World Cup writer's notebook

I hate World Cup finals and I know exactly why

The highlights and the sidelights of the World Cup, through the experiences of our correspondents

The World Cup is all over, it's super over

The World Cup is all over, it's super over © Getty Images

These short reveries and musings from our ace team of writers and correspondents are a celebration of the things that make the World Cup worth watching, dreaming of and reading about.

By Sidharth Monga

July 17: I hate World Cup finals. It's not the pressure of a big match. It is in part the heartbreak that one of two excellent teams has to endure.

Sunday's final - before which I wrote this - was especially gut-wrenching. It was not unfair to either side, but it was unjust: umpiring errors happen, tiebreaker rules were known well in advance, but do we really need a tiebreaker, and such a ridiculous one, in the final?

Anyway, that is not my original reason for hating final matches. It is more personal. Even before I had gone on a cricket tour, I had read about it in Rahul Bhattacharya's Pundits from Pakistan. It's the unbearable vacuum after a cricket tour. It always comes around suddenly. And even having read about it beforehand, having been on more than half a dozen long cricket tours, I am still not prepared for it.

A cricket tour - not sure other sports have such long, all-consuming tours - is a life within a life. It is a world within a world, both real and fantasy, both crowded and lonely, both the most important thing in the world and the most insignificant. There is such purpose to everything you do. Book the next hotel, make the next bus on time, sort breakfast if at an Airbnb, find time to get a run in without hurting work, write as much as you can before it is too late but don't miss the restaurant closing times, get the next alarm right, think of the next story.

Story. Everything is a potential story or a potential element in a story. You want to experience everything. It is a life of heightened awareness all through a tour, which usually lasts more than a month. There is no day off, there is no hour off.

Cricket tours have their own rhythms. You don't know what you will encounter. You don't know which character, what happenstance, will have what impact on how tours go. They are like meeting new people in your life, but in a capsule form.

Jimmy Neesham saying he would wake up hoping it was raining reminded me of hoping I wouldn't get a visa for this tour. Observing my colleagues Osman Samiuddin and Andrew Fidel Fernando work gave me new wind. Patrons in the Racehorse Inn pub in Taunton told me unpublishable stories about the days of Ian Botham, Joel Garner and Viv Richards at Somerset. Bazid Khan showed me the difference between belief and yaqeen. We recorded a podcast at 2am, drinking cheap takeaway beer. We recorded a podcast in a cemetery. I wrote on trams, buses, in hotel bars at 3am. I wrote while playing a cricket match for the Forty Club, on invitation from Scyld Berry, who fared us well with these words: "Oh, to keep playing cricket forever."

One particular 3.15am, in the bar of the Castlefield Hotel in Manchester, I wrote about the most fascinating play of the World Cup (until the final) - the Neesham over to Carlos Brathwaite - while overhearing a young couple debate the existence of a larger purpose to life. It made me feel better about myself. At least I was in no existential crisis, even if it meant losing sleep over a silly game of cricket and calling it work.

I spent every match day of the tour trying to call Dennis Breakwell, whom I met in Taunton, to get him to meet me again for an interview. Breakwell is the link between two of Somerset's greatest one-day players; he's a friend and former flatmate of Botham, and Jos Buttler's mentor. I spent every match day trying to call Collis King, who still plays club cricket up in Yorke. The idea being: the next day is travel day, and I could travel anywhere to meet them.

Suddenly, the morning after South Africa beat Australia on July 6, my last match of the tournament, it was all over. None of it mattered anymore. Suddenly all my energy disappeared. I had all the time to do all the things I was missing, but nothing mattered. There was no end in sight till yesterday. Now it was all over. Now everything felt mundane even though it was actually more significant. This is how retirements must feel for people who spend their lives doing one job. Except, I have gone through at least half a dozen of these retirements already. I write this from home, still struggling with the vacuum after a miserable week, feeling sorry for those who will feel it tomorrow or the day after.

In a few days, or weeks, we will find a new purpose. This tour will by then be just a haze. Once in a while we will look back and probably smile at a memory or grimace at a story that could have been written but was not, not conscious of how for 45 days it was our world at one point of time, the only thing that mattered.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

Do you have any idea what you're doing to me?

Do you have any idea what you're doing to me? © Getty Images

Cricket, you old rogue, I need to gather my thoughts, okay?

By Sharda Ugra

July 16: Bro, mate, yaar, macha, dude, what were you thinking? What brought on that lunatic final? Who was that over-the-top show meant to impress?

Let me tell you, my subconscious kept issuing me summons and shouting at me on the road during the 2019 World Cup: See! Remember!

In places like Cardiff - where Trent Boult (tough luck and sorry about those stupid rules) dives full stretch on the boundary like he were a sea creature and the Sophia Gardens turf the ocean. All the way to Chester-le-Street, with a high-pitched shriek from an ICC volunteer on the Riverside balcony as Angelo Mathews' first ball in yonks has Nicholas Pooran (we be seeing you, eh, lad?) trudging away, leaving a shimmering trail of run-scoring.

For the better part of the last three years, I have spent most of my working life in the happy, heady ecosystem of ESPN India, our new multi-sport website. It meant going to fabulous, unvisited places, meeting new folk, discovering their dreams, and also the myriad shades (and shadiness) of Indian sport. Cricket was followed with a distant eye, brought to attention by the sound of the "comms guys" in the Bangalore office, yelling in delight or frustration as matches went one way or another. From time to time, I followed up on Other Cricket Stuff, like the ducking and dodging of the Lodha recommendations, and the BCCI's botched handling of #MeToo allegations.

In the multi-sport world, whenever asked to name my favourite sport, the reflexive response was always "cricket", and for some time I wasn't sure where that came from. This World Cup reminded me. To watch cricket live, played by its best players from parts of the globe you may never go to, is to be reintroduced to the game: its arts, crafts and engineering, understanding - or trying to - its sciences, and being hypnotised by, while remaining acutely aware of, its mysticism.

How did Mohammed Shami's late-commuter run-up produce that snaking gate-crasher dismissal of Shai Hope? He will say practice, practice, practice, Hope will say chance, the experts will cite seam position, the fans will scream in delight, the score will read 16 for 2.

What does Haris Sohail see that he can hit Rabada for six over point like he were a trundler hanging around Sialkot's Jinnah Stadium? Live cricket leaves traces of its brilliance on the soul.

Rohit Sharma's gossamer touch turns into tub-thumbing, boundary-hitting insouciance. Kane Williamson's quirky bat-twirl settles into a still stance that reels out classics. Jasprit Bumrah's skip or Mohammad Amir's spring-loaded run-up end up as crashing stumps. Imran Tahir goes unbroken from blink-o-miss return catch to a mad call towards the heavens.

The shots, the leaves, the dives, the stops, the screamers, the missile throws from another time zone, the blinking zing bails, the rain, the umpires, the dreary waiting, the blood pounding as the bowler charges and the field closes in. All senses on high alert. Game on.

