Co-host nations New Zealand and Australia have launched the 11th Cricket World Cup in fine style with emphatic victories. For both it was the opening salvo in a programme of 49 matches in a competition lasting a month and a half. Only the FIFA World Cup and Rugby World Cup can lay claim to a larger footprint. It was all very different 40 years ago when the first such tournament was held in England. Contested by only eight teams it was all over in a fortnight.
One-day domestic cricket had been introduced in the sixties to combat falling attendances in the traditional longer forms of the game, but the authorities were slow to move on the international front. It was not until 1971 that an official one-day international was played in Melbourne at the suggestion of legendary Australian cricketer Sir Donald Bradman. This was simply to try to recover revenue after a five-day test match in Melbourne had been washed out, but crowds were large and the idea caught on. In 1972 the International Cricket Council (ICC) agreed to stage a "World Cup as soon as practicable" but when they got down to the fine detail they fought shy of using the words World Cup. Instead what took place in 1975 was officially known as "The International Cricket Championship."
The main concern for organisers was the notoriously fickle British weather. It was perhaps as well that the tournament was sponsored by insurance brokers Prudential. Days before it was due to start, players had been forced to seek shelter from snow during a county championship match in Derbyshire. As it turned out, there was no cause for concern. Not a second was lost to bad light or rain. The first tentative steps at marketing to promote "The Greatest Summer of Cricket" came with the use of the Disney character Jiminy Cricket and a specially designed logo. All the teams met The Queen at Buckingham Palace but even so, the build up was distinctly low key by modern standards.
"Quite honestly, I don't think it registered that this was the first World Cup," said Warwickshire's John Jameson, England's opening batsman in their first match of the competition against India. "It was a very normal day for me. Going out at Lord's was the main excitement. "
His county team mate Dennis Amiss struck a fluent 137, out of England's imposing total of 334 for 4 in sixty overs.
The sun was still shining when India began their reply but their star batsman Sunil Gavaskar showed no inclination to go for the runs. "It was amazing, we wondered what was going on." said Jameson." He just carried on, blocking and blocking. At the end of the day we were just trying to get through the overs. It almost became embarrassing in the end." After 60 overs, India had totalled a paltry 132 for three wickets. Gavaskar's contribution was 36 not out. He later admitted, "It was by far the worst innings I have ever played." By a strange twist, the tournament organisers had even chosen to put Gavaskar on the cover of their official brochure.
India made a swift return home, but the West Indies backed by the lively support of the local expat Caribbean community, played some thrilling cricket on the way to the final. There they would meet Australia who had beaten hosts England in a low scoring but nerve jangling semi-final. The Final was played on June 21. It was the longest day of the year, which was just as well. Play began in the early morning. West Indies captain Clive Lloyd scored a wonderful century as the West Indies posted 291 for 8. The Australian innings was still alive almost eleven hours later as the clock approached 8.40pm. The last wicket fell shortly afterwards and the spectators raced onto the ground in celebration of a West Indies victory by 17 runs.
It had been a superb match to set before Prince Philip who made the presentations. The West Indies pocketed the princely sum of £4,000 ($6,200/€5,400) for their triumph, a prelude to dominance in all forms of the game over the next decade. The official report gave this assessment: "The Prudential Cup launched with imagination on boldness on the part of crickets administrators and the sponsors, and the standard of cricket matched the hours of bounteous sunshine." West Indies retained their title in 1979 and confidently expected to make it a hat-trick four years later.
India had won only one match in the previous two competitions and that was against the amateur players of a combined East Africa team. Yet in 1983, they made it all the way to the final, energised by the exploits of their all rounder Kapil Dev. He struck 175 against Zimbabwe in a preliminary match at Tunbridge Wells. Curiously, the match was not televised and Dev was reputed to have tracked down a spectator who filmed the match on his home video camera. There was no shortage of coverage of an incredible finale at Lord's.
West Indies had appeared to be cruising towards victory. The dismissal of their star batsman Viv Richards was the prelude to a rapid and most uncharacteristic collapse. India's win by 43 runs was one of the greatest shocks the game had seen. It also ignited India's love affair with limited-overs cricket.
