A hard leather ball leaves the bowler's hand, flies down the pitch and is met by a swinging bat made from willow. For more than 200 years, this has been the essential, elemental contest in the sport of cricket, which began in England and has spread to every area of the globe influenced by the United Kingdom. There remains one other constant: the game's spiritual home, Lord's cricket ground, in London.On June 20, in the final of this year's cricket World Cup, Lord's will witness--as it has been doing since 1814--another episode in that struggle between bat and ball. But all else about cricket has changed: a shortened, one-day version of the game, first played internationally nearly 30 years ago, now forms the basis of the World Cup, held every four years to decide the best cricket nation on earth; colored clothing and night games, first seen in Australia in the late 1970s, are now commonplace.
Some of the changes have been more significant than bright costumes taking the place of white flannel. In 1975, Sri Lanka competed in the very first World Cup; the team returned home bleeding and broken. An encounter with Australian fast bowler Jeff Thomson saw three players carried from the field with injuries. In 1996, in the last World Cup, Sri Lanka began as 100-1 outsiders. But the underdogs made it through the preliminary rounds, the quarter finals and the semifinals, then crushed 1987 Cup winners Australia in the final. A new power had arrived in the game.
That power isn't limited to the field of play--as dynamic as Sri Lankan batsmen Sanath Jayasuriya, Romesh Kaluwitharana and Aravinda de Silva can be. Over the past decade, cricket has reaped an economic bonanza in Asia, fueled by the on-field success of the World Cup holders as well as victories by the more established cricket countries Pakistan and India. Traditional cricket powers like Australia, England and the West Indies have been forced to alter their tactics to keep up with the teams from the subcontinent.
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One-day cricket--as opposed to five-day Test cricket, the main form of the game since 1877--has won huge spectator support worldwide, although players were initially reluctant to accept the abbreviated, accelerated sport. The first World Cup was a novelty, says Australian batsman Doug Walters, whose team lost the final to the West Indies. We didn't treat it all that seriously. The West Indians won £4,000 in 1975, beating seven other teams to the title over the course of 15 matches. This year's World Cup--involving 12 teams, to be played over 38 days with 42 matches in five countries--will deliver $300,000 to the winning team, from a total prize pool of
$1 million. The battle will reach beyond two teams on a cricket field: it will also be between cricket's past and its future.
That future may be glimpsed in the shadows of Delhi's Red Fort, once the home of Mughal emperors but now backdrop to street cricket games between urchin boys. Most of the players have no shoes; their bat is held together by twine and tape. A hard cork ball is aimed at wickets painted in whitewash on the fort's ancient walls. When a batsman executes a perfect pull shot, passengers on a bus gridlocked nearby break into applause. Maybe we should charge everybody one rupee to watch, says Sukhdev, the 8-year-old son of a rickshaw driver, who's waiting for his turn to bat. If they're going to disturb our concentration, they could at least pay.
Only one house in Sukhdev's slum neighborhood has a color television; for the five weeks of the tournament it will be filled with visitors. Neighbors have discussed hiring a portable generator in case the electricity supply is cut during a game. Says Sukhdev: It will be a grand show.
Throughout India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, preparations for the World Cup began months before the event. Since the beginning of the year, it has dominated media coverage and dining-room conversation. In the subcontinent, even the most casual follower of the game seems to absorb enormous amounts of information about the players and their performances. How many times has Sri Lanka's Asanka Gurusinghe scored more than 50 runs in a one-day game? Any Colombo schoolboy knows the answer: 49. What was Indian batsman Mohinder Amarnath's good-luck charm? Easy--a red handkerchief in his back pocket, says Bombay businessman Ashish Wig.
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The buildup in England, where most World Cup matches will be played--there will also be games in Wales, Scotland, Ireland and the Netherlands--has been more reserved. Most Britons, says Matthew Engel, editor of the annual Wisden Cricketers' Almanac, would be hard pressed to name more than five of England's 15-man World Cup squad. Says Bill Sinrich, who runs the London sports management firm TransWorld International: The center of gravity of the game has moved to the subcontinent. That's not only true in terms of perceived levels of popular support; subcontinental stars dominate one-day international (ODI) cricket. India's Sachin Tendulkar, expected to be one of the major forces in his team's bid to win a second Cup for India (the first came in 1983) has scored more ODI centuries than any other player. Pakistan's Wasim Akram has the most ODI wickets; second on the all-time list is his bowling partner Waqar Younis. And Sri Lanka, long considered the weakest of the subcontinental teams, revolutionized the one-day game by attacking at the beginning of their innings, instead of building a score with conservative batting.
