T20 World Cup fights to keep romance alive in face of uncomfortable truths | T20 World Cup

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It must be difficult organising a major International Cricket Council event. You are tasked with bringing together the disparate corners of the cricket world in a festival of joyous inclusiveness, in a way that financially benefits Australia, England and India, the three most influential nations in the sport. You need a tense competitive format that makes sure that the most lucrative teams play lots of games before any risk of being eliminated.

You have to promote your message of saving the environment by filling the stadiums with recycling stations labelled with the oil sponsor that pumps out 12.3m barrels a day. In between times you advertise your charity partnership to support women and girls playing cricket, while the same oil company funds the Saudi monarchy and one of your top-ranked teams represents a nation ruled by the Taliban.

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The concern with the format dates back to the 50-over World Cup of 2007. When India and Pakistan were both knocked out their respective four-team groups in the preliminary stages, it meant they had played only three times. With their exit disappeared a vast television audience either side of the Radcliffe Line. With whispers of “never again”, the structure of the tournament changed and has kept changing. In 2019, each team played nine times before the knockout games began.

The 20-over World Cup is not quite so bloated, but still: perhaps a few people at the ICC would have been relieved that Australia’s match against England was washed out on Friday. Filling the Melbourne Cricket Ground for a marquee bout between two great rivals was Plan A, and a financially robust one with lots of TV viewers to capture and north of 90,000 tickets to sell. But that did not anticipate biblical precipitation, an Arctic weather front, and the fact that both teams would be on the brink of being knocked out of contention after two matches of five in the group stage.

It did not factor in an excellent day for Ireland earlier in the week, having technically knocked off the English in consecutive World Cup matches. Sure, the last time was early 2011, and sure, they might only have beaten England one other time across all formats in the intervening years, but those three wins come from only a dozen games in that span. With perhaps less foresight, nor did it factor in an Australian loss to the cheerful troupe from New Zealand – World Cup finalists in 2015, World Cup finalists in 2019, T20 World Cup finalists in 2021, and current World Test Championship winners.

Sikandar Raza celebrates with Regis Chakabva after dismissing Shan Masood
Sikandar Raza celebrates with Regis Chakabva after dismissing Shan Masood during Zimbabwe’s unexpected victory over Pakistan. Photograph: Richard Wainwright/AAP

Those New Zealanders are a lot of the ICC’s problems. Yes, they represent the triumph of determination over disadvantage, the indomitable spirit of the challenge, all of those wonderful sporting aspirations. They also represent a sales market of five million people, compared to the order of magnitude greater awaiting sales messages elsewhere. We love your plucky underdog shtick, but would you mind plucking the underdog somewhere else? The fur is getting all over the sofa.

Then you throw rain into the mix. Most sports don’t have to worry about being cancelled if things get wet. Cricket remains a special flower in the deluge. Tournament rain produces instant meteorologists, scoffing at the idiocy of playing a certain match in a certain place at a certain time. The same happened during the early weeks of the 2019 World Cup, the ending of which was deemed satisfactory. Rain happens wherever cricket does – that’s how the grass grows. October may be slightly wetter than other Melbourne months, but it’s drier than any cricket months in Sydney or Brisbane. The rainfall tends to be brief and scattered. This year it anomalously isn’t. So be it.

The Australia-England washout, then, cost the ICC some revenue, but it does keep two valuable properties alive for two more games. Australia is the host, driver of people through turnstiles and, thanks to historical aura, still the team that everybody else wants to beat. England have been the best in limited-over formats for years, led by one of the best to wield a bat in calculated short-form anger, Jos Buttler. Any administrator’s mud-map would have had those two teams progressing to the semi-finals from one group, with India and anyone else from the other.

But of course, the bottom line is not why we play or watch sport. We play it for Zimbabwe defending four runs from the last four balls against Pakistan, snatching a game out of the fire thanks to a spell from Sikandar Raza, who started impersonating Sunil Narine’s bowling style only in his mid-30s. We watch it for Ireland’s clinical dissection of England’s far more vaunted bowlers during the fielding restrictions, setting up a rain-adjusted win. We watch it for the next result like this. Those results may not improve the finances of the global organisation, but here’s betting that some of the organisers enjoy these anomalies much more than the results that do.

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