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ICC World Cup: The dance of the minnows

Whendeaths and sufferings of thousands of innocents evoke muted reactions but perceived wrong application of words causes a furore thenyou know you are living in a world whose sensitivity has a strange set of priorities. So, when you say Afghanistan upset England, you are being insensitive to the former’s cause. Youaren’t respecting their talent and hard work. Underdog, apparently, is a more appropriate term to use. And so we shall.

“I think I’m not sure I would term it as an upset if I’m honest,” said Afghanistan coach Jonathan Trott. “I think when we say an upset, I think it’s a disservice to the guys in the changing room. I think maybe you’d say, you know, when we go into a side, underdogs or whatever, but it’s not an upset. We played well, these guys work hard and they deserve to win,” the former England batter emphasised.

Of course, they deserved to win. And no result on a sporting field — be it team or individual sport — brings more joy than an underdog beating a favourite. It can be vicarious, even visceral or pure astonishment at the possibilities that sport can throw up.And the ongoing ICC Men’s World Cup has already given us more than its share of shocks. Afghanistan stunned defending champions England before rubbing salt into Pakistan’s already deep wounds with one of their most convincing wins. Sandwiched between them was the Netherlands’ victory over South Africa, one of the tournament’stop performers.

While not in the same category, Sri Lanka’s humiliation of England in Bengaluru on Thursday was by all means a surprise outcome. The Lankans now have a 5-0 record against England in the 50-over World Cup since the 1999edition, a streak that’s seldom spoken about.

Generally, such results throw up a multi-team tournament wide open but in this case they have only firmed up the chances of the current top four progressing to the semifinals for there have been too many results that haven’t stuck to the script. Pakistan, for all practical purposes, are out of contention while England’s hopes are hanging by the thinnest of threads. With two strong contenders all but out, it leaves the current top four — South Africa, India, New Zealand and Australia — overwhelming favourites to progress to the semifinals unless there’s a twist in the tale.

Underdogs beating fancied teams benefits the game at multiple levels. We need to go back to 40 years when the mother of all shock wins changed the face of cricket. Literally no one, including the majority in the team, gave India a chance to beat West Indies but as fate would have it, Kapil Dev’s men stunned the mighty Caribbeans not once but twice – first in the group stage and then in the final of the 1983 World Cup – to change the cricket world order.

Afghanistan or the Netherlands’ wins may not herald such a tectonic shift but they would go a long way in sustaining the game, especially the 50-over cricket whose future has been in question for some time now. Caught between ICC’s efforts to preserve the primacy of Tests and the growing demand for T20s, the fortunes of ODIs have been dwindling gradually, and the authorities are looking at the 50-over World Cup, still the ICC’s flagship event, to shore up the format. It would hardly serve the intended purpose if the same teams continue to dominate, the monotony that ODIs have been accused of. 

While the T20 format, given its duration, provides a greater levelling field for the minnows while competing against the traditional powerhouses, ODI demands much more discipline, better skill sets, temperament and mental fortitude. This format has no place for one-trick ponies. Look at what has happened to the West Indies…    

It’s both ironic and incredible that Afghanistan, a country which is looking for hope, is presenting ODI the hope it needs. While the impact of these results could fuel the growth of the game in countries like the Netherlands where cricket has few takers, for a country like Afghanistan it means much more than just a win on a cricket field. 

With their lives torn by decades of war and multiple natural disasters, Afghans have shown steely determination to overcome the odds. Their heroics sure have brought momentary joy and relief to the lives of millions in the country, but somewhere in Kabul they would have also inspired a kid to become the next Rahmanullah Gurbaz or a Noor Ahmed. It is also a lesson to learn for the more privileged countries with cricketing pedigree like the West Indies and Zimbabwe both of whom failed to qualify for the quadrennial event.

The Board of Control for Cricket in India, which hand-held Afghanistan as they took their baby steps into the big league, can take some credit in the team’s growth but the fact remains that they still have to play their home games in other countries and train in someone else’s facilities. Yet, they have shown that drive and hunger to not just compete with the best but beat them as well.

The Netherlands, who had beaten South Africa in the T20 World Cup as well last year, are a rag-tag team of migrants from the sub-continent, a few former SA cricketers and some natives, a few of whom depend on day jobs for a living. Cricket isn’t big enough to be a career option yet but it’s their passion for the game that keeps them at it, and it’s gratifying to see them topple a big team. 

And this World Cup has given, not just one but three such moments that have enlivened the tournament and provided hope at multiple levels. 

(Published 28 October 2023, 16:09 IST)

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