Ramiz Raja has lost it. He’s frozen mid-pitch, stuttering through a sentence he’s destined never to complete while his eyes plead with the strip for any clue on what to say next. Call it green, Ramiz, dry, a camel, swear on live television – anything – just get the hell out of there. But he doesn’t. He just stares into the camera. Silent. Organisers want you to believe that this is the biggest tournament in cricket – “make it large” they cry over and over – but one of its most memorable moments is three minutes of dead air. It would be hilarious, if it wasn’t indicative of the quality of the tournament as a whole.
The last World Cup in England, in 1999, was opened by Tony Blair on a soggy May morning, accompanied by a limp fireworks display. No sooner had he finished than England were knocked out. Opening ceremonies in sport are always a special kind of tragic, but the World Cup 2019 “party” was hosted by Andrew Flintoff and Paddy McGuinness and, say what you like about Blair but at least he was relevant at the World Cup he opened.
That 1999 tournament was referenced relentlessly throughout this year’s edition, and the choice of commentators and coverage reflects Sky’s dedication to encouraging the viewership of no one but old white men. Never mind engaging youth, here’s Michael Holding bemoaning anything fresh and new and Mark Nicholas admiring play like a creepy uncle at a pool party.
If the 1999 tournament was disappointing for England exiting before the World Cup song had been released, the 2019 edition, tinged with destiny for England, was disappointing for just being boring.
This was supposed to be the tournament of totals exceeding five hundred. Would England or the West Indies get there first? Gayle or Buttler? In the end, nobody breached four hundred, let alone five. Rather, it was a World Cup where attritional batting and good bowling flourished.
Given how much T20 has influenced the one-day game, it was a surprise that two-hundred and forty was often a good score throughout the tournament. But if you think T20 has changed ODIs, it’s done bloody murder to commentary. One of Richie Benaud’s key tenets for commentating was to remember the “value of a pause.” But something about T20 is apparently so boring, so monetised, that it’s the commentators job to never shut up, which is filtering into the longer games.
In a tournament conceived to make the game global, not only have the ICC managed to exclude most teams in world cricket, the coverage has seemingly been designed to alienate viewers too. The Women’s World Cup in 2018 showed what these events can do for engagement, and yet Sky appeared dedicated to excluding anyone who might have injected youth into their coverage. But for the odd appearance of Rob Key, it was up to Isa Guha to hold things together among a group of old men generally discussing being old.
But if we really explore where the commentary fell flat, we can refer back to Benaud’s rules, specifically that there are “no teams called ‘we.’” There is a balance to supporting a team and providing commentary on them – a balance between passion and critique that commentators like Michael Atherton and Ian Smith manage effectively – but it felt like the majority of pundits brought in for this tournament were paid only to support their own teams. Never mind the dead air birthed from Ramiz Raja’s incompetence, the amount of meaningless chatter coming from commentators being too wrapped up in the moment was obscene.
Sky has been battling for some time to demonstrate it cares about cricket. The amount of cricket played in the English summer is a major issue on the country circuit, but we see so little of it. There is, of course, an argument that more – if not all – cricket should be free-to-air, not least as we witness the effects of the 2005 Ashes, 2012 Olympics, and 2018 FIFA World Cup. But this tournament has served as a microcosm of Sky’s attitude to cricket. Yes, the commentary was bad, but examine the space around it for a moment. Where were the features, the debate, the discussion? What about this World Cup might have appealed to the casual viewer? Something has gone horribly wrong if you’re relying on still photography to lift up your live sports coverage. Much of the time, Sky had to resort to plugging their upcoming Kevin Pietersen/Piers Morgan feature rather than having anything relevant to show. It was like Sky was asking you to switch off.
Michael Clarke’s “class match-ups” didn’t ruin the World Cup, nor did Mark Nicholas shouting over the third umpire; but as part of a larger picture it demonstrates the level to which Sky’s apathy for cricket has grown. And perhaps that is apt, given that this is likely the last fifty over cricket we’ll see in England for some time now that the ECB has gutted the game to fit their new hundred-ball competition, unbidden, into our lives.
