“Greatness is contagious” was the punchy, if regrettable, slogan for this World Cup – regrettable, because its launch in November 2014 coincided with the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. But one of the promotional images was at least uncannily prescient, showing the back of Michael Clarke as he walked into an MCG flooded with artificial light. For, shortly after 7.30 pm on March 29, Australia’s captain did exactly that, with his team 63 for two chasing 184 to beat New Zealand. By the time he returned 84 minutes later, having played his 223rd and last one-day international innings, his sparkling 74 had ensured he would bid the format farewell by lifting the trophy.
Clarke’s well-led, well-drilled and well-chosen team were deserving victors, featuring Man of the Tournament Mitchell Starc, who swung the white ball at high pace throughout, and – in the final – Man of the Match James Faulkner, who baffled batsmen with a range of speeds and lengths. With Mitchell Johnson they formed a three-pronged left-arm pace attack of the highest quality, together taking 47 wickets at under 16 and an economy-rate of under 4.5; at times, the left-arm angle seemed the only countermeasure to otherwise overwhelming batting.
A month earlier at Eden Park, Brendon McCullum’s New Zealand had beaten the Australians by one wicket in the tournament’s outstanding match. But, if anything, that result spurred Australia to greater heights. Although it was their first defeat in any format since November, Clarke called it the “kick up the backside” they needed. The impression during the final was of a team reaching their best, against a team whose best had already been seen. Of the $ US10.23m prize pool, the Australians shared $ 3.98m, the New Zealanders $ 1.75m.
Cricket’s 11th World Cup was three times as long as the first, 40 years earlier. It contained nearly twice as many teams, and was watched in the flesh by more than six times as many spectators, the final setting an official record for a day’s cricket, of 93,013. Television audiences were claimed to be the largest in history, helped by the presence in the last eight of four teams from South Asia, the sport’s most populous market.
These included Bangladesh, the ICC’s most recent Full Member, and a first-time quarter-finalist. They excluded England, one of the ICC’s founder nations, despite the ECB having gone through the rigmarole of separating Ashes and World Cup cycles in order to enhance performances at each. It led instead to the worst of both worlds, but – the 5–0 whitewash of 2013-14 fresh in the memory – spread across two southern summers rather than just one. The losing semi-finalists were India, unbeaten until then and nourishing fantasies of back-to-back titles, and South Africa, who at last won a World Cup knockout game, only for rain to interrupt their late batting surge against New Zealand.
These surges – South Africa had regularly scored at 12 an over for the last 15 – were the tournament’s most noteworthy phenomenon. This was the second World Cup since the emergence of franchise Twenty20 – and specifically the IPL – as the game’s fastest growing format, and its influence was obvious. So was the influence of the fielding restrictions applied in October 2012 to thin out boundary fielders, rendering them as ineffectual as widely spaced traffic cones; and of the modern bat, in its current stage of accelerated morphology.
There were 38 hundreds, nearly one every game, and 463 sixes, one every nine overs. In the fastest one-day international double-hundred, at Canberra’s Manuka Oval, Chris Gayle struck 16 of them for West Indies against Zimbabwe. In making 237 against West Indies at Wellington’s Westpac Stadium, Martin Guptill of New Zealand struck 11 – including the longest, measured at 110 metres. In the same match, Gayle hit eight sixes in a score of
West Indies were also on the receiving end when South Africa’s captain AB de Villiers entered during the 30th over at the SCG, and raced to the fastest 150 – by 19 balls – finishing with 162 from 66. His West Indian opposite number Jason Holder was left nursing the most expensive ten-over analysis in World Cup history: one for 104. This time Gayle perished in the second over, whereupon the crowd began to disperse.
There were arguably too many games of this type. In 23 matches the side batting first compiled 300 or more; on 20 occasions it sufficed to secure victory, usually by a comfortable margin. The close result, traditionally the sine qua non of limited-overs cricket, towards which everything was contrived, became a rarity. In fact, the batting of World Cups past was made to seem archaic. In the 1987 final, Mike Gatting was pilloried for attempting a reverse sweep at a left-arm spinner; now Glenn Maxwell was even reverse-lapping left-arm seamers. In the fabled Australia–South Africa Super Six match of 1999, Steve Waugh slog-swept one, reverberating, six; now de Villiers seemed capable of doing it every other ball, over deep fine leg, and from a metre outside off stump.
To restrain the Twenty20-charged strokeplay by taking wickets, the best captains turned to Test-intensity bowling and field-settings. Angles mattered, and five of the 12 top wicket-takers came from the left: Starc and Johnson, plus New Zealand’s Trent Boult and Daniel Vettori (the lone spinner), and Pakistan’s Wahab Riaz. Wahab was responsible for the competition’s most memorable spell, which would have removed a flinching Shane Watson in the quarter-final had Rahat Ali accepted a straightforward chance at fine leg. Pakistan had been the only team to defend fewer than 267, which they did twice, but lacked the batting to hurt the stronger teams.