Within the last decade, the Twenty20 format Indian Premier League has exploded across the sub continent, its intoxicating mixture of star players, rock music and cheerleaders attracts huge crowds to the stadia and vast television audiences to the extent that it now bankrolls the game on the sub continent. It should not be forgotten that it was the 50 over a side cricket played under the lights, which started the transformation. There was no greater celebration than when India won the World Cup for the second time in 2011. They were the first to do so on home soil, which made it all the sweeter and set the seal on the stellar career of superstar Sachin Tendulkar. It went some way to compensating for the intense disappointment Indian supporters had felt in 1987 and 1996 when they faltered at the semi-final stages at home.
The powers that be have been unable to resist tinkering with the format ever since the early tournaments and have often come in for huge criticism. This year, the pool stages alone last for a full month. "Because of its interminable schedule of irrelevant matches, as usual, it is far too long," said television analyst and Cricketer magazine editor Simon Hughes in his World Cup editorial. "Instead of looking forward excitedly to the Cricket World Cup, players, commentators and journalists actually dread it." Variations on a complaint made by many for a quarter of a century.
In 1987 the World Cup was held in India and Pakistan. For the first time, there were neutral umpires. The individual matches were shortened to 50 overs a side because of shorter daylight hours in the sub continent but the competition itself was stretched to a month.
In 1992 the tournament headed to Australia and New Zealand. Floodlit cricket, white balls and coloured clothing were part of the spectacle for the first time. The teams posed in their new finery in front of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The competition format had also changed. This time, every nation played everybody else in a League format to determine the four semi-finalists. Although provision was made for reserve days in the event of rain, many felt the regulations had been unduly influenced by host broadcasters Channel Nine who preferred each match completed in one day. Matters came to a head when the closing stages of the semi-final between England and South Africa was interrupted by rain. South Africa needed 21 runs off 13 balls but when they returned to the field ten minutes later, the scoreboard showed the revised target - an impossible 21 off one ball. Organisers said the match was too far advanced to spill into a reserve day.
England won but it was the South Africans who performed a lap of honour.
At least the method of resolving rain delays was altered as a result. The Duckworth-Lewis method used today is not simple but most believe it is fairer. In 1996, the format reverted to two preliminary groups to determine who would advance to a quarterfinal round. Once again there was the charge that many of the preliminary matches were rendered meaningless.
For the 1999 tournament in England, the two preliminary groups were retained but the top three in each group advanced to a super six stage. Tournament regulations stipulated: "The teams that qualify for the super six stage carry forward the points they have gained against the other teams that have qualified from their respective groups."
At least 1999 had what Wisden Cricketers' Almanack called "not merely the match of the tournament, the best One Day International so far played". The climax of the Australia v South Africa semi-final was truly unforgettable. South African batsman Allan Donald was run out off the fourth ball of the last over to end the innings with the scores tied. It was the Australians who were able to celebrate a place in the final, because of their superior record in previous matches. After such a pulsating encounter, the final itself was an anti climax. So it proved, a comfortable victory for Australia against Pakistan.
Australia retained their trophy four years later when the circus rolled into Southern Africa for the first time. Now with 14 teams, the super six format was retained. The prize fund had swelled to $5 million (£3 million/€4 million). "This is vital for the development of the game in Africa," said South African cricket supremo Ali Bacher. "Let the Games begin," said then South African President Thabo Mbeki after a spectacular opening ceremony, which hid the threat of disruption to the tournament because of civil unrest in co-host Zimbabwe.
Their opening match at the Harare Sports Ground did go ahead, but two stars of the home team, Andy Flower and Henry Olonga took to the field wearing black armbands. "We are mourning the death of democracy in our beloved Zimbabwe," they said in a statement, which explained their actions. "We are deeply distressed about what is taking place in Zimbabwe in the midst of this World Cup. Millions of our compatriots are starving, unemployed and oppressed."
England's team had agonised for weeks over whether to play their opening match on that same ground. In the end they stayed away as a protest against the regime of Robert Mugabe. Zimbabwe were awarded the match by default.