That crowd-pleasing style, copied by India and Pakistan, has won huge television audiences. South Asia's hundreds of millions of cricket fans have driven up the price of broadcast rights to one-day tournaments. Asian broadcasters Star/ ESPN, India's state-owned Doordarshan channel and Sri Lanka's Swarnawahini accounted for more than half the $45 million that the England and Wales Cricket Board received for global TV rights to the World Cup. Of the tournament's four corporate sponsors, three--Pepsi, LG Electronics and Emirates Airways--are aiming their message primarily at subcontinental audiences.
Overall, the ECB expects that in Britain the World Cup will generate revenues of $70 million; in India, businesses are predicted to spend that much during the tournament in TV advertising alone. The increase in investment has been steep. The money generated through corporate sponsorship for the 1987 World Cup--staged in India and Pakistan--came to less than $1 million; by 1996, when India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka next hosted the Cup, corporate cash amounted to $23.5 million. The Board of Control for Cricket in India grossed just $1 million in 1992, mostly from TV rights for games played in India and team sponsorships; seven years later, the figure is $12 million. Says BCCI secretary Y.J. Lele: This is the only game generating money in India today. Says Engel: There's so much money in cricket in South Asia, it gives them tremendous power to influence the game. In 1996, that power helped India's Jagmohan Dalmiya become the first Asian to be elected head of the sport's governing body, the International Cricket Council.
But there's a potentially catastrophic downside to South Asia's World Cup mania. The economic implications of hundreds of thousands of people taking sick leave to watch cricket are enormous, says Sanjoy Bhattacharya, a Bombay financial analyst. Nobody has done the math, but it's a safe bet that the damage to the combined economies of South Asia will run into billions of dollars. Some in the region are less concerned with finances than with cricket's worth as a distraction. Most people in this country look to cricket to bring them joy in a situation where there is nothing much to look forward to, says Dev Ananda, a researcher at the Centre for Policy Alternatives in Sri Lanka, where civil war has cost thousands of lives since 1983.
Sri Lanka's World Cup win boosted more than the spirits of its citizens. In 1995, the Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka had an income of just $450,000. Two years after defeating Australia in the final at Lahore, its income was $3.8 million. Players across the subcontinent are cashing in. In Sri Lanka, opening batsman Jayasuriya earns around $100,000 a year from cricket, and perhaps twice as much again off the field--a vast sum in a country where the average annual income is $840. But he's worth it; says Sandrasekeram Shanmuganathan, marketing director of Union Bank, which employs Jayasuriya as a pitchman: When Sanath does well on the field, we have noticed that deposits increase considerably. India's Sachin Tendulkar--a high-school dropout in a country where until the 1970s very few cricketers could even make a living from the sport--is said to be the subcontinent's richest cricketer, with conservative estimates putting his annual income from endorsements, promotions and media appearances at $1 million. Money is even being made retrospectively. Mohinder Amarnath, Roger Binny and Madan Lal, veterans of India's 1983 World Cup victory, never appeared in an advertisement during their playing days but now promote a consumer electronics manufacturer.
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The benefits of a Cup win can be seen on the field, too. The West Indies' back-to-back triumphs in the first two Cups rebuilt interest in the game in the Caribbean and enlarged the pool of talented players. Australia's unexpected 1987 World Cup win over England was the starting point of a cricket revival; within two years Australia had regained the Ashes, and within eight years its national team was regarded as the world's best.