Of course, Other Cricket Stuff will not go away. Court cases, match-fixing, business deals, bad decisions, Big Three bullying. Gotta be called out, every time, every day. It's what journalists do. Yet, despite the muck-raking and muck-spilling and muck-calling, at many turns during the World Cup the game hollered: See! Remember!

I did. It felt like a return home. Pushing open the door, plonking down heavy bags, having invisible weights fall away, sensing the warm glow of the familiar.

Just as I was about to say, hello cricket, so good to see you again, you put on that final. Where everything went headlong and downside up into shining chaos and brilliant nonsense. (Or is it chaotic shining and nonsensical brilliance?)

You're a bloody rogue, that's who you are. Charming but a rogue. The further away I am from you, the better. I just need to sit down here for a bit and gather my thoughts. Just a little bit, okay?

Sharda Ugra is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo

A bit of the heart will be at Wimbledon also today

A bit of the heart will be at Wimbledon also today © Getty Images

Cricket meets tennis on Super Sunday

By Sambit Bal

July 14: The previous four days had gone by in a blur - from train to train, hotel to hotel, stadium to stadium. I became overtly aware of my incredible good fortune only when walking by myself, with my heart smiling, and body still tingling, to the tube station from Wimbledon after having watched Roger Federer, 38 next month, beat Rafael Nadal, his conqueror in their previous meeting here in 2008, and at the French Open a couple of weeks ago. I had now watched four major semi-finals in my two of my most beloved sports in three different cities in four days. For a sports fan with dreams, this would have been beyond fantasy.

Lord's and Wimbledon: whether you are an old-world romanticist or a seeker of new pleasures, these two are among the great sporting experiences in world. Walking up, there are common sights: hats and jackets - egg-and-bacon stripes at Lord's, blue-and-white at Wimbledon - picnic hampers with bottles of wine sticking out, ticket touts, and the happy buzz of anticipation.

Step inside and you are instantly aware of what's around you: years and years of sporting history and a sense of the world being suspended in the bubble of timeless formal charm. Even if formal isn't your thing, it can be a rewarding taste once a season, and mercifully both places have gone about abolishing some of the more stuffy traditions: MCC is no longer an all-men's club and players no longer need to bow to royalty at Wimbledon. There is now a roof over Centre Court, but there is still grass, which requires lightness and deftness of touch, adjustment to variation of bounce and element, and which rewards daring and imagination.

I have figured out over the years why I have been drawn to cricket and tennis. Because I prefer skill over power, touch over force, grace over muscular athleticism, and supple wrists over strong arms and legs. Cricket is often compared to baseball, but it has more in common with tennis than we might care to examine. There are the obvious things: ball on wood and ball on strings; punctuations in between deliveries and points, and overs and games; every point, like every ball, has its own story. Both cricket and tennis can coast and meander - when bowlers are preying on batsmen's patience and when both players are holding their serve with ease - but that is often the set-up for a twist, a change of tempo, a moment of brilliance, which you can only fully appreciate if you have been immersed.

Above everything else, it's the wrists. In batting, bowling, throwing, in serving, volleying or playing a groundstroke, the legs get you in position and give you a stable base, the arms and shoulders create impetus and velocity, but the wrists do the finishing. They are source of all wonder: the deception, the wizardry, the last-minute magic, every wow moment. The more the wrist, the more the beauty.

In Federer, I see many shades of Sachin Tendulkar. Technical perfection, balance, economy and precision in movement, longevity, consistency, and an enormous body of work. Few players in the history of sport have managed to retain such a level of excellence over so many years. But, but... Federer has that bit more that tugs at me: a little more wrist, not exaggerated or flowing like Brian Lara, but subtle and gentle, a bit of VVS Laxman.

I have come to believe over the last few years - I hope he is listening - that I am Federer's lucky charm. In 12 matches across three Grand Slams he has never lost when I have been in attendance. His grand comeback - at the 2017 Australian Open - began in my presence. But the cruelty of scheduling has left me with no choice for Sunday: Roger will have to do it on his own on Centre Court.

I will head to Lord's, the first time this year, with the knowledge that something special is certain to happen. In England and New Zealand, football and rugby will cede space to cricket, both in the minds of sports fans and on mainstream media. And the sound of bat on ball will resonate in homes and pubs across England, where a men's international match is on free-to-air television for the first time since 2005. England will be the tournament favourites, with the will and energy of their country behind them, taking on everyone else's second favourite team. There is expectation and there is anxiety. But there will be, what a relief, no indifference. Lord's will be a picture and whether "it comes home" or not, cricket is about have a new world champion.

Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo @sambitbal

Where are you catching all the World Cup action?

Where are you catching all the World Cup action? © AFP/Getty Images

The World Cup's biggest stuff-up

By Andrew Fidel Fernando

July 5: Without a chance meeting, ESPNcricinfo's coverage of the World Cup may not quite have been the same. Senior editor and chronic maker of friends Sharda Ugra was in a Bristol taxi when, almost inevitably, talk with the Afghan driver turned to cricket. In the course of the ride, he introduced her to the app he uses to watch cricket in between hires. Much to the delight of the foreign correspondents travelling for this World Cup, she passed on the details.

Only one of the 12 hotels and apartments I have stayed in through the duration of the tournament has had the cricket on television. Even that was in the lobby, not in the actual room. Cricket is almost never on screens in pubs or restaurants. You can ask staff to turn it on, but other patrons tend to eventually request a different channel. Without the app, and other such… er… sub-legal viewing options, many of us World-Cup accredited journalists might not have been able to watch games being played in other cities. Essentially, it is our only recourse to being able to competently do our jobs.

Cricket's absence on free-to-air television has long been linked to the sharply declining interest in the sport in England, but until this tournament, I had not quite understood the depths to which that interest has sunk. Here was a country hosting one of the top ten sporting events on the planet, and yet the newspapers barely featured cricket on the back page, or even several pages from the back. For the past month, coverage of the women's football World Cup in France has dwarfed the space granted to the cricket World Cup at home.

Apart from the match-day trains on which cricket spectators are travelling to grounds, cricket conversations are very rarely overheard in public. Denizens of host cities generally know there is a World Cup going on, but usually cannot tell you who's playing whom. If you don't live within five kilometres of a match venue, you might have conceivably lived through June with only a vague knowledge that a World Cup was taking place in your country.

So much about the English media landscape begins to make sense when you start to understand some of these ground realities. If newspaper articles occasionally veer towards the hyperbolic, maybe it is because these stories must be sold not only to the public but also to editors in a milieu where cricket is fighting for crowded air. On the flip side, if Sky's commentary and production are among the more cerebral and nuanced around, perhaps that is because it is effectively catering to a niche audience. You even begin to see the sense in The Hundred. Although regular T20 cricket is doing a roaring trade pretty much everywhere, English cricket has backed itself into such an unenviable corner, such wild desperations are understandable.