Australia's dominance of the tournament extended to 2007, the first tournament held in the Caribbean. The preliminary groups paved the way for Super Eights this time. In the final, played in Bridgetown, Barbados, Australia beat Sri Lanka, but their victory and a scintillating century by Adam Gilchrist were overshadowed by a misinterpretation of the regulations by the match officials. In gathering gloom, (the ground did not have floodlights) the closing stages were enacted in what Wisden called "Disorganisation which turned the final into a farce."
Despite such shortcomings, the World Cup remains the biggest platform for developing nations wanting to make their way in cricket. The ICC did make a feasibility study on candidacy for inclusion in the Olympics but even with the more flexible arrangements for new sports promised by International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach's Agenda 2020, they have decided against asking for inclusion at the Tokyo Olympics. There will thus be no T20 at 2020.
The baseball and softball combination still looks like a more viable prospect for Tokyo than cricket would be, but the ICC stance will no doubt disappoint the Japanese Cricket Association, who played a match at Lord's for the first time in 2013.
Although Commonwealth Games Federation President Tunku Imran is enthusiastic, cricket is also unlikely to appear in those Games before 2022, but it does seem to have established itself in the Asian Games. Here associate ICC members have seized the opportunity with both hands.
Afghanistan's men won T20 silver in 2010 and last year in Incheon but they astounded the cricket world to qualify for the 50 over World Cup for the first time. Their opening match against Bangladesh in Canberra will begin a memorable month for them. "Afghanistan's rise is about more than just its performances on the field. It is a remarkable story of dedication and perseverance in the most difficult circumstances," said ICC chairman Narayanaswami Srinivasan.
As recently as 2008, the Afghans were in Division Five of the World Cricket League but their standards have risen to such an extent that last July they drew a four match series in Zimbabwe. A generation before their African opponents had followed the same pathway as Associates in the World Cup.
There was outrage when it was originally announced that this year's tournament would be restricted to the test playing nations, not least in Ireland. Happily that decision was reversed, although the spectre remains for 2019. At least here, the Irish can add further chapters to an already burgeoning World Cup history. In 2007 they shocked Pakistan on Saint Patrick's Day and four years later, Kevin O'Brien hit the fastest World Cup century yet scored to sweep his side home to victory against England. This in itself maintained a fine tradition. The Gentlemen of Ireland had been the first overseas team to win a cricket match at Lord's back in 1858.
The Scots have also qualified for the World Cup again and will surely feel at home in New Zealand during the early part of their campaign. Incidentally, they did also have a presence in the first tournament back in 1975 when Lanarkshire born Mike Denness was captain... of England.
The United Arab Emirates complete the complement of associate members taking part in this World Cup. They return to the top table after an interval of 19 years during which the Gulf state has become a vibrant hub, which has staged more one-day international matches than anywhere else in the World.
If the Associates needed any encouragement on what is possible, they have only to look to Sri Lanka. In 1975, faced with a huge victory target of 329 against Australia, they batted courageously against fearsome fast bowlers Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson. Sunil Wettimuny and Duleep Mendis were both forced to retire hurt. The pair returned in much happier circumstances in 1979 as Sri Lanka beat India at Old Trafford, the first win by an Associate member. Full test match status followed in 1982. Only 14 years later they reached the World Cup final against Australia. Although their talismanic star Sanath Jayasuriya, already named player of the series, was run out cheaply, an unbeaten century from Aravinda de Silva paved the way for a victory to prove cricketing dreams can come true.
On March 29th, new champions will be crowned, but here's hoping that this will come after a classic final, unaffected by weather or any infernal artificial regulations.
Philip Barker has worked as a television journalist for 25 years. He began his career with Trans World Sport, then as a reporter for Sky Sports News and the ITV breakfast programme. A regular Olympic pundit on BBC Radio, Sky News and talkSPORT, he is associate editor of the Journal of Olympic History, has lectured at the National Olympic Academy and contributed extensively to Team GB publications. To follow him on Twitter click here.