A few weeks ago, Pakistani batsman Haris Sohail earned a dubious, global distinction. Under rather bizarre circumstances, he was named “The World’s Worst Person In Sports,” on ESPN’s program “Olbermann” in the United States, hosted by Keith Olbermann. In the run-up to a one-day-international (ODI) match against New Zealand, Sohail had complained of being spooked by a ghost in a Christchurch hotel room. He believed he had been shaken awake by a “supernatural” presence, in the middle of the night. The hotel would later confirm that it knew of “no active ghost” on its premises.
It’s not known whether Sohail still remains dazed by his supposed ghostly encounter. But in his brief knock during Pakistan’s unsuccessful chase against India in Sunday’s World Cup match, Sohail appeared to be in hypnotizing form. In the final ball of the fifth over of Pakistan’s innings, he dreamily leant into a drive off Umesh Yadav to send the ball hurtling to the cover boundary. Two deliveries later, Sohail repeated the trick, this time caressing a ball from Mohammad Shami, with minimal effort, for a brace between point and cover. Both the strokes were marked by an indolent, almost entrancing elegance, somewhat reminiscent of the great Pakistani opener Saeed Anwar. Sohail eventually departed for 36, leaving his team in the lurch, chiefly due to an inability to rotate the strike. But it was evident even during his short stay that, like Anwar, he possesses a classical technique, a rare gift of timing, and a penchant for a languid flash on the offside.
To Pakistanis, possibly, Sohail’s talents are well known. He’s 26 years old, and he’s played more than 50 first class matches, scoring 11 centuries, and averaging more than 50 per innings. But for the rest of the world, notwithstanding how globalized cricket is today, until his recent complaints about a paranormal presence, Haris Sohail was an unfamiliar name. Sohail, it seemed, was picked for his country’s World Cup squad more on account of his domestic reputation and perceived talent than any prodigious run-making for Pakistan. But World Cups, as we’ve so often seen before, can be the making of unheralded players, not merely for relative youngsters such as Sohail, but also for more experienced players picked for their status rather than form. Sohail might be no ordinary talent, but as Russell Jackson wrote in this month’s The Cricket Monthly, World Cups tend to make “household names of even the most honest toilers.”
The tournament, which was only belatedly introduced in 1975, is a splendid idea. It comes around only every four years, bringing with it a magnetic appeal. World Cup memories are often distinct; they tend to stand on a definite pedestal. With the advent of the Indian Premier League (say what you might of its legitimacy as sport), there is a greater awareness amongst the cricket-watching community today of more obscure talents from around the world. This often isn’t a product of any particular exhibition of greatness, but more a result of the amount of televised cricket that is played today, and the increasing (even if misplaced) relevance of Twenty20. Yet, as Siddhartha Vaidhyanathan pointed out, also in The Cricket Monthly, “No other cricket tournament – not the Champions Trophy, not the World T20, not the IPL, definitely not the Champions League – inspires anywhere near the mythology of the 50-over World Cup. The four-year gap whets the appetite. Each tournament carries weight.”
Much of the fun at a World Cup is contained in the opportunity that it gives us to watch players we’ve never seen before, and, in some cases, players of altogether unknown reputations. When an unlikely figure chisels a performance of repute at the World Cup, it stays etched in your mind. Sohail has quite possibly hit several lazily elegant cover drives in his short international career, but while you might overlook them when played in a mundane, limited overs game at Wellington or Dubai, the World Cup provides a stage for exhibition on an elaborately grand scale.
Young as a player might be, the World Cup also brings with it enormous expectations. After all, there are only 15 players selected by each country. To watch these players, especially the more inexperienced of them, striving to fulfil the belief vested in them is among the tournament’s foremost sights. Take Adam Milne of New Zealand, for instance: he’s only 22, but his reputation as a quick bowler precedes him. Against Sri Lanka on Saturday, he was far from the match-turner, but he showed us glimpses of why he’s so highly regarded. Time and again, he troubled Sri Lanka’s experienced opening batsman Tillakaratne Dilshan with his pace, and later rattled the southpaw Dimuth Karunaratne’s off stump with a stunningly quick delivery that dipped inwards off the seam. Milne’s lithe frame tends to belie his reputation. But it also allows him to steam into the crease, and hurl deliveries sometimes in excess of 150km per hour. At a World Cup, pace is a quality of huge premium. And especially at a World Cup, pace makes for exhilarating viewing.
