This is a sport in which an MS Dhoni six is fetishised – the one that finished the 2011 World Cup, when India needed 4 runs to win off 11 balls with six wickets in hand.
It’s a sport where Mitchell Starc is given the Man of the Tournament award in the 2015 World Cup for his videogenic yorkers in the group stages.
It’s a sport where the 1999 World Cup is voted the most memorable World Cup in certain quarters because of one solitary match – the Australia-South Africa semifinal.
In any other sport, in this day and age, competition would be more keenly accounted for in any such evaluation.
In 2011, instead of iconising a moment from where victory was certain, if a moment had to be separated from the rest, they might have gone back to a shot Yuvraj Singh played off Brett Lee in the tight quarterfinal against Australia.
India needed 62 runs in 62 balls to win at that stage – Dhoni had been the fifth wicket to fall just two overs before, after which the balls remaining had caught up with the runs required for the first time that evening. The tail would begin at the fall of the next wicket. Lee bowled a yorker that Yuvraj spectacularly deflected past third man for a four. It comprehensively changed the momentum. Two balls later, he square drove Lee again for a boundary, and it was palpable that the rest was likely to be a formality. If any moment truly deserves to be the iconic moment of the 2011 World Cup, given how it ended, it is that one.
In 2015, Starc got two wickets in each of the three knockout games, with one lower-order wicket every time after domination had already been assured; each time another bowler made a bigger difference than him. He did get the crucial wicket of Brendon McCullum in the final with a quintessentially ooh-worthy yorker but after New Zealand had fully recovered with 150-3 in 35 overs, it is James Faulkner who came back and broke their back. Even more significantly, Steve Smith got a century and two fifties in the three knockout games from the crucial No. 3 position, each time after the fall of an early wicket. Not giving Smith the Man of the Tournament award was yet another typical cricketing oversight.
For many who rate the 1999 World Cup as the most memorable because of that classic semi-final tie between Australia and South Africa, the rest is a blur.
That the other semi-final became an anti-climax because conditions changed dramatically during the match (New Zealand-Pakistan), and that the final was even worse because Pakistan had a meltdown in the worst World Cup final till date (that lasted barely 59 overs), are not even factored in for the bigger picture.
Before each World Cup, there are so many “exercises” done in different media, asking players, writers and fans to rate their favourite tournament, and give their reasons. Strangely, no one seems to actually do so with the most obvious matrix to judge the “best World Cup” – competitiveness.
The Best World Cup
There are two straightforward ways of judging competitiveness in the context of a tournament. One, how many closely-fought or at least interesting (from a drama perspective) matches happen at the “business end” of the tournament – namely, the knockout games. Two, how many closely-fought matches there are overall in a tournament.
Classifying results into these two categories is not a subjective exercise at all, as some might think. Give it whatever criteria you like, as long as you apply them equally across tournaments, you’ll get similar results.
When it comes to knockout matches, Wills World Cup 1996 is so far ahead of the other tournaments that it boggles the mind that people struggle to pick the best World Cup.
It was the first World Cup that had quarterfinals, so altogether there were seven knockout matches. Every single one of those matches turned out to be dramatic and interesting, even if not always eventually close.
In the first quarterfinal, Sanath Jayasuriya’s T20esque innings (82 off 44 balls, while chasing 236), very rare at the time, blew England away and produced the first sign that Sri Lanka meant serious business beyond just causing a few dents in that tournament.
The India-Pakistan quarterfinal in Bangalore remains one of the most dramatic matches in any World Cup till date (thanks to Navjot Sidhu, Ajay Jadeja, Saeed Anwar, Aamir Sohail, Venkatesh Prasad and an often hysterical full house) even if India won seemingly comfortably in the end. In the third quarterfinal, Brian Lara produced a classic century, which was followed by an equally fabled South African “choke” after they were 186-3 at one stage. In the fourth quarterfinal, New Zealand put up 286, mammoth for those times, but a famous Mark Waugh century saw Australia through.
