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Cricket news - The meaning of the World Cup
Virat Kohli crossed a Rubicon in March when he led his Indian team out in an ODI against Australia wearing camouflage-style caps. Sanctioned by the ICC, fully endorsed by the BCCI, Kohli declared that his team of cricketers were honouring the soldiers who had lost their lives in a flare up of violence at the India-Pakistan border.
"It is a special cap," Kohli said with defiance to journalists, appearing more as a firebrand demagogue than a captain of a sports team. The message was clear: politics would not be halted at the boundary's edge as long as he was in charge.
Like MS Dhoni and Sachin Tendulkar - both of whom have honorary titles in the Indian military - Kohli was more than happy to serve as a non-violent weapon for India's armed forces. Now with Narendra Modi's hyper-nationalist BJP steering the nation further to the right after a sweeping victory at the general elections this month, the Cricket World Cup takes on greater significance for the planet's most popular national sports team.
For Dr Prashant Kidambi, associate professor in colonial urban history at the University of Leicester, and author of the soon to be published book Cricket Country: An Indian Odyssey in the Age of Empire, recent events emphasise a shift in Indian cricketing culture. While the sport has always been more than just a game on the subcontinent, this blurring of the divide between athlete and propaganda tool is one that does not sit well with the academic.
"This is deeply problematic," said Dr Kidambi. "The team is no longer made up of sportsmen playing a game but now represent something far more important. They are fighting for Indian pride. Defeat will raise questions of patriotism. Victory will serve as a lightning rod for jingoists. Can you imagine the response if Pakistan beat them [on June 16 in Manchester]? The same fans who wrap themselves in the national flag will be the first to turn on them should they fail."
When India were knocked out of the 2007 World Cup, Dhoni's house was stoned by irate fans. "It felt as if we had committed a big crime, maybe like a murder or terrorist or something," Dhoni said of his team's treatment when they landed back home. That was 12 years ago, before the IPL, before the World Cup win in 2011, before Modi and his dog-whistling populism.
Defeat this time could feel like the occupation of an invading force. In this polarising, dichotomous environment there is no space for nuance. Win the World Cup, and Kohli and his team will become immortals; a reminder that their country is a superpower on the rise. Fail, and they will be seen as bringing great shame to 17% of the world's population.
This contrasts with what the World Cup meant to India when Kapil Dev's team arrived in England in 1983, carrying a little hope but no expectation. "It was a miracle," Dr Kidambi said of their success. "It was also the first time the Indian public felt like they had achieved a great sporting triumph on the world stage. Today there is an expectation that they will win."
Dr Kidambi stresses the importance of the World Cup for Indian fans who do not have any other sporting accolades on which to hang their hat. "Because we do not have many Olympic or world titles there is only one avenue where we can invest our emotion," he said.
Perennial champions Australia do not share this problem. The country is ranked eighth on the all-time Summer Olympics medal table. Their tennis players - men and women - have collected a combined 137 Grand Slams. They boast two Rugby World Cups, 17 golf majors, a handful of motorsport championships and a laundry list of world records and titles across a wide variety of codes. They have also became regular participants in the soccer World Cup. As if that wasn't enough they have their own sport - the hugely popular Australian Rules Football - that commands a huge portion of the sporting space.
Success breeds success but it can also dull the senses - like a billionaire bored by yet another champagne dinner on a private yacht. This in part is why, according to renowned commentator Jim Maxwell, the World Cup carries less significance for the casual Australian cricket fan.
"Because Australia is good at just about every sport it turns its hand to, cricket has to compete for attention," Maxwell said. "And the allure of a world title isn't necessarily enough to turn heads like it might in other countries."
Cricket is one of the few codes that galvanises national interest in Australia. Though unified under one flag, different states retain some autonomy which is why the discourse remains largely tribal when it comes to sport. This year's World Cup will be jostling for space at the table with the ongoing Australian Football League and National Rugby League seasons.
"If I walked down the street and asked ten random people what they thought of the World Cup, their response would be, 'Which world cup?'" Maxwell said. "Whereas if I asked them about the Ashes they'd want to know when it started and where it was taking place. The World Cup just doesn't carry the same weight for the average supporter."
There is also the distance. Australians will need to stay awake at odd hours if they wish to intimately engage with their side's exploits in latest. Of course a string of abject defeats or resounding triumphs will boost interest - and there's the intrigue around the impact of David Warner and Steve Smith following their return from isolation - but mediocrity will likely be met with shrugged shoulders and indifference.
"Because it won't be watched or listened to by a great deal of people it won't carry the same importance as the last edition which was at home," Maxwell explained. "Enthusiasm will depend largely on the headlines the team generates."
The same cannot be said for England, who kick off their own tournament on the back of four years' worth of PR goodwill. This is the showpiece that Trevor Bayliss and Eoin Morgan have been building towards for the duration of their tenure together. Sure, this year's home Ashes would be a welcome addition to the trophy cabinet, but no matter what they say publicly, the ECB and their captain and coach value this World Cup above all other prizes.
It's not just that they want to win. They have never been better equipped to do so. Defeat to Australia in a mostly meaningless warm-up hasn't shifted the bookies' odds. Most betting companies have the hosts at 2/1 favourites. They know the grounds they're playing on. They have the most complete group of power hitters in the world. Arguably no other side has possessed as much firepower from numbers one to eight in the history of the game.