One-day games tend to replicate a frequently re-told short story. But when these tales are woven together to produce a world champion they tend to create a new fable, in which each chapter plays a decisive role in the larger narrative. Most World Cups tend to make a new star, to herald the arrival of a talent. Inzamam Ul-Haq was a fledgling young player who had yet to make his test debut when he scored a match-winning 60 off 37 balls against New Zealand in the semi-finals of the 1992 World Cup. Sanath Jayasuriya had played plenty of matches for Sri Lanka by the time the 1996 tournament came around, but few expected him to modernize limited-overs cricket with such brutal hitting at the start of an innings. Shoaib Akhtar came to prominence in the lead-up to the 1999 World Cup, but it was his performance in the semi-final of the tournament against New Zealand that truly signalled his arrival. On that day, he bowled with gay abandon and furious pace on a dry Manchester pitch, returning three Kiwi wickets, including Stephen Fleming off a ruthless, in-swinging yorker that was, in Tony Greig’s words, “absolutely unreal”.
At this year’s World Cup, there are many young players, all brimming with talent, hoping to make the tournament their own. Australia’s Pat Cummins made his debut in 2011 at the age of 18 in a test match against South Africa, and picked up six wickets in the second innings to lead his team to victory at the Wanderers in Johannesburg. But, plagued by injury, he hasn’t played a test match since. He has also only played 10 ODIs, and, yet, here he is, as part of his country’s World Cup squad. Cummins wasn’t in the eleven for Australia’s opening fixture, but given the tournament’s duration, and given his vast potential, it’s likely he’ll get his chance. And when he does, it ought to make an enthralling show.
Ireland’s 22-year-old left arm spinner George Dockrell, on the other hand, has already made his mark on this World Cup. He spun through the spine of the West Indian batting line-up on Monday, helping his team to a memorable victory. This isn’t Dockrell’s first World Cup, but it’s quite possible that it might prove his most telling. For Dockrell’s left arm spinning counterpart, 21-year-old Axar Patel from India, though, competition from more established spinners makes it harder to break into the eleven. But much like Cummins, Patel will be hoping that he’ll get his chance at some point. South Africa’s Quinton de Kock, 22, comes with vaster expectations than other players his age. He has six ODI centuries in just 37 matches. But in his country’s opening World Cup match, De Kock came up short, falling for just seven runs against Zimbabwe.
And then there’s New Zealand’s Kane Williamson, who at just 24 is already an immensely special talent, and a near-certain superstar in the making. For him, this World Cup affords a unique challenge. By every account, Williamson is in a class of his own, equally capable of dropping anchor as he is of playing the expansive strokes. In his country’s opening match against Sri Lanka, however, Williamson looked edgy and appeared to lack his usual slickness. He still made 57. Against Scotland on Tuesday, Williamson again looked to be set, only to succumb irresponsibly on 38. That this World Cup is being played in New Zealand adds to the burden on Williamson, who, his captain McCullum believes, “could go down as New Zealand’s greatest-ever batter.” Williamson’s performances thus far tend to support McCullum’s claim. He averages 45 in test cricket, having scored nine centuries, and he scores at a clip over 46 an innings in ODI cricket. Yet it is this precise challenge that Williamson is faced with – to transform the starkest of expectations into performances of repute on a global stage – that makes the World Cup an extraordinary event. From Williamson to Sohail, from Milne to Cummins, to watch them try is to watch sport in its finest light.
Suhrith Parthasarathy graduated in law from the National University of Juridical Sciences, and in journalism from Columbia University. He currently practices as an advocate at the Madras High Court.