The scoreboard at the Oval has a giant of a statement pinned under it, “The World’s Greatest Cricket Celebration”, and it gets under way this afternoon.
Ok, so the Cricket World Cup is here. The last time it was played on English soil in 1999, South African fast bowler Kagiso Rabada, Indian pacer Kuldeep Yadav and his teammate leg-spinner Yuzvendra Chahal were toddlers.
Indian captain Virat Kohli was in junior school, and Caribbean batsman Chris Gayle was a few months away from his first-class debut.
In 1999, Manchester United went on to win the Champions League, and Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi slugged it out for the top spot in the ATP rankings.
As cricket’s biggest spectacle unfolds once more in England after 20 years, yet another English club would be lifting the Champions League title this Sunday, while the Rabadas and the Kohlis are the top draws at the World Cup.
A lot remains eerily similar or suggestive of being the same, while a lot has changed in ODI cricket.
England, which was thrice runners-up in the first five editions, was unable to win even a single knock-out game after that. The hosts go into this tournament as the top ranked team in this format. A title win, a first for them, might lift a bit of the gloom that has descended since the Brexit mess became the biggest talking point in the country.
Old timers though would recall, perhaps with a sense of anguish, that England did win a cricket World Cup, or sort of a world cup, when they won a hastily coined three-match tourney by tobacco giant Rothmans in 1966 at a time the shorter format of the game aspired to be more than just novelty.
Fate played a cruel hand. The Bobby Moore-led England football team won the FIFA World Cup that year, and Colin Cowdrey’s men and their triumph was duly forgotten.
Almost a decade later, the ICC finally got its act together and came up with the official World Cup in 1975.
1975 turned out to be a remarkable year, for cricket and otherwise.
India faced its tryst with an authoritarian government. Sholay opened to an unbelievable reception in cinema halls (that’s what they were called back then). Mohammad Ali beat Joe Frazier to win the “Thrilla in Manila”, and Arthur Ashe beat Jimmy Connors to become the first coloured player to win the Wimbledon.
Cricket, too, embarked on a new journey, with the runaway success of a limited-overs tournament as the first World Cup was hosted by England.
West Indies destroyed all competition and became the kings of cricket, and when they successfully defended the title four years on, their dominance seemed absolute.
Back then, a pound could fetch a ticket to a group stage match, and a couple more would get you in for the final.
Players would even have to raise a din, as would the rival skippers before the ’79 final, for their team members to be handed three tickets each.
The ICC World Cup trophy. AP file photo
The game changed dramatically over the next two editions of the World Cup. In 1983, rank outsider India won the first World Cup, beating the mighty West Indies in Lord’s.
It ushered in Indian cricket’s everlasting summer.
Another change happened after that. The tournament left English shores for the first time in and travelled to the subcontinent. India and Pakistan hosted the Reliance World Cup in 1987.
Matches became shorter as innings were reduced by 10 overs to a maximum of 50.
Sunil Gavaskar, who batted through 60 overs for a painstaking 36 not out in the first ever World Cup match in 1975, blazed his way to a magnificent hundred against New Zealand at Nagpur in ’87 while nearing the end of his career.
These days, many credit the IPL for the way Indian spectators have taken to their favourite international stars like AB de Villiers, but rewind to November 8, 1987, at Eden Gardens. A hundred thousand and a few more shouted themselves hoarse as they backed Allan Border’s Australia against England in the World Cup final. Australia won.
The look and feel of the World Cup has changed dramatically over the years. Also, the game itself, the format, has undergone major transformation over the past two decades and more.
Football, tennis and basketball have all tweaked their rules, but no sport has been at it as consistently as cricket, trying to change the rules to make the game more exciting.
The results, though, obviously favour batters more, putting the onus on the bowlers to find ways to tweak their own game.
The rationing of the number of fielders outside the 30-yard circle in various phases of the innings has now put the onus on the bowler to come up with new tricks.
A front-foot no-ball or a high full toss brings a penalty of a free hit.
In 2012, the most significant change was introduced – two new balls would be used in ODIs so that the cherry kept its hardness for the batters, while cutting out reverse swing.
Add to it the batting friendly tracks, and it presents the best opportunity for batsmen to make merry while bowlers look for newer ways to survive the onslaught.
250-odd was a good score, but that was ages ago. These days, 300-plus happens in every fourth innings!
While T20 cricket has helped batsmen innovate and further hone their skill to hit bigger, it has also shifted the balance a bit more towards the batters. Keep aside the handful of mystery spinners and young tearaways, batting has simply evolved faster than bowling.
And it’s not just the magnitude of runs, but the manner in which they are scored now that has a telling effect on the dynamics of the limited-overs format. Twenty years ago, some of the best finishers ran more than half their runs, compared to the modern-day ones who clear the ropes.
The nineties had a rare breed of bowlers who would move the ball a wee bit from a nagging off-stumpish line, at about no pace. So slow were they that batsmen would find it impossible to hit through the line, or go for the maximum. Fast forward to the game now, and you would know it’s a breed long gone.
Only four fielders outside the 30-yard circle in the middle overs, plus two new balls to ensure it doesn’t lose its hardness, and you know why the dibbly-dobbly era is a thing of the past. Rather, you get to see your strike bowlers coming in during this phase.
Picking up wickets in the middle overs has now become the most important thing for the fielding captain, and more often than not, it is here that we now see a drastic change in the way the game is played.
Spin, and most definitely wrist spin, has become the go-to option for almost every international captain in the middle overs. This World Cup, every side, other than the West Indies and Bangladesh, has a frontline leggie in the squad.
What hasn’t changed though is the one thing that every team going into this World Cup faces – the burden of expectation.
Host England, who are being touted as favourites, are wary of the widespread ridicule they would face at home for another failure to win the Cup.
The Proteas who know the cruel tag they carry for their predecessors’ unsuccessful attempts to land cricket’s biggest prize.
And of course, Team India know the nation expects them to never falter and win everything in sight and land a third World Cup title.
Let the games begin.
Sanjeeb Mukherjea is a sports television personality. An award-winning journalist, Mukherjea is also the lead anchor and commentator for the 2019 World Cup for Star Sports 1 Bangla