We were promised exciting cricket. 2011 had the weight of a billion people’s expectation; 2015 had New Zealand’s unbelievable surge that left nobody to care that Australia won it; 2019 had – well, nothing.
Never mind the coverage, the cricket itself was boring. Let’s not be too harsh, given that England scoring four hundred is even more tedious. It’s a part of the tournament that nobody really had much control over, in fact, the ICC put out some balanced pitches in an effort to keep things interesting – that is, until England were in trouble at which point flat pitches were thrown together.
But in 2019 there were no interesting stories, no shocks, no upsets. The top four were expected, the chasing pack off-colour, and the only real charged moment (England’s run to the semi-finals) was punctuated by two opponents that didn’t really care. Even when England won, many people felt more sympathetic towards New Zealand than thrilled for England.
India’s World Cup win in 2011 had a number of smaller narratives attached to it – Tendulkar’s last chance, Yuvraj’s irresistible form, etc – England’s run to the title just felt perfunctory. Once the top four began to break away, no one else really looked all that bothered.
Afghanistan pulled an England at this World Cup. Sacking your captain on the eve of a major tournament is brave, what’s braver is sacking a captain so passionate he’s changed his name to Afghan. As if that weren’t disrupting enough, Mohammed Shahzad was then omitted in bizarre circumstances.
Braver still was replacing your ousted captain with Gulbadin Naib. Naib is the model English club captain. He opens the bowling despite being a fifth or sixth bowler at best, and he opens the batting despite not belonging in the top six. Rest assured that Naib was the worst captain in this tournament – which is an achievement in itself when Sarfaraz Ahmed is present. Given Afghanistan’s nul pointes, it’s no surprise that he has been sacrificed for Afghanistan’s failure.
For all this though, Afghanistan weren’t as bad as the numbers suggest. They had a few teams in difficult positions – mostly thanks to their bowling – including India, only for bad captaincy and poor batting to let them down. The players all played with pride and passion, but inconsistent selection and off-field disruptions (be it Shahzad, the controversy around Dawlat Ahmadzai, or Aftab Alam being banned for a year) put Afghanistan in a position they couldn’t recover from.
There was sincere shock that West Indies didn’t put up much of a fight at this World Cup. Everyone was convinced this was a new and improved West Indies. The fact that they had to qualify for the tournament – and very nearly didn’t – was apparently forgotten.
Andre Russell briefly threatened to lift the West Indies out of the doldrums, but when the super glue holding him together began to give way there was no way to keep him on the field. Even when he was vaguely mobile, he could only deliver a few overs and was unimpressive with the bat.
Carlos Brathwaite has lived off one innings for a long time and finally had the good grace to get a score of meaning, but otherwise he, and the rest of the bowling unit, lacked any penetration. Without a real spinner – Nurse is not an international bowler and Fabian Allen is really a specialist fielder – the attack looked unbalanced throughout.
It’s hard to find positives for the West Indies. Their batting flattered to deceive and their bowling was underwhelming. Hetmeyer continues to impress, however, and Nicholas Pooran is probably the find of the tournament. But as Chris Galye becomes more of a liability and Shai Hope consistently fails to live up to his promise, the future is uncertain. At least they can boast the best national anthem in world cricket. Sing it with me, Rally! Rally round the West Indies – they need it.
Eighth place is deceptively poor for Bangladesh. Only South Africa’s eleventh hour decision not be utterly rubbish stopped them finishing respectably mid-table. For many, the greatest surprise was that Shakib Al Hasan was the best player in the tournament even though he has been the best all-rounder in world cricket since the Triassic Period. There was no revelation in Al Hasan’s form, the only surprise was that it’s taken so long for him to bat at three.
Bangladesh are a good ODI team. Play them at home in tests and you’re in for an ordeal too. So they’ll be disappointed with how this World Cup progressed for them. Their batting was passable but they really needed more consistency from Tamim and Rahim to support Al Hasan’s brilliance. It’s in the bowling department that Bangladesh continue to struggle, however. One can forgive Masrafe Mortaza his ineffectiveness given that he’s held together by passion alone, but the unit as a whole really felt like it was missing two seamers to accompany Mustafizar. That Bangladesh’s three wins came against the three worst teams of the tournament demonstrates that, like Afghanistan, they left many opportunities squandered.