Cricket boards around the world are failing their sport. SLC and the PCB have allowed domestic cricket to deteriorate. The BCCI has had major credibility problems. But although many administrative bodies are strung up by ineptitude and infighting, it sometimes feels as if the ECB's failure to reach out to its public is the most profound of them all.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf

No need for speed

No need for speed © Getty Images

The magic of Bumrah's non-hat-trick

By Nagraj Gollapudi

July 1: Ninety-seven point five kilometres per hour, or 61 miles per hour. That is how slow the ball was delivered. The reason for the emphasis is because the hand that delivered the ball belonged to Jasprit Bumrah. Not just the world's No. 1 ODI bowler, but a fast bowler capable of clocking 90-plus mph.

Bumrah's grip over batsmen is fearsome. The fright is not physical. He is no Shoaib Akhtar or Brett Lee, he is without their extreme pace, or run-up, or aggro. Bumrah walks about 12 steps, skips about another dozen, before whipping out the ball out from that snappy wrist, and still he creates the anticipation in fans and anxiety in batsmen. The anxiety, unlike with Akhtar and Lee, is to do with how many different ways he could sink them: swing, seam, legcutter, nip-backer, bouncer, slow bouncer, low full-toss, yorker, slow yorker.

It was that last variety Bumrah brought out on the third delivery of the second over of his second spell against West Indies in the pale yellow hue of the late-afternoon Manchester sun. The batsman facing the hat-trick ball was Kemar Roach. Forget Roach's tailender credentials. Anyone would have guessed Bumrah would go for the inswinging yorker. Well, predictable then?

The answer lies in the previous two deliveries. The first was to Carlos Brathwaite, who, a few evenings ago, had played one of the innings of the tournament against New Zealand not just at the same ground but on the same pitch. The pitch was now slow, but hard, and the bounce was good.

Bumrah pitched it back of a length, at 137.2 kph. Brathwaite's trigger movement suggested he wanted to play it on the front foot, but the length pushed him back. When the ball left Bumrah's hand, the seam pointed to first slip, and it became straighter as it moved in towards Brathwaite, who watched it with gleaming eyes, like a cat's, unblinking, guarded. On pitching, the ball cut away, opening Brathwaite up and taking a nick. MS Dhoni, who had read the movement better, moved one step to his right and then flung his 37-year-old body to take a stunning one-handed catch.

For Fabian Allen, the next man in, Bumrah pitched on length and seamed it into the pads, lbw. The ball was simply too fast for Allen - 143.7kph.

Now Roach faced up, standing deep in the crease. There was barely any trigger movement as Bumrah ran in with body language that suggested it was going to be quick. His release point indicated he was going to angle the ball into the pads. It slanted in diagonally, but it actually floated, and then suddenly dipped, almost on to the toes of Roach, who dug out it nicely. Bumrah flashed a smile and cupped his hands. Dhoni, too, cupped his mouth with gloved hands.

Bumrah did not ponder the matter further. He just walked away. It made me laugh - more amazed than astonished at his sleight of hand. Ninety-seven point five kph was the speed of the ball. Only a few overs earlier Yuzvendra Chahal, a legspinner, had got Jason Holder caught off a delivery that clocked 96.2 kph. No hat-trick, but just how could Bumrah pull off such a magical act so effortlessly?

Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo

Gulbadin Naib: not one to go down without a fight

Gulbadin Naib: not one to go down without a fight © AFP/Getty Images

The Afghan heroism of Gulbadin Naib

By Sharda Ugra

June 29: By no stretch was Gulbadin Naib the best-known Afghan cricketer coming into this World Cup. He was way down his team's pop charts, behind Rashid Khan, Mohammad Nabi, Mujeeb Ur Rahman, Mohammad Shahzad, Hamid Hassan and Asghar Afghan (the man formerly known as Stanikzai.) Even maybe a rung below cricket's most famous ZZ Top, Hazratullah Zazai.

Yet, Gulbadin leaves the World Cup as a true blue rock star. It's the things he does - the Popeye bicep-flex after taking a wicket, which always causes an outbreak of wide-eyed giggles. (How can normal-size sleeves hold those arms?) There's the things he says. His wickedest warning to teams scrambling for a spot in the final four is now burnt into the mind of every Hindu-Urdu-comprehending cricket fan. Hum toh doobe hain sanam, tujhe bhi lay kay doobenge. Rough translation: "We're already sunk, darling, we're going to take you down with us."

But it is not all show. On the field, Gulbadin has brought his splash of dash. After Afghanistan were given a royal hammering at Old Trafford, with England scoring 198 in the last 15 overs, who was the first out of the hut in pursuit of 398? Their captain. In his 46 completed ODI innings before the tournament, Gulbadin had batted 37 times between Nos. 6 and 9, and opened the batting only three times.

Now, in the middle of the World Cup, he runs into Jofra Archer and Chris Woakes, and treats Archer and his short stuff as if it was for the munching. In one over, he takes two fours and a six off Archer, the shots blasted off the bat as if the deliveries were coming to him at dibbly-dobbly pace on a flat one in Greater Noida. He continues to open in his next two innings, against India and Bangladesh, and, on the testing pitches in Southampton, drops his manic strike rate of 132 against England to a sober low-60s. He is also Afghanistan's highest wicket-taker in the tournament.

Afghanistan have chosen not to reply to media-conference questions in Urdu, but on the sidelines Gulbadin is accessible and chatty in the familiar South Asian Hindustani patois. He praises Hashmatullah Shahidi for refusing to leave the crease after getting knocked down by a Mark Wood bouncer that broke his helmet.

Rashid Khan heeding medical advice and not returning to the field against New Zealand after being hit on the head by a bouncer is interpreted as "thoda ghabra gaya tha" [he was a little shaken]. Hashmatullah, he assures me, is the norm. "Afghan hai yeh, hum aise hi hain" [He is an Afghan, that's what we're like]. Concussion-vuncussion, just a fancy word.

As Afghanistan's campaign winds up, there are mutterings about how they have been underwhelming in this World Cup. Such snippiness. They are learning on the run against opposition of a quality they have never faced before over such a sustained duration. They are, as Mr White said to James Bond, kites dancing in a hurricane.

Captaining in the maelstrom is Gulbadin, whose appointment was met with disapproval from his team's stars. Yet he has led with (alliteration alert) pride and pizzazz. With his team beaten game after game, he has shown what his country has done for centuries: take the punches from the big boys and stand up again. It is what Afghans do.

© Getty Images

The joy of attrition

By Karthik Krishnaswamy

June 26: Do you remember that Faf du Plessis straight drive off Trent Boult? No? I don't blame you. The shot came in an innings of 23, near the start of a match that most will remember for its finish, for that late dab and that slog-sweep by that guy. And this shot didn't even come off the middle of the bat.

But try and jog your memory anyway. The new ball is swinging under heavy cloud cover, and South Africa are trying to recover from the early loss of Quinton de Kock. Boult and Matt Henry are bowling full, trying to get the batsmen to drive and nick, and du Plessis and Hashim Amla are trying their best not to oblige. It is the closest thing to Test cricket with a white ball.

