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An inflated World Cup beckons

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Rohit Brijnath

Many of the early matches hold no prospect of an upset

Welcome to the big, fat, overblown World Cup, a multi-coloured festival that for almost one-third its length is an ode to tediousness. Only in cricket, which has fewer nations than most sports yet manages to be ineptly run, could officials stretch this cup to 47 days, making it the longest event in mainstream sport.

It's more than twice as long as the Tour de France. Three times the length of the Olympics. Nearly three weeks longer than football's World Cup. We understand long days, and travel, but when they say hold the World Cup in the winter, did they mean the entire winter?

This is cricket's shining moment, it's four-yearly carnival, and while it's a trifle conceited to say the world is watching, occasionally even American journalists ("hey buddy, why doesn't he just chuck the ball") show up to do polite comparisons with baseball.

Super Dull phase

How do you explain to such visitors that the cup starts on March 13, but really begins on March 27, that to arrive at the tense Super Eight phase first you need to exit the brain-cell-murdering Super Dull phase. To watch the Dutch or the Scots play is to feign excitement, and the cup is littered with early matches that hold no prospect of an upset or a hint of a contest.

India versus Bermuda is like Conan against Lassie. This will bring more people to cricket?

The World Cup in 1975 lasted two weeks and comprised eight nations, a masterpiece of brevity. Of course, the valour of new nations must be recognised, and revenue earned, so in 1996 the cup was increased to 12 teams. Bearable. In 2003 it was inflated to 14 teams. Mostly unbearable. Now it is 16. Welcome to mismatch heaven.

Lack of depth

Cricket's lack of depth understandably makes it feel limited among world sports. At tennis' Australian Open, the men's draw shifted from 64 to 128 in 1982 and did not miss a beat. These days even champions are wary of early rounds. Football was vilified initially for increasing its cup numbers from 13 to 16 to 24 to 32, but strong play by Asian nations and the muscular strides of Africa stilled any opposition.

But by pumping up numbers at cricket's Cup, almost in a desperate bid to convince itself the game is growing, the game is in fact making a spectacle of its weaknesses, it is parading its unevenness. In a sport where players display mental endurance, officials have shown none. Instead of patience, the cup has been expanded before nations are ready.

Harder to learn

Administrators must know that cricket's complex rules, and endless hours of play, make it an infinitely harder game to learn, and spread. Furthermore, in most sports, a strong athletic base suffices as a good starting point, if you are an able athlete you are on your way in tennis or squash or football or hockey. This does not work in cricket.

Officials will contend that lesser teams must be encouraged with World Cup spots, that associate members must believe their struggle is recognised, and that any revenue earned is a boon for Ireland or Canada. It is nonsense. Such cups are primarily showpieces for their sport, a congregation of the elite an advertisement of the best at their best.

Unknown quantity

Of course, there is a beauty to the unknown quantity, and a romance to the underdog. Occasionally cricket will tremble as Kenya baffles the West Indies and Bangladesh humbles Pakistan. But such upheavals are as rare in cricket as they are frequent in football, the gap too wide and the game too long for a minnow to hold its nerve.

Anyway, this quota of underdogs is already filled. It includes Kenya, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. That is fine; if they slip, others can be promoted to take their place. Adding Canada and Ireland and the Netherlands and Scotland and Bermuda is not fine.

As of now half the attending nations are not in contention for the cup, and 30 per cent of the teams are guaranteed not to win a match except against each other. Too much of cricket's finest show is predictable and that makes a mockery of the very idea of sport.

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