As for South Africa, it’s not choking if you were never really there. Their limp phantom made a fleeting appearance in England in 2019. Injuries didn’t help their cause, nor did AB de Villier’s last-minute booty call, but the truth is South Africa just weren’t very good.
The only player whose stocks have actually risen in this tournament is Rassie van der Dussen, whose Hussey-esque form has seen him jump to the top of the team sheet. Otherwise, an ageing side rattled around the field like the Funnybones, while a middle order of Markram, Duminy, and Miller fell apart at every opportunity. A reliance on average medium pace didn’t help when Steyn pulled out of the tournament, and with Ngidi unfit, Rabada had too much on his shoulders with Pretorius and Phehlukwayo looking well short of international standard.
After the tournament they bid farewell to a giant of one day cricket in Imran Tahir, one of the greatest ODI spinners we’ve had the joy of witnessing – and also JP Duminy, as ineffective as he has been throughout his career. They sent them off into the sunset with an undeserved win against Australia. Seventh was two places too high for a team consistently less exciting than the West Indies, less competitive than Afghanistan, and less talented than Bangladesh.
There’s something about Dimuth Karunaratne, something that makes Sri Lanka gel in a way that Mathews and Chandimal could never invoke. After their mesmeric win over South Africa earlier this year, the World Cup might have felt like a bit of a hangover. Being something of a joke in the past few years, Sri Lanka somehow managed to pull a middling performance out of an average team.
Naturally, the win against England stands out. But it was really Malinga’s game and one wonders how his knees have stayed in place when he’s been carrying the entire bowling unit for so long – Muralitharan at least had Vaas as back-up.
Karunaratne’s captaincy was admirable, though it is clearly his man-management and passion that bring the best out of his team, while Silva provided Sri Lanka with the best starts of any team in the tournament. Avishka Fernando looks like the best batsman Sri Lanka have unearthed for some time. But the omnipresent disappointment that is Kusal Mendis and the rattling Mathews continually undermined the top order’s good work.
Without Malinga, it’s hard to see Sri Lanka’s bowling challenging anyone, but a sixth place finish here represents a massive coup. They probably had the best fans in the World Cup, too.
What’s even to say about Pakistan? Up, down, left right – they were all over the place. At once brilliant and abysmal. A win against England set them in the right direction, but that familiar inconsistency ensured they would struggle to make the top four – regardless of their late surge.
There’s no doubt Sarfaraz Ahmed is the worst captain in the world; a man more likely to murder his own players than challenge the opposition. In a team devoted to youth, it’s hard to see who could replace him, unless Pakistan tries to turn Babar Azam into another Graeme Smith. Mickey Arthur has worked wonders with this team, but how far can he take it with a captain who resembles an angry public school father shouting at umpires from the sidelines more than a professional leader?
Azam and Ul-haq continue to impress with the bat, and Sohail has potential, but the batting was otherwise disappointing. They’ve said goodbye to Hafeez, so often a stabilising influence, and finally got rid of Shoaib Malik, but it’s likely that Pakistan will rely on the PSL to nominate replacements – for good or worse. But they owe their fifth place finish to Mohammad Amir – along with occasional bursts from Wahab Riaz – who couldn’t quite drag them over the line without more support in the field.
Pakistan will complain that they finished behind New Zealand despite beating them, but those arguments are immaterial. They simply weren’t good enough or consistent enough to guarantee their place in the semi-finals. Even so, their 2017 Champions Trophy win was still more impressive than qualifying here would have been.
It was curious World Cup for 2011 and 2023 champions, India. On one hand, they finished top of the group table. On the other, they were often rubbish. In many ways, India epitomised the way batting worked for much of this World Cup: an obscenely strong top order – Rohit Sharma scored FIVE hundreds – protecting a terrible middle order. Only England, who allegedly bat everywhere, and New Zealand, who only brought two batsmen, bucked that trend and both ended up in the final. India looked unstoppable when teams failed to break through their top three, but as soon as anyone made it to their number four they fell apart.