There are 20 leaves in the first ten overs: the most in the first Powerplay of any innings at this World Cup. Occasionally, in the effort to bowl that full length, a half-volley turns up. Amla drives two of them for four in the eighth over, off Boult. They are typically flowing Amla drives, and pleasing to the eye in a way that du Plessis' drive at the start of the tenth over isn't.

But du Plessis' is the better shot, because it comes off a good ball: on the fuller side of a good length, slanting across the right-hander before swinging back late towards off stump. Du Plessis seldom drives with his bat perfectly straight: his split-handed, bottom-handed grip means it usually comes down at an angle, with a slightly closed face. That's exactly how he meets this ball from Boult, and the ball hits his bat slightly off-centre, between the sweet spot and the inside edge. What makes the shot is the footwork, the long stride towards the ball to counter the swing, and the perfectly timed weight transfer, which sends the ball away quicker than mid-off, running to his right, might have expected.

South Africa will lose this match and take another step towards an early exit from an unhappy tournament, but in the moment that the ball eludes the fingertips of the sprawled mid-off fielder, none of that is known and none of it matters. It's just a quality shot from a quality player in an engrossing passage of play.

And this World Cup, contrary to pre-tournament expectations, has produced a fair few passages of play like it: slow-scoring, attritional, utterly riveting. Rohit Sharma repelling a fiery Kagiso Rabada on his way to his slowest - and, in his captain's words, best - ODI hundred; Lasith Malinga manipulating Jos Buttler, with a short mid-on right under his nose, into playing across the line; the out-of-nowhere-ness of Mohammad Nabi pulling Jasprit Bumrah for six - one of only two sixes in the entire match - with 31 needed off 22 balls.

More of this, please. Is it too much to wish for an Edgbaston semi-final like that other Edgbaston semi-final?

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo

Lord's regular the Pipe Man, in his MCC hat

Lord's regular the Pipe Man, in his MCC hat © Clayton Murzello

Pipe Man, Lord's will feel empty without you

By Nagraj Gollapudi

June 24: Lord's felt empty last weekend. Because Keith van Anderson had left the ground to talk cricket with the Lord.

Keith van Anderson, you were baffling. When I heard about your death last month, on Twitter, I felt a dryness in my mouth, followed by the kind of emptiness that engulfs one on losing someone close. You and I were not related in any way - blood, friendship, profession - but we knew each other through cricket, over many meetings at Lord's.

By name you were Keith van Anderson. But to us cricket fans you were the Pipe Man. You were no Gravy. You were never a performer. Yet, like Gravy, you were one of the most famous and loyal fans of Caribbean cricket. You were easily spotted: always dapper in a suit, a tie or a bowtie, a walking stick, a hat, a goatee beard, and that pipe dangling from the corner of your mouth, present at every Lord's Test since 1973. Like a moth to a flame, the TV camera would be drawn to you.

For the journalist in me you were an instant story. The legends and the lesser-knowns of cricket doffed their caps to you, and made me wonder who the hell you were.

I interviewed you just once and never wrote the story because my laptop was stolen. Still, we would meet frequently and talk cricket, sitting by the side of the Nursery Ground at Lord's. There were many tales.

When you told me of how you arrived in London from Guyana. When you revealed in confidence the type of cancer you had, which did not allow you to eat much. When you told me that, following your illness, that famous pipe of yours held no tobacco. When you disclosed that it was Clive Lloyd who had nominated you as a member of the MCC.

Each time I tried asking you where you lived, those big eyeballs behind the dark glasses almost popped out. No words were spoken. I got the message. You were a private man and you wanted others to respect your privacy.

Keith van Anderson, you were baffling. You were Big Brother at Lord's - your eyes didn't miss much, and they were wired to that Deep Blue brain of yours. You never forgot to say hello. You never forgot to ask: how are you and your good ones? And this not just with the players. You even knew the exact age of my daughter, every passing year.

Your Caribbean heart always remained loyal to West Indies. You were frustrated by the modern West Indian cricketer's sense of entitlement. But the fan in you never died. You became a throwback to the West Indies fan of the last century - the ones who demanded quality from the region's cricketers, who would cry hoarse in defeat but dance through the night in victory.

"Keith is the loyal dog of Caribbean cricket," is how Michael Holding once described you to me. Holding wasn't looking down upon you. It was the highest praise, I think you would agree.

Yes, Lord's felt empty this weekend. Keith van Anderson. I will miss you. Cricket will miss you.

Why are commentators going to great lengths to confuse us about where the ball lands?

Why are commentators going to great lengths to confuse us about where the ball lands? © IDI/Getty Images

We need to talk about length

By Karthik Krishnaswamy

June 20: We need to talk about the way we talk about cricket. We need to talk about length. This World Cup and the IPL that preceded it have marked a distinct shift in how length is described. In both tournaments, pitch maps on TV have traded the objectivity of "full" for the subjectivity of "the slot", lending a quasi-official air to what began life as a commentators' colloquialism.

If you pitch it full, you're landing the ball on a strip of the pitch that is between 2m and 6m from the batsman's stumps. It could be a good ball or a bad one, depending on a whole host of factors including pace, line, angle, deviation in the air or off the pitch, the nature of the surface, the skill and individual quirks of the batsman, the field set for the bowler, and the deliveries that led up to this particular one.

If you pitch it in the slot, you're just asking to be hit.

The appearance of "the slot" on pitch-map graphics is a sign of the times. In an era where red-ball and white-ball cricket couldn't be more different, it's only natural that we use different vocabularies to describe them.

Ishita Mazumder / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Last year, Hardik Pandya won India a Test match at Trent Bridge with six dramatic overs of pitch-it-up outswing under overcast skies. Pandya would never bowl that length in a Trent Bridge ODI: white balls simply don't swing that much, and English pitches are remarkably different beasts depending on the colour of ball bouncing off them. Pandya's full, swerving delivery that dismissed Jonny Bairstow in the Trent Bridge Test would, in a white-ball match, simply follow its initial angle right into Bairstow's slot.

It's why bowlers increasingly stay away from fuller lengths in ODIs. And that includes the traditional good length, which can be driven on the up on flat pitches. At the 2015 World Cup, according to ESPNcricinfo's data, fast bowlers landed roughly 44% of their deliveries on a good length, 21% in the short-of-good-length area, and 11% in the short area. In the UK this year, there's been a shift away from length (33%) towards short-of-good-length (29%) and short (17%). The percentages of other lengths have remained more or less unchanged.

This could be down to the grounds in England, which tend to have shorter straight boundaries than square boundaries. But it could also have something to do with the quest for hitting what bowlers - whether medium-fast like Vijay Shankar or effortlessly express like Kagiso Rabada - have lately been calling a "hard length".

What is a hard length? If "back of a length" is, as Gideon Haigh once put it, simply the pretentious version of "short of a length", is "hard length" the pretentious version of "back of a length"?

