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Cricket World Cup 2023: Challenge to breathe life into ODI format remains

Ultimately, the World Cup ended how it began, with a sense of emptiness inside the biggest cricket stadium on the planet.

On 5 October it was because New Zealand whipping England in the opening match was not a big enough draw to fill the 132,000 seats in Ahmedabad. On Sunday, it was the silence that greeted every Australian boundary, the noise coming from plastic seats snapping back into place as heartbroken India fans headed for the exits.

When this tournament started, HS2 had only just been scrapped, the Rugby World Cup was still in its group stage and Travis Head was at home with a broken hand.

If a 45-day lap of honour around India was meant to culminate with a coronation in the final, then it was the real kings that took the crown. Australia stretched their record with a sixth World Cup success. The best of all time comfortably defeated the best team in the competition.

A six-wicket win over the host nation, completed with seven overs to spare, was one of the greatest performances in a World Cup final. Still, the size of the Aussie achievement does not mask the fact it was an anti-climax. While it might be harsh to say the World Cup got the final it deserved, neither will go down as classics.

If this was the time to give some much-needed TLC to the 50-over format, an India loss in the finale is a bad result. There is work to do to breathe life into the one-day game between now and the 2027 World Cup in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia.

It is true that well over one million fans went through the turnstiles and records over viewership and digital engagement were broken. In India at least, the public was captivated.

There were some truly memorable moments. Head’s hundred was one of the great innings in a World Cup final, Glenn Maxwell’s astonishing double century against Afghanistan one of the great innings in any form of cricket, anywhere.

Virat Kohli invited the whole of India to his 35th birthday party with a ton against South Africa, the Netherlands created history in the Himalayas by beating the Proteas, and Afghanistan won plenty of friends with their wins over England and Pakistan. Angelo Mathews was timed out to bring the controversy, David Beckham brought the stardust.

But there were precious few close matches. If the metric of a tight one-dayer is a victory margin of three wickets or less, or 30 runs or less, then this World Cup had only six such results, the fewest since both 2003 and 2007, two poor tournaments. By the end of the bloated group stage it was more intriguing watching the battle for places in the 2025 Champions Trophy, rather than the semi-finals.

The problems of a 10-team tournament have been apparent since the format was adopted: a lack of jeopardy until the knockouts, and shutting out the nations that so often bring the most colour, character and charisma.

And, yes, we cannot simultaneously complain about the World Cup being a closed shop and bemoan the lack of tight games, because it stands to reason that more ‘weaker’ teams would result in more mismatches. Yet it is also true that some of the golden World Cup memories have come from unexpected sources: Dwayne Leverock’s catch, Ireland beating England, Canada’s John Davidson scoring a then record 67-ball hundred against West Indies.

At least the 50-over World Cup will revert to 14 teams in 2027, even if the lesson on the absence of jeopardy has not been learned. There will be two group stages and an increase in the number of matches from 48 to 54, but still only three knockout matches, from the last four onwards. My kingdom for some quarter-finals.

A wider concern is that success in the World Cup has become the preserve of a handful of teams. The first six editions, between 1975 and 1996, yielded five different winners, but in the seven tournaments since then only three countries – Australia, India and England – have lifted the trophy. In the past three competitions, just five nations – those three recent winners, plus New Zealand and South Africa – have made it to the semi-finals.

Clearly, there is a risk of an England-centric viewpoint skewing the opinion of the 2023 World Cup. England were awful, but they have been awful plenty of times in tournaments that were probably better than this one.

There are barriers to enhancing the appeal of a 50-over World Cup, not least the sheer amount of global tournaments, which seem to come along on a monthly basis. In the past year alone, there have been men’s world champions crowned in all three formats, as well as a women’s T20 World Cup. Next year there are T20 World Cups for both men and women.

Men’s 50-over World Cups take an eternity to complete and momentum is difficult to maintain over such a long period. There is a practical reason for that, with TV companies wanting to show every ball of every match, meaning having more than one game per day is unattractive. A cut in the number of fixtures would lead to a drop in revenue.

Until Australia upset India in Sunday’s final, much was made of home advantage, with the three previous tournaments won by the hosts. Conditions are clearly a huge factor in that, but so too the opportunity for a host to shift their entire focus towards the 50-over format in the run-up to staging the big dance. South Africa can play as many ODIs as they please over the next four years in order to prime themselves for a tilt at the trophy in 2027.

Perhaps more than anything, the World Cup has to be given the breathing space to feel special. It is ludicrous that India and Australia start a T20 series on Thursday, while New Zealand’s Tests in Bangladesh begin a week on Tuesday and England will shortly travel to the Caribbean for a white-ball series against West Indies. Cricket diminishes itself by refusing to pause for a moment.

If this sounds bleak, the future of the sport is anything but, albeit perhaps not in the way some would have it.

The fight to preserve Test cricket is real and worthy, though there is no point denying the shorter forms are spreading the game to parts of the world where cricket has struggled to make an impact.

There are more opportunities than ever for men and women to make a living from the game, for fans to watch, for the sport to grow. Global authorities should move to protect international cricket with designated windows in the calendar, but that horse has probably bolted three fields away.

A more achievable challenge is to make the 50-over World Cup – still the premier and most-coveted prize in the men’s global game – a true celebration of everything that is good about the sport.

Cricket deserves a World Cup to be enjoyed, rather than endured.

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