Indian selection – Shankar and Pandya at four, anyone? – continues to baffle. Virat Kohli is clearly in control of every aspect of this team, with Shastri little more than a human-shaped toilet roll, but his insistence on picking rubbish players he likes rather than genuinely decent players is holding India back. It is hard to believe that Dinesh Karthik, Hardik Pandya, and Vijay Shankar represent three of the best batsmen in India.
But most glaring of India’s frailties was the familiar handling of their fading stars. We had to sit through Sachin Tendulkar’s self-imposed farewell tour, and now we’re knee-deep in MS Dhoni’s. He’s never been a great player outside of Asia and now he’s just plain not very good. India should have jettisoned him two years ago, and yet they persist. If this World Cup teaches them one thing, it must be that it’s time to move on.
Their ascent to the top of the table was driven by their impressive group of quick bowlers. Has Bumrah ever delivered a bad ball? Kumar and Shami can claim to be two of the most improved bowlers in the world. The spinners were disappointing, but in a tournament ruled by the fast men that’s understandable. As a group, both in ODIs and tests, this is an attack that can, and will, go far.
India can be proud of making it as far as they did – they won’t be, but they can. It just looked like they ran out of steam – “peaked too early” as the catchphrase goes. But their positive performance was undermined by a tendency to get worked up and complain about meaningless things – which is ironic for a group that mocked Sri Lanka as they were poisoned in Dehli. Kohli didn’t like Edgebaston’s short boundary, the one his team failed to take advantage of, and once they’d bombed out of the semi-final he suggested table-toppers should have two attempts to reach the final, because a) why isn’t everything the IPL? And b) it’s not fair that New Zealand were better on the day(s).
Australia probably achieved the greatest feat of this World Cup when they made it to the semi-finals despite having Marcus Stoinis in their top six – not since Gavin Hamilton have we seen an all-rounder as bad; not since Carlos Brathwaite has one man lived off a single innings for so long.
As Jarrod Kimber suggested, Australia really didn’t have a clue what to do at this tournament. The selection – which saw Adam Zampa and Glenn Maxwell used ahead of Nathan Lyon – and an inability to squeeze Khawaja and Smith into the same line-up demonstrated a glaring lack of clarity from the Australian set-up – though, given Justin Langer had them training in bare feet to get in touch with the grass, can we expect them to know their best XI?
As with many other teams, Australia were hauled to the semi-finals by their bowling, especially the incredible Mitchell Starc. But a loss to the worst South African team to grace a World Cup showed a fallibility that England would later exploit in the semi-final. The biggest find for them was surely Alex Carey. A phenomenal World Cup that, in any other team, might have seen him score two or three hundreds, was hampered by the fact that in nine out of ten games he batted seven – behind Marcus Stoinis.
And even though they lost their first World Cup semi-final, the biggest disappointment of this campaign was, by far and away, Michael Clarke. It’s an odd feeling wishing a commentator you genuinely hated watching as a player would strap them on and make a shock comeback. But it looked like the only way to shut him up. Constant pronouncements of “class” and regaling us with tales of how everyone in Australia is apparently his best friend, coupled with an inability to just let the world be silent for even a moment had me wanting to tear my ears off and feed them to my dog so I could have a front-row seat to his farts instead.
If there’s any kind post-mortem into Australia’s performance, perhaps they could bounce around the idea of creating an Australian space program devoted only to firing Michael Clarke’s vocal cords into the fucking sun. Richie Benaud must have drilled his way to Portugal spinning in his grave so much.
England can probably thank New Zealand for gifting them a semi-final spot. Having already qualified, they gave a limp and apathetic performance to push England through that fooled a lot of people into thinking they were fading as the tournament reached its climax. India were fooled, and New Zealand, nice guy hats firmly on, punished them for it.