The favorites for this year's Cup, the seventh to be held, are South Africa. Since being invited to rejoin world cricket in 1992 following the dismantling of apartheid, South Africa have twice shown Cup-winning form, only to stumble before making the final. In 1992, when the Cup was held in Australian and New Zealand, South Africa needed 22 runs off the last 13 balls (an achievable, if difficult, task) in a knockout semi-final against England. A rain shower hit; when the players returned to the field, a controversial regulation which then applied in the case of lost time had the South Africans facing a revised target of 22 runs off just one ball--an impossible goal. There were a few tears in our dressing room, says Mike Proctor, a former South African player who coached the national team in 1992. It was one of the most disappointing days of my career.
The force that overwhelmed South Africa in 1996 was as unstoppable as the rain in '92: Brian Lara, the West Indies' finest batsman since Viv Richards (who helped the cricketing collective of island nations to World Cups in 1975 and 1979). South Africa were so confident of victory in their quarter-final against the West Indians that they rested their key fast bowler, Allan Donald, hoping to keep him fresh for later matches. Against a relatively tame attack Lara ran amok, hitting 111--and South Africa out of the series. This time will be different, says Ali Bacher, managing director of the United Cricket Board of South Africa, who cites captain Hansie Cronje as his team's match-winner: He is, in my opinion, the best one-day captain in world cricket. He has a very strong personality and he commands the respect of the team.
Immediately behind South Africa in pre-Cup betting are Australia, whose first game is on Sunday against Cup newcomers Scotland. Only one member of the Australian squad has tasted World Cup success: captain Steve Waugh, who as a 22-year-old played a pivotal role in beating England in 1987. We've been gearing up for this for 18 months, Waugh said as his team arrived in London last week. We're not going to need any extra motivation.
Duke & Sons, makers of cricket balls since 1780, have handstitched 540 white examples for the '99 Cup. In the hands of Pakistan's awesome lead bowlers, Akram and Younis, they become missiles. Most of the previous World Cups have been decided by strong batting, but many predict that Pakistan's bowling will tilt the tournament their way. Between them, Akram and Younis have taken 654 ODI wickets; according to Max Kruger, statistician with Australian broadcaster the Nine Network, examination of their records playing with county teams in Britain shows they are a potent duo on the soft English wickets.
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Unlike most sports teams, Pakistan seem to play best when they're racked with internal dissension; an ongoing bribery inquiry which has split the team has also seen Pakistan become a close third favorite. The West Indies, written off as a cricket power following a dismal series against South Africa, regained some ground in their last series, against Australia. Their finals hopes rest on three key players, says former Australian World Cup wicketkeeper Ian Healy: [Fast bowlers] Courtney Walsh, Curtly Ambrose and Brian Lara have to play to the limit of their abilities if their team is to go well. Some anticipate soggy conditions, which could help home team England (one London fan has placed $32,000 on them to win) and New Zealand, both accustomed to sometimes unpredictable rain-affected wickets. It'll be a bit low and slow, says Tim de Lisle, editor of Wisden's monthly publication. England have not picked their best team, and they're alarmingly bad at fielding, but I'll be surprised if they don't make the semi-finals.
Those matches will be held on June 16 and 17, following a round-robin series between the six most successful teams from the qualifying games. By then, the world's largest film industry will have been paralyzed by the World Cup: India's huge Bollywood film factories have scheduled no new releases for May or June, as most of the nation's film stars will be in Britain watching games live, while their fans will be watching on TV. Desperate cinema owners are negotiating with broadcaster Star Sports for rights to project World Cup matches on the big screen. There are a few million people in India who cannot afford two square meals a day, but who would still want to watch India play, says Raj Singh Dungarpur, president of the BCCI.
Given this level of interest, it's little wonder that Sukhdev, the Delhi street cricketer, is confused about where the game originated; he believes it began in the subcontinent. The English, he says, must have stolen it from us. According to Sanjay Manjrekar, a former India batsman, It's no longer the Englishman's game. Cricket now belongs to the Indians, Pakistanis and Sri Lankans.
Whatever the result in the World Cup, there is no chance that cricket's former masters will ever wholly reclaim their game.
With reporting by Ghulam Hasnain/Karachi, Guy Hawthorne/Johannesburg, Waruna Karunatilake/Colombo, Kate Noble/London, Maseeh Rahman/New Delhi, and Simon Robinson/Nairobi
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