The ninth World Cup has not panned out as planned. The Super Eight phase begins on Tuesday without the involvement of some major cricket-playing countries. The match scheduled between India and Pakistan on Sunday, April 15 was going to be a highlight, an ‘iconic’ event, a ‘marquee fixture’ or whatever the marketing drivel. Bangladesh versus Ireland does not have quite the same ring.
So the next five weeks are going to be far from ‘super’ for the official tournament sponsors, most of whom signed up to exploit the Asian market. It is an absolute disaster for the television broadcaster in India. Nobody is going to watch the advertisements designed for the hundreds of millions of Indian viewers aspiring to a mobile phone, a motorbike, a fizzy drink or a refrigerator.
For cricket followers as well, it is going to be a lesser tournament than planned. This was going to be the best World Cup since 1992 because it was going to be the first World Cup since then in which the top eight countries faced each other: or so this correspondent believed. Now it threatens to be almost as damp a squib as the last one in South Africa, when Kenya and Zimbabwe got into the Super Six stage instead of two out of England, Pakistan, South Africa and West Indies, who all went home early.
This time as last, or so it appears, the holes in the net are too big: minnows have been allowed through into the second phase, when they should have been filtered out by the end of the qualifying round. It seems absurd that Bangladesh and Ireland should squeeze through essentially on the strength of one upset victory apiece, Bangladesh enjoying a rare field-day to beat India, and Ireland dogged enough to knock out the talented rabble known as Pakistan. The next World Cup should be designed so that the lesser countries need to win more than one match if they are going to be party-poopers.
Or is it so wrong that Ireland have qualified, while only Bermuda's Glamorgan batsman David Hemp stands between Bangladesh and the next round' Well, yes it is wrong, because they cannot claim to be ranked among the best eight countries in the world at one-day cricket: if either of them played 10 matches against India, or even Pakistan once their immediate troubles are over, Ireland would surely not win more than one match and Bangladesh two. But their qualification for the Super Eight phase does serve one very useful purpose: it will teach India and Pakistan not to appear at the next World Cup without a team who are far better at fielding and running between wickets.
India and Pakistan have got their come-uppance because they have had the arrogance of superstars who felt they had to do nothing more than turn up to qualify for the Super Eights. Their fielders have to start throwing themselves around, however many personal sponsorships they may have. Pakistan first got into trouble in their opening game when, after keeping West Indies to a gettable total, Inzamam-ul Haq and Mohammed Yousuf batted so sedately, mindful of their dignity, oblivious to quick singles.
Ireland have fielded as robustly as a South African side, trained by Adrian Birrell, the former coach of Eastern Province. Fielding is not just an end in itself. It indicates that a team makes the most of what it has and is more than the sum of its parts. Ireland have contested every ball, made the most of themselves, and done their 3,000 or so travelling supporters proud. Their success so far has raised the profile of cricket in Ireland to unprecedented heights, but the thumping which they are going to receive in most of their Super Eight games will surely lower it again as they run out of reserve players and steam.
Ireland have had novelty on their side, but not any more. When asked if they had studied any videos of the Ireland team, the Pakistan management replied loftily: “They are not the sort of team that we study.” The teams left in this tournament will not make the same mistake as Pakistan. Ireland’s dogged but limited cricketers will have those limitations exposed.
Bangladesh are different. Ireland will struggle to win another match because their batsmen are not used to facing the extremes of pace and spin which the best countries have: Jeremy Bray and Eoin Morgan have not faced Shaun Tait or Shane Bond or Muttiah Muralidharan. Nothing in their experience has prepared Ireland for the Super Eight stage. But Bangladesh have faced such bowlers and are more or less prepared. They could easily win a game or two from here on if they dispose of Bermuda and play with the verve they summoned to defeat India in Port of Spain.
Bangladesh, indeed, are the most exciting team in the world at present. Never before has there been an international side of so many teenagers so full of boldness. They have some delightful imps, scallywags bursting with the bravado of youth, at the opposite end of the spectrum to their Asian superiors with their languor and ennui. Tamim Iqbal, the 17-year-old opening batsman, played like nobody else has done in any of the eight previous World Cups when he hit 53 to set up their reply against India. He skipped down the pitch to pace bowlers and played the game with the panache and joy of youngsters who have never been pampered and overpaid.
When Bangladesh toured England in 2005, they were overwhelmed in the Tests but it was clear they had the ability to turn the corner. Mushfiqur Rahim is a prodigy, an amazingly wise old head on 18-year-old shoulders, the veteran they have been looking for to bat through an innings — and he keeps wicket too. Saqibul Hasan, Aftab Ahmed and Mohammed Ashraful are all flamboyant stroke-players aged 20 or little more. If they can find more pace bowlers like Mashrafe Mortaza, they can be a gale of fresh air in Test cricket too as their spirit is so willing.
The other countries which have qualified will be playing dog-eat-dog to reach the semi-finals. The three southern hemisphere countries have been preparing quietly in St Kitts and St Lucia away from the glare which has enveloped Jamaica. It has already been a disastrous tournament for Asia; it is a highly promising one for the Antipodes, especially Australia.