75, 79, 83, 87, 92, 96, 99, 03, 07 … nine numbers that mean nothing to most, and yet are a code that, once invoked, creates an immediate bond among the cognoscenti. They represent the years in which cricket’s World Cup has been held, and the latest in the sequence is “11,” for 2011—Feb. 19, to be exact, when India takes on Bangladesh in the first match of a 49-game tournament.
The Australians will refer, smirkingly, to Ricky Ponting’s soaring one-iron drives in the rarefied air at 5,000 feet at Johannesburg’s “bullring,” a knock that ensured that the 2003 World Cup was theirs by the time the Aussie innings ended. West Indians will, more than a little wistfully, recall “Super Cat” Clive Lloyd’s 102 in the inaugural cup in 1975. Pakistanis will tell you (unanimously, and correctly) that Wasim Akram’s spell in 1992, where he knocked over Allan Lamb with an unplayable delivery, was the greatest in a World Cup. (They will be more divided about the patrician Imran Khan’s post-victory speech.) I doubt there’s an Indian across the spectrum of caste, age, and language who doesn’t thrill, still, to the images of a feline Kapil Dev sprinting 30 yards to catch Viv Richards and set India on course for its only World Cup win, in 1983.
As for Sri Lankans, they still wax rhapsodic over their openers’ revolution in 1996, which brought “pinch-hitting” to cricket. Equally, every South African rues that missed catch in 1999, followed by a tragicomic run out in the semis, moments that defined South African–Australian relations for a decade. The English will tell you that the Ashes are all that count, and the fact that they have never held the World Cup aloft is an irrelevance. No matter; for many who live or have grown up in a country ruled by the British, the quadrennial cricket World Cup is a milestone that marks the passage of eras.
This year there are 14 teams competing in matches spread awkwardly across India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. Pakistan was going to host, too, until a terrorist attack on the touring Sri Lanka team in March 2009 made most players unwilling to set foot in that country. The format has been tinkered with to ensure that the 2007 debacle, where India and Pakistan got knocked out early and wrecked the financial prospects of the tournament, is not repeated. Four teams each from two pools of seven will emerge into the knock-out, last-eight stage starting March 23. The final will be on April 2, at the (hopefully) refurbished Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai.
The World Cup returns to the Indian subcontinent after 15 years. During this time, India has become unrecognizable: economic liberalization has brought 8 to 10 percent growth, giving India’s policymakers and entrepreneurs a visible strut from Davos to Kyoto. Indian cricket officials have shown the same swagger, much to the chagrin of the game’s traditional custodians in England and Australia. This new-rich culture has brought in its wake more than one scandal pointing to graft and patronage in high places. But it has also brought new panache to the game worldwide and much fairer remuneration for its players. Previous generations scrapped for crumbs; this generation is paid on a par with professionals in other major sports—often better.
My picks for the Cup? I’ve learned always to heed the ineffable wisdom of market pricing, and only then to essay my own view. This market would be the envy of bourses from New York to Shanghai: billions have been wagered already, with more to come. And here are the odds at the time of writing (from Bet365.com): India, 3.75; Sri Lanka, 5.5; South Africa, 6.0; Australia, 6.5; England, 7.0; Pakistan, 8.5; and the West Indies, 21.0.
I find Australia, Pakistan, and particularly the West Indies good value at those prices. The Aussies know how to win, have blistering pace in Shaun Tait and Brett Lee, and a match winner in Shane Watson. Pakistan has just lost, in a betting scandal, its once-in-a-generation bowler, Mohammad Amir (say it ain’t so!), but is an electric side with a point to prove. The West Indies team is every non-Caribbean fan’s second favorite (like Brazil and football), and it has, in Chris Gayle and Kieron Pollard, two batsmen who can confect a mammoth score in minutes.
India is the favorite due to home-field advantage, the devastating Yusuf Pathan, and a certain Virender Sehwag. There’s also the “win one for the Gipper” factor: it is Sachin Tendulkar’s final Cup. But I worry about the bevy of part-time spinners. South Africa has Dale Steyn, the best quick in the world by a country mile: but the Proteas and World Cups are uneasy bedfellows. Sri Lanka has one of the best attacks for the conditions, led by M&M—Lasith Malinga and Muttiah Muralitharan—but its batting cupboard looks bare once you’re past the veterans. England, too, has a balanced attack, but lacks the batting depth needed on these small grounds and fast outfields, where chasing 300 will be a routine challenge.
My perhaps parochial pick is India playing Australia or Pakistan in the final. Approximately a billion and a half of the world’s population will be agog…the rest, oblivious.
Jain plays cricket for Deutsche Bank, where he is head of the Corporate & Investment Bank.