Maybe, maybe not. Aakash Chopra defines the hard length pretty well here: not full enough to be driven off the front foot, not short enough to hit with a horizontal bat, and the ball usually hitting the bat higher than the sweet spot.

The clue, perhaps, lies in the word "hard". More than the length itself, the emphasis seems to be on hitting the pitch hard, whether to obtain extra bounce, or a bit of grip and sideways movement, or to exploit any inconsistencies of pace or bounce that may be on offer. You can bowl anything on a hard length - slower balls, effort balls, cutters, seam-up balls, cross-seam balls - as long as the ball doesn't do exactly what the batsman wants or expects it to. A hard length, much like the slot, is defined by its outcome. It's just a little harder, perhaps, to pin down on a pitch map.

© Getty Images

New Zealand, South Africa, the last time

By Sambit Bal

June 19: Sheldon Cottrell, whose athleticism defies his lumbering gait, has just run out Tamim Iqbal at the striker's end with a flash of a throw on the follow through as I try to complete this piece. Earlier in the tournament Cottrell sprinted along the boundary rope, juggled the ball, balanced himself and kept his wits to turn a certain six for Steve Smith into a spectacular dismissal, rivalling the Spidermanesque effort from Ben Stokes that had been, somewhat hyperbolically, described as the greatest catch ever. In isolation, each was a magic moment.

But for a moment to live on, you need a bit more. A lot more, in fact. Occasion, setting, narrative, impact, significance, drama, characters, and for added meaning, a personal connection. So while I wait for the moment that will define this World Cup for me to come along, and South Africa once more find themselves on the brink of tears, and New Zealand on the brink of another semi-final, I can dip into the memory of a moment involving the two teams from the last World Cup, that for all of the above and for its palpable intimacy, remains my favourite.

In sport, someone's triumph is inevitably someone else's tragedy. When Grant Elliott, a journeyman cricketer from South Africa who had made New Zealand his home, carted Dale Steyn, one of South Africa's greatest bowlers, over wide long-on in Auckland in the first semi-final, the euphoria and the heartbreak were both amplified.

It was the greatest moment for the sport in New Zealand, a rugby nation that was won over during the tournament by the Brendon McCullum brand of cricket - aggressive, inspired, played with a smile. It was also a stab through the collective soul of the South Africa cricketers, with their wretched baggage of knockout losses. As a neutral, you felt the tug from both ends.

New Zealand's chase - 298 in 43 overs in a rain-shortened match - was dramatic throughout. From 71 for no loss in the first six overs to 149 for 4 in 22, to 23 runs needed from 12 balls, and after much drama, which included three missed opportunities for the nervy South Africa fielders, five from the last two.

So what does Elliott do now? What if there is the prospect of a single off the penultimate ball? Does he spurn it and leave himself six to win or four to tie on the last ball? And Steyn, what does he choose? Go for the yorker and risk a full toss? A sharp bouncer perhaps? A slower bouncer to concede a single?

He opts for the length ball outside off, and it seems Elliott has read it, for he moves back and across to pummel it into the stands. As he says at the press conference later, another day the ball could have landed in the lap of a fielder, and as always in sport, the margin belongs to winner. As Elliott exults and Auckland erupts and Steyn lies prone on his back and his team-mates weep into their palms, my thoughts shift to Martin Crowe, New Zealand's greatest player thus far, a dear friend counting the months left against terminal cancer, an Auckland resident in our studio in Sydney, and most of all, a former New Zealand captain carrying the hurt of a semi-final defeat in 1992. That wound will perhaps now heal.

That's a thought that lifts my heart even today.

Blocking like a butterfly, swinging like a tree

Blocking like a butterfly, swinging like a tree © Getty Images

Watching Russell, thinking Ali

By Jarrod Kimber

June 17: The chair I am standing on is not that safe, but if I don't use it I won't be able to watch Andre Russell in the nets. And I have to watch Andre Russell in the nets.

I remember the first time I heard of Andre Russell, in a scorecard for West Indies A. I saw that he'd taken 5 for 68 against India A and then I looked into him, and found that the first-class game before that he'd hit 108 from 65 balls with ten sixes against a near full-strength Ireland team. That is all I knew of him, a couple of scorecards, and yet in my mind he was this incredible six-hitting demon fast bowler unlike the world had ever seen.

So while the rest of the press head back to write up their articles, the ICC staff prepare for the next day and the rain comes down, I sit down and watch Andre Russell take throwdowns. And watching him work on his weaknesses, it reminds me of old gym footage of Muhammad Ali.

When you look at footage of Ali sparring, he often looks slow and limited. In no way the Ali of the ring. Usually he's sparring with big clumsy men, tall southpaws, huge heavy-handed hitters, and he's letting them corner him, or letting them use their height or strength to monster him. But there is always a moment when he gets bored with this, and he breaks free to flash his feet or hands, and suddenly it's Ali again. Even in the sweaty gym, working on his weaknesses for hours on end, Ali shines.

At the Hampshire Bowl there are indoor nets in the atrium. The light comes through the roof and, during big tournaments like this, half the space is taken up by the press-conference area. Because of the way it's set up, some batsmen have to face back into the nets to ensure the staff and camera crews don't get hit.

In one of these nets is Andre Russell. He's recognisable by his back at first, but he's also bigger than the other batsman, and better than the bowlers. He looks like Andre Russell, or Dre Russ, in everything except the results of his shots. What he is working on is digging out yorkers and ducking short balls. Some short balls only just miss him, the yorkers make him overbalance and look sloppy.

Then the assistant coach gets a throw wrong. It is supposed to be a yorker, but he overpitches, and the noise, the noise, in this echo chamber is deafening. Russell has hit the ball with such incredible power it feels like the net is about to break. After he gets bored with ducking he slaps a hook shot so powerfully the net moves like a tidal wave.

The net bowlers look nervous, one shares a glance with me after a big hit, he's not even in Russell's net and he's already making worried faces. When Russell heads into his net, he disappears from view, so I head up to the viewing platform. But the black sightscreen obscures him. So I do what two of the net bowlers do, stand on a chair to see him bat. There aren't many players who make me stand on rickety chairs to watch them net, but I do it because Russell in person is more phenomenal than the Russell of my imagination. Every big hit we all share glances, there aren't many words, just the sound of Russell hitting the ball and the sound of us reacting to it. When the session finishes, the physio comes over and puts Russell back together again. It's like watching a mechanic rebuild a car. How many more times can Russell do this?

Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber

The World Cup as seen by Sharda Ugra

The World Cup as seen by Sharda Ugra © Getty Images

A rainmaker's confessions

By Sharda Ugra

June 16: Once I was confirmed as the tournament's rainmaker, advice began, um, pouring in about where my next journey should take me. Far away from the World Cup. Cape Town, where there's a water shortage. Straight to hell to rain on the Devil's parade. In the four rain-abandoned matches in the first fortnight of the World Cup, I pulled off a hat-trick: Bristol, Southampton and Nottingham. On Friday afternoon as my train pulled out of Nottingham, sunshine blazed down on the city. Manchester on Sunday is out of bounds. My photograph has been sent to all railway stations in London to prevent me from boarding a train until the last ball is bowled.

