-Day International (ODI) cricket — when an Ashes Test was completely washed out at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in January 1971 — it took two years for the International Cricket Council (ICC) to float the idea of organising a World Cup. There was no global limited-overs competition for the men in sight during the early 1970s — in fact, women were the trendsetters in 1973 when their inaugural World Cup was staged in England — before the game’s governing body planned an eight-team tournament in the English summer of 1975, with 15 matches of 60 six-ball overs per side during the daytime hours in traditional white clothing and red ball.

The Cricket World Cup 2019 has all the ingredients to become a record-breaking tournament in more ways than one

Looking back it is easy to fathom why cricket gained in popularity, given the pace of development in terms of different formats with the absurd T10 also joining the queue to seek worldwide spotlight. But it is incredibly inconceivable now to imagine a 21st Century batsman occupying the crease through a 60-over innings and accumulating just 36 runs from 174 balls! This was exactly what Sunil Gavaskar — one of the finest opening batsmen in Test cricket — accomplished on day one of the inaugural World Cup after England treated the Lord’s crowd to a batting feast. Chasing 335, India opted to go into the sleep mode to gather just 132-3 to leave their opponents victors by 202 runs. The legendary Gavaskar can be excused for the calamity because limited-overs cricket was in its infancy at the time with only 18 One-day Internationals having been played prior to the tournament, in stark contrast to the 2019 event that starts on the back of over 4,000 ODIs.

Just to recap further, the all-conquering West Indies under the inspirational leadership of Clive Lloyd edged Australia out by 17 runs in a pulsating final at Lord’s on June 21 — the longest day of the year, with the match finishing at 8:42pm — with the captain leading from the front by scoring a brilliant 102. Viv Richards, ranked among the greatest batsmen the game has ever produced, didn’t make much impression with the bat in that tournament but his electrifying fielding was responsible of running out both Australia’s captain Ian Chappell and his brother Greg, as well as Alan Turner. Richards stole the thunder in the 1979 final, however, with World Cup hosts England being a hapless punching bag; the great man ending the West Indies innings insouciantly by depositing Mike Hendrick over square leg for a six to finish on 138 not out.

Thereafter, Lloyd’s men retained the trophy by a convincing 92-run margin.

Like the first two editions, the third World Cup was also held in England on the same pattern — 60-over innings in white kit — but when the competition moved to the subcontinent with India and Pakistan co-hosting in 1987, it was changed to the 50-over formula with the mandatory 30-yard circle being a new addition. The coloured clothing didn’t make its debut until Australia and New Zealand jointly hosted the 1992 World Cup.

Going forward, the coming World Cup has all the ingredients of being a record-breaking tournament. Scoring in the 300-320 vicinity is set to become a certainty and even such totals hardly seem defendable these days unless the pitch suddenly changes its character in the second half. And if the conditions remain, more or less as they were during the England-Pakistan series, then the bowlers have their task cut out on the flat pitches and the lightning fast outfields.

Picking the eventual champions is a risky business in any team sport but more so in cricket when the format is not the traditional Test matches. Australia are the most successful side to win the World Cup — five times in 1987, 1999, 2003, 2007 and 2015 — and the return to the fold of Steve Smith and David Warner has improved considerably their prospects of retaining the title. They, in terms of wins, are followed by West Indies (1975 and 1979) and India (1983 and 2011) with Pakistan (1992) and Sri Lanka (1996) also enjoying the status of title-holders in the past.

But who will be the dominant team of the 2019 World Cup? Among top-ranked nations, England (1979, 1987 and 1992) and New Zealand (2015) have made it to the final in previous years, while South Africa’s dream of winning the World Cup has never been realised because they have yet to get into the final, although they qualified for the last-four phase in 1992, 1999, 2007 and 2015.

In the post-2015 World Cup era, England have emerged as the most feared 50-over team with a clear mindset that they mean business after four miserable campaigns as the host nation. For them piling up 350 has become a routine, and they have breached the barrier 15 of the 50 instances since Michael Clarke triumphantly held the World Cup trophy on a balmy March 29 night at the MCG.

In the previous tournaments, England were usually labelled in the ‘also-ran’ column, purely because of their conservative mindset. But now England obviously play like the top-ranked side on the ICC team standings. Individually, they may not have either the No1 batsman or bowler in the current players’ rankings, with those positions belonging to India’s pair of Virat Kohli and Jasprit Bumrah. However, collectively as a playing unit, England are clearly ahead of the rest.

Boasting of a batting powerhouse of a team, led by Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow with the likes of Joe Root, captain Eoin Morgan, Ben Stokes and the sensational Jos Buttler lurking behind in a fearsome line-up, it would hardly come as a surprise if England cross the previously unattainable total of 500 during the World Cup.

Since the last World Cup, 400 or more have been totalled 20 times in One-day Internationals, with England getting there on four occasions and only South Africa and India achieving the landmark five times each. The top two ODI totals also came in this period and both were recorded by the same team at the same venue. England plundered 444-3 against Pakistan in Trent Bridge in August 2016 and surpassed that mark by 37 runs when Australia came to Nottingham in June 2018 and conceded 481-6 to the rampant English batsmen.

The Sarfraz Ahmed-led Pakistan, for obvious reasons, are not spoken in the same breath as England, India, Australia or New Zealand. But the 2017 winners of the ICC Champions Trophy certainly have the potential to stun anybody on any given day. They are heading into the World Cup besieged by fitness issues (Shadab Khan and Mohammad Amir, who finally gets the chance to play on the biggest stage) and a personal bereavement (Asif Ali), as well as an appalling run of 12 defeats in the previous 15 one-dayers.

Despite their pathetic fielding, and their bowling looking below par to such an extent that Wahab Riaz was brought into the final 15-man squad on the back of a decent World Cup track record (24 wickets in 12 matches), Pakistan needn’t lose heart completely. The format of the event, with each team playing all nine others, is such that unexpected turnarounds could be the order of the day. The 1992 event was staged on similar lines when Imran Khan proudly hoisted the Waterford crystal trophy on the MCG dais, on March 25.

The writer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 26th, 2019