The first semifinal had Sri Lanka tottering at 1-2 when Aravinda de Silva produced one of the most belligerent and fearless innings in World Cup history. He made just 66 in 47 balls and fell at 85-4 but the momentum had changed dramatically and Sri Lanka showed their depth by reaching 251. India, comfortably placed in the chase with 98-1, suddenly lost 7 wickets for 22 runs and incurred the wrath of the Kolkata crowd, whose behaviour caused a shameful, and rightful, forfeit.
The second semifinal, easily the best match of the tournament, saw Australia recover from 15-4 to reach 207 and then West Indies slide from 165-2 to 202 all out, with Shane Warne causing panic during the collapse.
The final in Lahore ebbed and flowed similarly for a while. From 137-1, Australia were pushed back to just 241. And then, from 23-2, Sri Lanka cruised home with a timeless de Silva century and a quintessentially cheeky Ranatunga thrust.
This level of drama in seven back-to-back knockout matches has never, ever been replicated in World Cups before or since. Add to that the notion that Sri Lanka winning that tournament was an upset (which it really wasn’t, if you’d been following world cricket at the time).
Rating the Other World Cups
1996 didn’t have the most unexpected champion. That honour goes to the 1983 Prudential World Cup where India won after raising odds of 66-1 before the tournament.
The two knockout games involving India were thrilling, less for the margin, more for the sheer exhilaration of the unexpected winner.
The 1987 Reliance World Cup had two thrilling semifinals, more for their shock value than the margin, as the two hosts and the best two sides – India and Pakistan, crashed out. The unexpected final between Australia and England turned out to be a close one though – the closest final till date.
The 1992 Benson & Hedges World Cup had one close semifinal, when Pakistan shocked by-then-favourites New Zealand. The other semi-final and the final were tightly-fought and engaging as well, even if not close. Still, Pakistan’s near-miraculous revival after being all but knocked out in the league phases itself, makes for a riveting narrative overall. Not to speak of the innovations (largely brought about by Kiwi captain Martin Crowe), especially powerplay hitting and opening the bowling with a spinner. There were also quite a few upsets, none more than the meltdown of defending champions Australia.
It is tempting to believe that these World Cups could have gained from quarterfinals, four more potential thrillers at the business end. But then again, in 2011 and 2015, the only other tournaments besides 1996 that had quarterfinals, only three of the fourteen knockout matches delivered that kind of drama – the two classics being the India-Australia quarterfinal in 2011 and the New Zealand-South Africa semifinal in 2015. Most of the other matches had a few moments, but not enough to qualify as tightly-fought matches overall.
In the 1975 Prudential World Cups of 1975, both Australia’s knockout matches were thrillers. But in the 1979 edition, only the England-New Zealand semifinal qualifies for that status.
The worst World Cups on this count were the ICC World Cups of 2003 and 2007, where none of the knockout games were particularly competitive, despite some interesting moments.
Tallying Close Games
When it comes to close games through a tournament, 1992 comes out right on top (9 close games) while 1987 (with 8 close games) is right at its heels.
Followed by 2011 (7 games), 2015 (6 games) and 2007 (5 games) – the last particularly surprising, given that it is universally considered the worst World Cup, but this perhaps also illustrates that we tend to remember tournaments more for their knockout matches when it is edgier and all-important.
1983, 1996, 1999 and 2003 all had 4 close games, while 1975 had 3 and 1979 just 1 (the crown of the worst World Cup could go to this one).
If we start considering the number of matches and proportion of close games to that, and discounting close games in Associate Team matches, the latter World Cups all start to pale. This actually justifies removing the Associate Teams from the tournament.
All things considered, 1996 was the most exciting World Cup for the back-to-back seven dramatic knockout matches it produced, and 1992 was the tightest World Cup, given the number of close games and the number of upsets.
With the 2019 format identical to the 1992 edition, with the teams very close to each other in strength, this is set up to be the toughest World Cup in history.
This article is the first of a three-part series – coming up next, Why The 2019 World Cup Is Going To Be The Toughest Ever.
(Jaideep Varma is the founder of Impact Index - the most written-about alternative stats system in cricket, resulting in the book Numbers Do Lie with Aakash Chopra. He is also a writer-filmmaker.)
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