The rain here is very different from Mumbai's top-volume artillery barrage, Delhi's dust-clearing, heat-buster mercy shower, or the two-hour Biblical Bengaluru downpour. Britain's barely audible, polite "precipitation" has anywhere between 15 and 100 words and phrases to describe it.

In the dressing rooms, the waiting makes people crazy. Unlike everyone else on the ground, teams have no access to their phones, which are put away with the anti-corruption folk. All the players do is sleep, read, play cards (county-cricket habit) or get forced to listen to the Old Bore's jokes. Coaches would rather have the entire day washed out at one go and retire to their hotels, instead of keeping watch on their precious flock, in perpetual suspense, gauging the mood of the room.

In press boxes, rain makes us jumpy, triggers a series of cyclical events that drag on for hours (rain, covers on and off, inspection on and off, rain - on loop), and wears down the bubbly optimism with which we set off in the morning. There's dive-bombing onto British weather websites - metoffice/darksky/raintoday/BBC weather/meteoradar. At some point someone asks, "Do these things really work or are they just guessing?" Another enthusiast cites The History of Drainage: from Aqueduct to Flush Toilets and Cricket Grounds to announce how long it will take. The covers are immovable, the conversation is dropping, knowledge about weather and irrigation systems is meaningless. Andrew Miller usefully invents the GreyScale. Former cricketers emerge from comm boxes for tea and biscuits and are stalked for quotes or selfies.

The best thing out of Bristol - a photo with the two Ws. In Southampton, there is time to let Harbhajan Singh finish lunch before he sits down to share stories about his buddy Yuvraj Singh, who has considerately retired on a rainy Monday. In Nottingham - where I once again experience the whirlpool that is an Indian World Cup campaign - there's a chance to meet friends and catch up on the goss. Do you know what happened at the restaurant so-and-so went to yesterday just before the Indian team landed up? Stay tuned in to our Live Reports. I may finish that story.

"I know! I can't look at myself either right now" © PA Photos/Getty Images

The day Kane Williamson played an ungrammatical shot

By Jarrod Kimber

June 13: Gulbadin Naib is probably the slowest seam bowler in this tournament - don't let his biceps fool you. And so when he delivered a slow full toss on the stumps, it changed Kane Williamson.

The normal Williamson urge would be a slightly-within-himself high-percentage boundary shot, just as the algorithm that runs his poetic batting requires. But whatever human traits are left in Williamson take over as he sees this juicy floated filth wobble down his way. Williamson's urges grab him, and he swings his bat across the line. It's a mow, a dirty slog, a heave, there is no art, no science, only boundary lust.

You can tell this is not natural to him, he doesn't commit the way Glenn Maxwell would, there is no open front leg like with Chris Gayle. It's like this shot has only occurred to him, and he's just gotta play it. Williamson's wild swipe dribbles off the inside of his bat to midwicket like he's slapped it with month-old celery.

On the walk down the crease he is swinging his bat, imitating the shot he has just played, but now he's playing it as if to say, "I can't believe I played this filthy abomination, what even is this?" As if by swinging one, two, and then three times, he can shake the virus from his game. Like smoking an entire carton of cigarettes to rid yourself of the urge ever again.

He stands at the non-striker's end, in his normal batting stance, and practises the shot he should have played, a straight punch over the bowler's head. Now he is not happy with that, so he does it again, this time with more bottom hand for elevation. It's like he sees his game in a biomechanical way that others cannot. Then he hits his thigh. He seems frustrated that he's played one grammatically incorrect shot. He doesn't look angry, but discontented. As if this will disqualify him from being in a future cricket textbook hall of fame, or worse, somehow be the reason that New Zealand won't overhaul this small Afghanistan target.

When Williamson is finished with all his self-improvement, he takes a big breath of air - a human control-alt-delete - and goes about being the most attentive and supporting non-striker he can be.

Show some gratitude. They struggled so we could be entertained

Show some gratitude. They struggled so we could be entertained © Getty Images

I miss incompetent England. Do you?

By Andrew Fidel Fernando

June 11: Forgive me if I'm getting a little emotional, but there was a time when representing England at the World Cup used to mean something. A time when England transcended the tournament they were playing in, and stood for the good of the game at large, not merely their own narrow interests.

I'm talking about England's long tradition of arriving at the tournament full of confidence, only to crash out in wonderfully comic fashion, filling a billion hearts around the world with joy.

For 20 years, they were resplendent. Who can forget poor old Richard Illingworth in 1996, getting splatted for four fours in a row by Sanath Jayasuriya, who won that quarter-final for Sri Lanka without batting even 13 overs? What about 1999, when England rolled up to their home tournament, got decked by South Africa and India, and were knocked out before the World Cup song had even been released? This was high art - the kind of comedy that makes you want to kiss your fingers and gesture in the way of an Italian chef.

Across the years, there have been upturned pedalos, batting orders that collapsed like circus tents, opening bowlers who were shamed repeatedly through the covers, non-spinning spinners who were shunned disdainfully over midwicket, and captains who wore long, morose looks during long, morose stints in the field. The post-mortems that followed each loss were glorious. While England coaches were put through brutal press interrogations, and the English media dealt in industrial quantities of flagellation and fatalism, the rest of the world looked on with the corners of our mouths twitching, our eyes filling with tears, our bodies unable to contain eruptions of laughter.

Remember that game against New Zealand in the last World Cup? The one where England were monstered for 123 all out, before having that score chased down in 12.2 overs? Or the quarter-final from the previous World Cup, when, having moused their way to 229 for 6 in Colombo, they were convinced they had enough on the board to win? Sri Lanka's openers were so all over the chase that at one point Tillakaratne Dilshan apologised to his opening partner Upul Tharanga for hitting a four, because there were only so many runs left and Tharanga hadn't made his century yet.

As the 2019 World Cup hits its straps, there are few losses more keenly felt than the absence of an incompetent England. They are not only no longer risible, they are one of the teams to beat, putting up gargantuan scores, driving forward the game's evolution. They have gone from being Ewoks to the Death Star in the space of four years.

Perhaps another team will fill that breach. But much as Sri Lanka are trying, it's not the same. There is a slapstick wonder about them, yes, but they have never commanded anything like the resources at the ECB's disposal, nor does their media quite do hand-wringing in the same way, so the joke is incomplete.

Much as we celebrate the batting frontiers this England team may open up, let us take a moment to reflect on what we have lost: the World Cup's most consistently comic presence.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent

Come together: how about players from both teams lining up in one rank when the anthems play?

Come together: how about players from both teams lining up in one rank when the anthems play? © Peter Della Penna

Where do you stand on national anthems?