This groundswell of expectation and the tangible vision of a first ever World Cup chafes against traditional English sensibilities. That is the summation, delivered with equal parts humour and seriousness, of stand-up comedian and BBC commentator Andy Zaltzman.
"It does make me uncomfortable, I must admit," he said. "We like being the underdogs and there is no way that is an option this time round. Bearing in mind England's proud World Cup heritage - where they have failed to reach the semi-finals in the last six tournaments - it is somewhat anxiety-inducing to now be considered champions elect."
Despite the unease he feels, Zaltzman sees the positive side of this uncharacteristic optimism. Cricket in the UK is a game of the middle class. Behind a paywall on terrestrial TV since the halcyon summer of 2005, it has cost a substantial sum of money to follow the team's exploits. Factoring in the price of equipment and coaching needed to develop a skill set, and the mass appeal of football, and this most English of pastimes continuously finds itself veering from one existential crisis to the next.
But punters love a winner and this England team is full of them. "Perhaps if England had won one of the early tournaments then the World Cup would have meant more in the past," Zaltzman said, highlighting the pitiable performances of the 1990s and 2000s as a reason for its cultural decline.
"Now that they are on the cusp of something special, I imagine that this edition will be the most significant in our history. It's at home, it's a diverse and charismatic team, they play an exciting brand of cricket and they could actually win it. There is no telling how many new fans might be on board once it's all over."
But, as any South African fan will tell you, it's the hope that kills. For the Proteas, the Cricket World Cup is synonymous with heartache and disbelief as a generation of world beaters found multiple ways of beating themselves.
What does the World Cup mean to South Africa? That is a complicated question. Mostly it means disappointment but there is also whimsy in there too. Many outsiders, and a few cynics on the inside, may view the teams of Hansie Cronje, Shaun Pollock, Graeme Smith and AB de Villiers as bumbling Mr Beans stumbling over their shoelaces. But equally there is a doomed romance in South Africa's relationship with the World Cup that has its own brilliance.
Cricket is a game built on unreachable goals. Every batsman fails more than he succeeds and who will ever forget Lance Klusener's heroics in 1999 before his spectacular crash in Birmingham's semi-final? Or the sight of Dale Steyn, the greatest fast bowler of this century, lying flat on his back as New Zealand's South African Grant Elliott whacked him for six in 2015?
Now, without the crushing weight of expectation, perhaps Faf du Plessis and his team can find new meaning in the World Cup, much like New Zealand have in the past. Skippered by the softly spoken Kane Williamson, everyone's second favourite side have often used the tournament to underline just how likeable they are.
Contrasting their bigger, brasher cousins to the west, the Kiwis won the battle of hearts and minds in 2015. Despite losing to Australia in the final, there was little debate over which of the two Antipodean nations were the people's choice. They also happen to be tough competitors and it wouldn't be the greatest shock in the game's history of they manage to lift the trophy in July.
Though the World Cup has been reduced to ten teams, there will be a wide array of meaning for each player and fan to build a narrative upon. Except for England, Australia and New Zealand, every team represents a nation that can be clumsily categorised as 'developing'. Global sporting events often mean the chance to bloody the nose of a more powerful foe.
The term 'minnow' is now a disparaging shorthand but it can also prove a unifying force for players who view themselves as underdogs. Imran Khan's 'cornered tiger' mantra spurred his unfancied team to glory in 1992. West Indies bullied the world on the cricket field for the better part of two decades because that was the only realm in which they could do so.
The West Indies and Pakistan are in some ways spiritual companions. Former world champions, engrossingly unpredictable, and each held back by circumstance - the West Indies by years of calamitous administration, Pakistan by their inability to play fixtures at home. Both also love causing upsets. West Indies' T20 WC victory over England and Pakistan's Champions Trophy defeat of India in 2017 were timely reminders that glory can be found in unlikely places.
For Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, likely the three weakest teams on the field, this tournament could be a means of distraction from hardships back home. Its significance could be felt not in victory or defeat but in the mere act of participation (though all three will undoubtedly have loftier ambitions).
Over 2.5 million Afghans are living as refugees in a foreign land, second only to Syria's 5.6 million as the most displaced people on the planet. Every player in the team will have a war story, either recalled from memory or through the shared pain of a loved one, ensuring that just being at the World Cup has meaning.
Bangladesh and Sri Lanka know what pain is. Over this year's Easter weekend, hundreds of Sri Lankans lost their lives in a coordinated terrorist attack. Despite social and economic struggles of its own, Bangladesh's government has opened its doors to over 700,000 Rohingya refugees fleeing genocide from neighbouring Myanmar. Compounding the challenges these poor nations face is the impending threat of a warming planet and subsequent rising sea levels that will cause untold devastation to these vulnerable areas.
Real world issues such as these are not front of mind for those wearing the Three Lions, the Protea or the Southern Cross. But they are for some who will compete at the World Cup. Any discussion about the meaning of a cricket tournament seems trite by comparison.
And yet that is precisely why this World Cup means so much to so many people. It's a six-week jamboree that will bring disparate languages and ethnicities to the game's spiritual home. There is a lot of ugliness in this world today. But in the brief moment that the ball is suspended in the air between the bowler's hand and the batter at the other end, everything else dissipates into irrelevance. And what could mean more than that?
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