Bouncers and yorkers were seen to advantage, not least from India’s Umesh Yadav and Mohammed Shami, South Africa’s Morne Morkel and New Zealand’s Tim Southee. But miss your length even slightly and the penalties were mandatory: low full tosses, and bouncers achieving only chest height, vanished into the crowd. Nor was there much scope for spin, other than Vettori’s native cunning, Imran Tahir’s busy variations and Ravichandran Ashwin’s beguiling loop. Slow-bowling ranks had been culled before the competition by the ICC’s campaign against outre´ actions, which precluded the presence of Saeed Ajmal, Sunil Narine and Sohag Gazi, and restricted Sachithra Senanayake to a single, muted, appearance; Prosper Utseya had repackaged himself as a medium-paced cutter, but was not trusted with a game. Australia proved spin was a bonus rather than a necessity: they fielded the specialist slow left-armer Xavier Doherty only once, and otherwise subsisted on 45 overs from part-timers Maxwell, Clarke and Steven Smith.
The cricket was not always of this character. There was batting along more orthodox lines from Sri Lanka’s Kumar Sangakkara, who compiled an unprecedented four consecutive centuries with characteristic ease and grace; Bangladesh’s Mahmudullah and Pakistan’s Misbah-ul-Haq acted as stabilising cores to brittle teams. A glimpse of former ways could also be seen in the methods of the four Associate nations – Afghanistan, Ireland, Scotland and the UAE – who lacked the power for glory, and preferred more traditional virtues, even if they also inflicted some blows to remember. Afghanistan’s Nawroz Mangal hit consecutive sixes – as high as they were long – off Mitchell Marsh at Perth; UAE tailender Mohammad Naveed fulfilled an ambition by lofting Dale Steyn deep into the Wellington terraces.
It was a satisfying World Cup in that the best four teams filled the last four places. Australia proved so strong they could leave Watson, their most experienced one-day all-rounder, out of one game, and barely use Marsh and George Bailey at all, despite important contributions to their opening victory, against England. Promoted to No. 3, Smith bounced back from a slow start; Maxwell, deployed when innings best suited him, was consistently destructive.
Yet the outstanding contributor was indisputably Starc, who in December had struggled as a Test match change-bowler; he ended the tournament as the world’s highest-ranked one-day bowler. Twelve of his 22 wickets at ten apiece were bowled, the last being the most important: McCullum, yorked third ball in the final.
To that point, McCullum had been devastating: from the mandatory powerplays he had looted 308 from 150 deliveries, with 42 fours and 17 sixes. His 77 from 25 balls against England, who had already been laid low by Southee’s seven for 33, broke his own record for the fastest World Cup fifty. He carved a path for batting comrades Guptill, Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor, Grant Elliott and Corey Anderson; he set the tone, in the field with bold calls and elastic saves, and off the field with decorum and humility. Save perhaps for Allan Border in 1987, no World Cup captain can have been so popular. A photograph of the conclusion of the semi-final at Eden Park, where Elliott – having belted Steyn for six to win the game – is offering his prone opponent a consoling hand-up, was a fair representation of New Zealand’s approach.
The expressions of the vanquished, as it dawned on South Africa that the World Cup had again exceeded their grasp, were haunting, complete with tears of grief and thousand-yard stares. But, even after hammering Sri Lanka in the quarter-finals, they were never quite settled in their line-up, following the last-minute omission of all-rounder Ryan McLaren and the failure of left-arm seamer Wayne Parnell; Steyn and Hashim Amla contributed spasmodically, and opener Quinton de Kock barely at all, leaving too much to de Villiers. A team launched on a tide of national goodwill returned home to a further confrontation with their board over racial quotas in domestic cricket, and reports that officials had insisted on the inclusion of (non-white) Vernon Philander in the semi-final ahead of (white) Kyle Abbott.
India aroused false hope by beating Pakistan and South Africa, batting and bowling purposefully, fielding with exuberance and vitality, and attracting staggering proportions of live support – the crowds for their first two games raised the roofs of Adelaide Oval and the MCG. Seemingly somnolent through the Border–Gavaskar Trophy and the one-day tri-series with Australia and England, MS Dhoni suddenly looked engaged, animated and intuitive. Yet victories against the UAE, West Indies, Ireland, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh hardly tested them. Faced again with an Australian team who had repeatedly had the better of them over the summer, they squandered the advantages of a slow, turning pitch and another boisterously patriotic audience in Sydney.
It marked the end of Duncan Fletcher’s tenure as head coach, after four mixed years.