By Sharda Ugra

June 9: Where do you stand on national anthems playing before World Cup matches? Do you stand at all? I happen to be a committed stander (but anthem-playing in cinemas annoys me immensely). I don't think every ODI has to feature anthems, but at World Cups they sound appropriate. When anthems play, I think of every cricketer from Gisborne to Georgetown in that solemn line as someone's son or daughter who slammed doors going out for practice or coming back in, leaving behind a trail of dirty clothes. So I stand to salute the mums.

Anthems at the cricket World Cup first turned up in 2003, to add an evocative do-this-for-your-country prelude to every game. West Indies repurposed David Rudder's calypso "Rally 'Round the West Indies" into the anthem that strung together six member associations across many island nations. Inside cricket press boxes, when the anthems begin, some journalists get to their feet with a bit of an eye-roll over what they consider an unnecessary round of cheesy patriot games. Not standing also comes with a misplaced sense of coolness: several people will be genuinely working at the time, but for others who ooze Busy Professional frowns and stay seated, the best response is a giggle or a snort.

An Indian ex-colleague at ESPNcricinfo, Abhishek Purohit, happens to be a bit of an anthem specialist and can hold a tune; at one staff party, he produced a pitch-perfect rendition of "Pak Sarzamin". This was 2011. By now he can belt out the anthems of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, New Zealand and Nepal, and is trying to improve his "tooti-phooti" [broken] rendition of "Sri Lanka Matha". FYI, the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore has written two South Asian national anthems (the Indian and the Bangladeshi), and possibly had some role to play in a third (the Sri Lankan) - but he abhorred the idea of nationalism. He called it, among other things, a "menace".

Cricket draws its sustenance from the idea of nation versus nation but these are days of hardened hearts and angry voices. The more we can do without faux animosity and bitterness the better, and oddly no one shows that better than Indian and Pakistani cricketers in how they deal with each other on and off the field and in how they tackle the madness around their matches. (Television anchors and hyper-nationalist reporters from both countries sadly refuse to learn from them.)

As the anthems played in Cardiff before the match between New Zealand and Sri Lanka, two countries bloodied and traumatised by recent terrorist attacks, a utopian idea struck. Maybe it would be better if the teams had lined up together - captains at either end or at the centre, with a Sri Lankan next to a New Zealander, followed by another Sri Lankan, then another New Zealander, and so on down the line. Shoulder to shoulder and ready to compete. Lining up next to an opponent at anthem time wouldn't dim the bowler's resolve to knock the stumps out of the ground. It wouldn't make batsmen's eyes light up less on sighting a slower one and tonking it for six. What it would do is leave a still, deep resonance.

Along with being calls to the motherland, anthems are messages that TV pictures send out to fans to remind them of the import (actually inconsequential) of what they are about to witness, to stir their tribalism. At this point in human history, the world has had enough of that. Having players side by side as the anthems play could be cricket's - and the World Cup's - return to what's best about our sport: its variety, its differences, its quirkiness, its everyday madnesses (honestly, three formats?). In which everyone - participants, witnesses, bystanders - is eventually standing on common ground.

Hooked, line and sinker: Rashid sends a Marcus Stoinis delivery into the great beyond

Hooked, line and sinker: Rashid sends a Marcus Stoinis delivery into the great beyond © Getty Images

The otherworldly talents of Rashid Khan

By Jarrod Kimber

June 7: The Afghan players wander out on the field for a net session; the support staff isn't out on the field. The guys are joking and laughing. There's a tall one, some shorter wiry types, and a few thickset players. There's one who stands out, perhaps because he's so famous, or maybe he's just one of those guys who stands out. He takes a bat into the net, no pads or gloves or anything else. Another player delivers a spinning ball to him and he charges at it, swings hard and straight. The ball clears the boundary and lands 12 rows back.

The other players laugh and crow about it. Rashid Khan smiles.

We are used to seeing Rashid at the top of his mark, almost twitching, such is his desire to get through the crease and grab another victim. Or breaking into that cheeky grin from under the floppy fringe in the moments after it's clear he has made a batsman look confused.

But there is also Rashid Khan the batsman, who bats like he is the best bowler in the world and he wants you to know he can own you with the bat too. He has an incredible eye, a swinging tailender's spirit, and some new-age hitting technique. In the days before T20 he would have ended up as your favourite No. 10; now he's an improving lower-order hurricane.

When facing Marcus Stoinis in Afghanistan's first game, he charged down the wicket and lofted a ball on the up straight back for six. He followed that with two more boundaries that showed his skill and smarts.

But it was the last shot that showed that he thinks this world is his. Stoinis had used length, gone for a yorker, tried a bouncer and got the line wrong. Now came the first ball he got right, a high short ball outside off that was correctly set up to make Rashid play a standard shot. It should have been a hook shot to a ball too high; it was not; he played it like a samurai slicing open a dragon as it flew past his ear.

It was a front hook shot to a ball outside off stump above his head that went to deep midwicket. You could be forgiven for thinking the ball disappeared into whatever parallel universe the shot was invented for. But it stayed in our world.

Well, not ours, Rashid Khan's world.

Sarfaraz: moving target

Sarfaraz: moving target © Getty Images

Sarfaraz and Woakes' cat-and-mouse game

By Karthik Krishnaswamy

June 5: Chris Woakes to Sarfaraz Ahmed, fifth ball of the 40th over. As the bowler enters his delivery stride, the batsman begins to back away towards the leg side.

This sort of premeditated movement is routine in limited-overs cricket, but if you're watching on TV, it's not that easy to figure out why it's happening, beyond the basic idea that the batsman is making room to target the off side. Where the fielders are, and where the gaps are, is anyone's guess.

Now, however, a graphic has appeared on the bottom left of the screen - in this case detailing the field England have set. It has been a feature of this World Cup, and while it doesn't appear as often as it could (all the time, ideally), it's one of the best things to happen to cricket on TV.

Ishita Mazumder / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

This is Woakes' field to Sarfaraz: three fielders on the leg-side boundary, third man back, mid-on and mid-off inside the 30-yard circle, a ring of three infielders square on the off side.

The fielders in the graphic aren't just dots on a generic circular ground. This is Trent Bridge, and the dots occupy a space that is faithful to its idiosyncratic shape, something like a rectangle with rounded edges, with one corner lopped off, making for a long diagonal. To the right-hander, the shortest boundary on the ground is either at deep-backward square leg or deep extra cover, depending on which end the bowler is delivering from.

The short boundary is on the off side as Woakes bowls, and given where the boundary fielders are positioned, it's not difficult to see what his plan is. Bowl short and into Sarfaraz's body, and get him to hit square on the leg side, towards the longer and better protected boundary, with third man in place for the edged pull or hook, or the ramp.

Sarfaraz, of course, knows what's happening. In the second Powerplay, with only four fielders protecting the boundary, bowlers can't help but telegraph their intentions with the field they set. They have a little more breathing room in the last ten overs, with a fifth outfielder giving them a plan B, or a chance to bluff the batsman.