New Zealand’s batting was appalling throughout the tournament. But their tactic of contriving close games with gritty batting performances in the knowledge that their bowling knew how to win games brought something electric to an otherwise tame tournament. As Rohit Sharma showed, five hundreds don’t mean anything if you don’t score runs when they matter; and New Zealand scored runs when it mattered.
Though they were largely written off, it was pretty much a certainty they would reach the knockouts – and when they drew India in the semi-final, it was clear they were final-bound too. Pundits might not have given them a chance, but shrewd viewers knew that New Zealand would always compete. Their intelligent and calculating cricket was perfect for conditions akin to their own. Unlike other teams, they weren’t afraid to adapt and scrap when needed. But it was their economical bowling, spearheaded by Trent Boult and their secret hero Mitchell Santner that brought teams low when contending with New Zealand’s mostly modest scores. There was no weak link in their attack, with Ferguson, Henry, and Neesham all contributing. And let’s not forget their second ‘spinner’, Colin de Grandhomme, who nearly won the whole thing for them.
People didn’t want England to win. That’s what the shadows say, at least as communicated via Jonny Bairstow and his Ouija Board of criticism. England’s very own Derek Acorah managed to divine, in response to his lack of runs, that everyone was against him – again. So he took to the airwaves like a clenched fist with hair, picked a fight with Michael Vaughan, and alienated much of his fanbase with two booming hundreds in defiance of no one and everyone.
Other teams are quick to own their mistakes, but England – whether its bizarre press conferences, Jonny Bairstow’s phantom critics, or Paul Farbrace on The Debate – seem to greet any criticism of their lack of adaptability with a shrug and a “well, we should have won – we’re really very good.” A tournament win will cement that attitude, but much as they learned from New Zealand in 2015, they would do well to do the same again and learn to play gritty cricket when needed. Or watch Ben Stokes, whose own lack of form was arrested with five grinding, ugly fifties in difficult positions.
The bowling, so long a crutch for England when they couldn’t hammer four hundred, was bolstered by the excellent Jofra Archer – who had to bowl that super over, oof – to support Chris Woakes and, eventually, Liam Plunkett. Mark Wood’s mojo seems to be maintaining itself, even if his body refuses to – he picked up a side strain in the final – and as a unit those four proved to be the best part of England’s World Cup. Chris Woakes can feel unlucky not to have picked up the man of the tournament award.
Overall, England were very – Pakistani. Inconsistent and often rubbish. Until they weren’t. Once they scraped into the semi-finals, they turned their dial from five to ten and steamrolled Australia with the kind of brutal, dominating performance we had hitherto not seen from England at the World Cup.
England and New Zealand then contested perhaps the greatest game of one day cricket in history. A tie within a tie, nothing could separate the two except a tally of boundaries – England saved by the fact they can’t rotate the strike. There’s no doubt that New Zealand deserved to win, their bowling and fielding was the best in the tournament, and in Kane Williamson they had the best captain of the event. But few can begrudge such an improved England team winning their first World Cup and in such spectacular fashion. A tepid and tiring tournament like this did not deserve a final so electric and nerve-racking.
The inclusion of national anthems at the beginning of games is, I suppose, a good initiative. At least for those who put stock in the warped notion of patriotism our right-wing dystopia (Jesus, we live in a racist hellscape) embodies. But no matter the national pride those anthems are supposed to engender, it doesn’t halt the fact that this World Cup failed to capture the public’s imagination. Asian engagement was its only real positive; it was incredible how Asian fans turned out for their teams. But until the final, when the game finally found its way to free-to-air television again, English support felt limited to middle-aged white men – and even the Barmy Army saved themselves for the Ashes.
The final showed that this World Cup might have rivalled the 2005 Ashes, if looked after effectively. But the ECB, so focussed on their ailing Hundred, the ICC, and Sky failed to capitalise and turn this into a national event. Barney Ronay posited that the ECB didn’t deserve to win this World Cup, and as we all sat on the edge of our seats as Ben Stokes dragged England to victory, we would do well to remember that those might be the last meaningful moments of fifty-over cricket we see on television for a long time.