Commentator Sanjay Manjrekar earned the ire of Ravindra Jadeja by referring to him as a “bits and pieces" cricketer, but the phrase accurately describes the way most of us who don’t work in cricket consumed the 2019 Cricket World Cup. The 3pm IST starts under gloomy English skies meant that we often missed some fine spells of first innings seam bowling. However, even sneaky glances at TV and phone screens were enough to reassure us that the art of bowling is far from dead, as had been suggested by those who were baying for 400-plus innings totals this World Cup.
To call it a bowler’s tournament would not be a stretch, and that can only be good for the game. Australia’s Mitchell Starc picked up 27 wickets—a record for a single edition of the World Cup. His yorker to dismiss England’s Ben Stokes was unarguably the ball of the tournament, a scented weapon that hissed and swung with its own inviolable logic. Speaking of yorkers, more than a few were let down by wily master Lasith Malinga of Sri Lanka, in defiance of his jelly belly and critics who keep insisting that the old dog has no tricks. India’s Jasprit Bumrah, Malinga’s rightful heir to the throne of Yorkerland, also managed to land them at will, cramping batsmen for space and chipping away at Indian fans’ decades-long inferiority complex in the pace bowing department.
It is tempting to believe that batting is the easier, and therefore, the lesser joy. To the viewer, bowling comes as a series of compound actions requiring the concerted strain of physical and mental muscle. Batting, seemingly, requires a single flick of the willow-wand to turn dust to gold. But the truth is that this effect of batting as indistinguishable from magic is made possible only by the double whammy of audacious talent and the willingness to spend hours perfecting technique while no one is watching.
This World Cup, plenty of the usual suspects made short work of displaying the genius while rendering the labour invisible: Rohit Sharma pulled lazily, Carlos Brathwaite heaved lustily, Babar Azam drove smoothly. Then, there were also newer, precocious talents who announced their arrival on the world stage. Trinidadian Nicholas Pooran ensured Barbadian singer Rihanna enjoyed her day at the cricket with some big pulls in a losing cause against Sri Lanka. Twenty one-year-old batsman Avishka Fernando gave us a few miniature masterpieces, his upper cuts and short-arm jabs reflecting the legacy of Lankan greats like Sanath Jayasuriya. A subjective choice for shot of the tournament is a crackling cover drive he played off England’s own young hero Jofra Archer.
Redemption stories can animate even the most impassive cynic, and this World Cup was hardly short of them. Sandpaper Gate penance completed, Steve Smith and David Warner signalled their return to international cricket in characteristically clinical fashion—Warner finished as the second-highest run-getter (only 1 run behind Sharma) and Smith grinded out four half-centuries while others around him struggled.
Less than two years ago, England’s Stokes had spent a night in jail after being involved in a brawl outside a nightclub in Bristol. A court cleared him only in August last year, by which time he had already been forced to miss England’s 2017-18 Ashes campaign. With his “almost superhuman" (in the words of England captain Eoin Morgan) performances in this tournament, the ghosts of that night in Bristol were definitively laid to rest.
Mohammad Amir, forever prodigal in England and whose name was not included in Pakistan’s preliminary World Cup squad, returned to the country of his 2010 shame and emerged as the pick of the Pakistani bowlers, with 17 wickets in eight matches at an average of 21.05 and economy rate under 5.
Amir’s consistency was, however, not replicated by his team, which alternately shimmered and fizzled. Pakistan’s fans coped with the only feasible mechanism available to the millions dealing with the vagaries of sport and life in South Asia: humour. This particular brand of humour was not lost on Afghanistan captain Gulbadin Naib either. In a press conference the day before his already-eliminated side faced Bangladesh in what was a must-win game for them, he charmingly recited an Urdu couplet: Hum toh dube hain sanam, tumhe bhi lekar dubenge (I am doomed, my love, I will also take you down with me). Close observers of Afghanistan’s cricket (and political—what do they know of cricket who only cricket know, C.L.R. James had written) history would have perceived in his utterance a summary of the increasingly complex relationships between his country and the other South Asian cricket-playing nations.
And to cap it all, the method and the madness, there was that final. England pipping New Zealand to the title by virtue of an obscure rule after the teams were tied on runs with 102 overs played. An 800-word look-back is not the place to attempt to summarize the events of that epic. In any case, cricket writers have written their paeans, technical experts have pontificated about rules and the players have celebrated and wallowed. Where does that leave the ordinary fan? Grateful, just grateful, that for a moment in time, the possibilities of this limited world were stretched and greatness could almost be tasted and touched.