The structure of twin pools and a quarter-final stage ensured it was a World Cup of two moods: 42 games to eliminate six of the 14 teams, and seven to reduce the remaining eight to one. “You’d have to have an absolute stinker not to make the quarter-finals,” observed Stuart Broad in advance; England duly undershot even low expectations. Their campaign began as it would continue, with a feeble error: square leg Chris Woakes dropped the scoreless Aaron Finch, who went on to a power-packed hundred. Their bowling was largely impotent, their batting puny, their leadership moribund: a cipher with the bat, Eoin Morgan exercised negligible on-field authority follow- ing his late ascent to the captaincy at the expense of the sacked Alastair Cook; a grim, beleaguered coach, Peter Moores seemed unable to relieve the off-field atmosphere of staleness and rigidity, even fear. Two and a half years earlier, England had been ranked one-day cricket’s No. 1 team; now they left the stage to the sound of their own feet. The only English player around for the concluding fortnight was Kevin Pietersen, basking in reflected inglory, as a commentator. By contrast, the Associates won many friends, of whom 21, 000 signed a petition protesting against the ICC’s decision to downsize the 2019 World Cup to ten teams. It was Ireland who sprang the first surprise of sorts, comfortably defeating a lackadaisical West Indies, whose players seemed more concerned with the IPL auction, which took place on the same day. The omission of the experienced all-rounders Dwayne Bravo and Kieron Pollard, ostensibly because they were associated with previous failures – though both had played central roles in the players’ strike in India a few months earlier – added to the sense of self-destruction. Gayle called it “victimisation” and “ridiculous selection”.
Coached by West Indian Phil Simmons, the Irish beat three of their first four opponents, including Zimbabwe, another Full Member. But when their net run-rate was whipsawed by a heavy loss to South Africa, they failed to advance beyond the group stages. West Indies added insult to injury by recruiting Simmons as coach.
The Associates might have done still better. The UAE had Zimbabwe 167 for five, including Brendan Taylor, chasing 286 at Nelson; Afghanistan had Sri Lanka 51 for four, including Sangakkara, chasing 233 at Dunedin. In six innings each, the UAE’s Shaiman Anwar made 311 runs – a record for an Associate batsman – Ireland’s captain William Porterfield 275, and Afghani- stan’s Samiullah Shenwari 254; Scotland’s medium-pacer Josh Davey took 15 wickets at 20. Shenwari and Davey were on opposite sides when their countries went to the last over and the last wicket in mutual pursuit of a maiden World Cup victory: the improbable pairing of Hamid Hassan and Shapoor Zadran added the decisive 19 runs from 16 balls before characteristically unrestrained celebrations. Shapoor approached the realms of folk hero.
The Cup’s four juniors showed sufficient potential to justify their presence, and to impress the likes of Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid – significant, perhaps, given that the tournament’s scale is the prerogative of India, the greatest contributor to, and beneficiary of, the global exchequer. Tendulkar himself suggested expanding future events to as many as 25 teams.
Otherwise, the ICC could claim to have had a satisfactory and trouble-free tournament. Player behaviour, after a preliminary warning, was good, New Zealand setting their high standard, and even Australia generally remaining within acceptable bounds, at least until the final, where Brad Haddin’s send- offs left an acrid taste. If anything, match referees could have been a bit more liberal – the fines dished out to Watson and Wahab after the quarter-final seemed oversensitive. The umpiring was mainly adequate, the occasional howler apart. Although neither affected a match’s outcome, Aleem Dar hashed two decisions at the MCG, depriving England’s James Taylor of a hundred by being unaware that a ball is dead once a decision is reviewed, and gifting one to India’s Rohit Sharma by deeming a waist-high full toss by Bangladesh’s Rubel Hossain to have been a no-ball.
The Sharma decision had unintended consequences, for it provoked voluble protests from ICC president Mustafa Kamal of Bangladesh, who alleged a conspiracy to bring about a “pre-decided” win by the “Indian Cricket Council”, and demanded an investigation to “inquire the issue to see if there’s anything to it”. This placed him on a collision course with his own chairman, India’s Narayanaswami Srinivasan, who reacted by presenting the trophy to Clarke himself, and was booed by the Melbourne crowd. Further enraged, Kamal threatened to tell all: “My rights were dishonoured. After I go back home, I will let the whole world know what’s happening in ICC. I will let the whole world know about those guys who are doing these mischievous things.” Not long after, he resigned, now insisting he had no complaints against anyone, and unconvincingly playing the statesman: “Let the game of cricket under the leadership of ICC touch the hearts and minds of every cricket lover.”
Apart from Clarke and Sangakkara signing off from one-day cricket, fans saw the last in the format of Vettori, Misbah, Mahela Jayawardene, Shahid Afridi and probably Brendan Taylor. The 29-year-old Taylor, named as twelfth man in the official ICC World Cup XI after a haul of 433 runs, left cricket in Zimbabwe holed beneath the waterline by signing a three-year Kolpak contract with Nottinghamshire. Needs must, of course. But it was a reminder that, while greatness may or may not be contagious, wealth assuredly isn’t. The rich got richer at the 2015 World Cup; the rest were left to hope for higher-quality crumbs.