London, May 29: It was in 1999 that the Euro as a currency was established, Nigeria terminated military rule, the Scottish Parliament was officially opened, and the United States handed over complete administration of the Panama Canal to the Panamanian government. It was also in 1999 that England last hosted the ICC Cricket World Cup.
The world has changed humongously in the last 20 years; by extension, so has the world of cricket. The essentially simple game of bat-and-ball has been taken by storm by the Twenty20 revolution, by day-night, pink-ball Test cricket, and the Decision Review System. After 24 years of unquestioned reign, Sachin Tendulkar has ceded the title of the best batsman in the world to Virat Kohli. But even in change, the one constant has been the pre-eminent status of the 50-over World Cup, success in which allows the team to proudly carry the tag of the World champions for the next four years.
When England host South Africa at The Oval in the English capital on Thursday (May 30), it will not only kick off the 12th edition of the World Cup, but also herald the beginning of another journey toward the Promised Land. They say before every World Cup that no previous edition has been more open; for once, the hype is justified, with several of the ten protagonists in the running for the last-four spots even if England, for the first time ever, and India can lay claim to being the first among equals.
For the first time since Australia and New Zealand co-hosted the tournament in 1992, the format for this year's World Cup will pit all teams against each other in a round-robin first stage that will morph into the knockout semi-finals. The extended grind towards the top four places will necessitate all outfits to be on their toes match after match. Admittedly, a slight hiccup won't necessarily be decisive, but as nations seek to ride on momentum and confidence to the business end of the competition, physical fitness and mental fortitude will jostle with non-negotiable skills for prominence.
Seldom have England gone into a World Cup with the kind of awe-inspiring form and an understanding of the nuances of the 50-over game than Eoin Morgan's band of warriors now. Chastened massively after being spanked into submission by Bangladesh in Adelaide and therefore jettisoned from the 2015 World Cup at the first stage itself, England have since embraced all-out aggression, picking personnel carefully, giving them the freedom to express themselves with the bat, and allowing them the leeway to flourish that constant chopping and changing never can.
They have been rewarded for resetting their focus with a succession of muscular batting displays over the last four years. They are unbeaten in their last 10 One-Day International series of two matches or more; only their propensity to self-destruct under pressure prevents them from attracting the overwhelming favouritism that their form would warrant.
The hosts will be particularly wary of the threat India are certain to pose. While the general consensus is that India's batting primarily revolves their electric top-three of Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, the only man with three ODI double-hundreds, and their peerless captain Kohli, how can one overlook the ebullience of Hardik Pandya and the impossible-to-buy nous, experience and class of Mahendra Singh Dhoni? Just as each one of them is capable of winning games single-handedly with the bat, there is a glittering array of bowling riches at Kohli's disposal, spearheaded by that rare gem Jasprit Bumrah who is by a distance the best white-ball bowler in world cricket.
It was with the World Cup in mind that India veered away from finger spin to the wristy variety in 2017. Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav are today the most potent spin threats in limited-overs versions. Furthermore, India have enjoyed playing white-ball cricket in England in the recent past, though history in itself will count for little when play is called on Thursday.
Australia, seemingly recovered from the shock of Sandpapergate of last year, have marked a remarkable resurgence with series wins away against India and Pakistan in the last couple of months, and look set to mount a strong challenge in defence of their title. David Warner and Steve Smith have seamlessly reintegrated into the set-up, helped by a mountain of runs, while the bowling is versatile, experienced and well-rounded. It will take a brave man to disregard the five-time champions' prospects.
New Zealand and South Africa will be in the mix, of course, especially if conditions assist the quicker bowlers, but the excitement quotient will come from effervescent Afghanistan, mercurial Pakistan and explosive but impossibly inconsistent Windies. The last two, particularly, can swing wildly from sublime to ridiculous many times in just the one game; if they can guard against implosive tendencies, they could yet have a say.
Bangladesh have shown a propensity to punch above their weight in global tournaments in recent times and will derive confidence from their semi-final appearance in the Champions Trophy in England in 2017, while Sri Lanka will need a Herculean effort if they are to remain relevant. The 1996 champions have fallen on hard times; by recalling players after three and four years in the wilderness, they have perhaps already sold themselves short.
Nowhere does the weather have as significant an impact on a game of cricket than in England. With pitches expected to be generally flat, seven weeks of bright sunshine could make it an Indian summer. But if the clouds gather ominously, pendulous swings of fortune should abound. Bring it on!
(R Kaushik is a cricket writer who has followed the sport closely for nearly three decades, and is covering his seventh World Cup)