With two balls left in the second Powerplay, Sarfaraz knows what Woakes is thinking, and Woakes knows that Sarfaraz knows what he's thinking. He knows Sarfaraz might try to upset either his line or his length. He could try to run down the pitch and hit him down the ground, or he could try to make room and hit through or over the ring of off-side fielders.

Option A isn't that easy against a bowler of Woakes' pace and the V isn't really Sarfaraz's strength. He is more of a shuffler, a hustler, a square-of-the-wicket kind of guy. Twice already this over, he has tried option B, and Woakes was alive to it on both occasions, following him, cramping him for room, conceding leg-side singles.

It isn't easy, however, to keep following the batsman and get it right every time. Woakes isn't aiming at a spot on the pitch or a set of stumps. Sarfaraz is a moving target, and on this occasion he times his movement perfectly: early enough to attain a stable base when the ball gets to him, late enough to prevent the bowler from getting a proper sighter.

All the calculations, all the cat-and-mouse, happens in a blink, and thanks to the field-placement graphic, the viewer can make some sense of it too. Woakes bowls it short, into the pitch, a slower offcutter. He probably wants it to get up to around shoulder height, and perhaps jag in off the pitch to deny Sarfaraz room to free his arms. He doesn't miss by much, but the line isn't quite close enough to the batsman, and the ball sits up at chest height. Sarfaraz flat-bats it over the leaping mid-on fielder for four.

Sarfaraz v Woakes won't go down among the World Cup's iconic contests, but it's perfectly representative of what ODIs increasingly look like: highly tactical contests of small and unforgiving margins.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo

The result was not surprising but it was superb for the tournament

The result was not surprising but it was superb for the tournament © Getty Images

The World Cup is officially alive

By Andrew Fidel Fernando

June 3: We were waiting to be captivated. As far as World Cups go, this one was specifically engineered to spring the fewest surprises possible. There were two agreed upon favourites, a well-defined chasing pack, plus stragglers. The best tournaments shimmer with possibility. Four matches in here, storylines already seemed to be setting in World Cup concrete.

It's not that the hosts, bless them, didn't try their best to bring the tournament to some sort of life. Jofra Archer delivered a searing spell. Ben Stokes claimed what was described variously in the English media as the catch of the tournament, slash the century, slash of all recorded time. Sublime though these acts were, they were still in service of the pre-ordained tournament narrative.

The first broadening of horizons came in Bangladesh's opening partnership. Soumya Sarkar, whipping Lungi Ngidi off the hip, crashing Kagiso Rabada through cover, taking apart arguably the best new-ball attack around, while Tamim Iqbal, the usual devastator, practically limped to 16 off 29. There was a resorting to type in the remainder of Bangladesh's innings, with Shakib Al Hasan, Mushfiqur Rahim and Mahmudullah producing the bulk of the remaining runs. But then, in their defence of 330, the Bangladesh quicks conjured up another unexpected delight: hints of reverse swing, in a tournament in which virtually none was anticipated.

Perhaps it is fitting that Bangladesh provided the first proper spark, because in a ten-team event where it is almost impossible to fly in under the radar, they have done exactly that. Not breaking records over the past year, as the best teams have done, or lurching from low to low like the worst, they'd hid in the middle of the pack. With every passing hour, the victory seems less heist, and more perfectly executed plan.

The result opens up two tasty new plot lines. Could Bangladesh be a wrecking ball in the round-robin stage, wreaking havoc among the semi-final hopefuls? And are South Africa, who have have lost two first matches and have India to play next, now straining against the psychological pressure they were not expected to encounter for at least a few weeks?

There is yet to be a transcendent passage of play at this tournament. There have been no electric finishes, for now. But where the first four matches told us little that was unknown, there was now something about this World Cup that seemed unwritten.

Now that's how you start a World Cup

Now that's how you start a World Cup © AFP

A tale of two deliveries

By Osman Samiuddin

June 2: Everything on Thursday morning and the preceding build-up had led us - conditioned us even - to believe that Kagiso Rabada would mark out his run-up, hand over his sweater to the umpire, conduct one trial run-in and kick off the 2019 World Cup.

The pitch held, we were told, a tinge of green and a bit of bounce. Pitch readings, though, should inspire the same amount of scepticism as tarot-card readings. So when Imran Tahir started marking out that Abdul Qadir-angled run-up first thing - hello? The world united in a double-take: what had Faf du Plessis figured out that nobody else had? To plan is human, to execute divine. When Tahir landed his legbreak just right and dismissed the world's baddest-ass ODI opener, Jonny Bairstow, first ball, we had our first divine moment of this tournament ludicrously early.

Even before the wicket, ESPNcricinfo's analysts and stats team were in some frenzy on Slack.

"[Jason] Roy vs legspin is a huge match-up." The tone was all caps.

"ODI cricket is becoming T20."

"Bairstow struggled against spin in IPL."

Du Plessis revealed later he had been planning it for weeks. Tahir had been bowling with a new ball in the nets. It was a bracingly modern moment: a notably intuitive captain, unafraid to take risks, unearthing a tactical masterstroke, perhaps on the back of some data, and neutering England's barnstorming opening pair.

The fact that it was Tahir mattered. He is at his last big hurrah, genuinely one of the game's most interesting stories, a cricketer who started off Pakistani but ended up South African - and no team, historically, is as unlike Pakistan as South Africa.

Except: Jofra Archer. Later in the game Archer, with a backstory every bit as engaging as Tahir's, with skills and swag to burn, created his own little moment. It was early in the chase but his bouncer to Hashim Amla, which hit him flush on the grille, felt immediately like it was an Important Moment.

The thrill of it was something else. Much more visceral, yes. A young man, with a lean, slight frame, exercising the powers of his youth over an ageing great, low on form, slow in body. A young man emceeing his own entry onto the world stage, and in the process consigning du Plessis and Tahir's opening duet to an afterthought, a curio from the remnants of battle.

And so, to throw it back at Rudyard Kipling, it is a really, really big if, to be expected to treat triumph and disaster - or at least their dialled-down sporting equivalents, victory and defeat - the same. We don't - and probably can't - treat them the same.

Heroic failure we remember. It has a hallowed place in sport, especially with the English. What chances we'll remember Tahir's moment, which was but a minor success in a broader failure? Archer's moment, forged in victory, will live long because in retrospect it stands out as the moment the chase started getting gone. Du Plessis himself later alluded to the disruption it caused. So often what we celebrate and what we are left with are the moments of triumph that built the bigger triumph: Archer's bouncer or Stokes' catch. What fades away is Tahir's wicket, or du Plessis' Moeen Ali catch, technically was better than Stokes' because it wasn't, as the latter's was doing, making up for a misjudgment. That's for another day, though.

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo

Adam Gilchrist and Andrew Symonds rejoice, not knowing what horrors await them on the flight back

Adam Gilchrist and Andrew Symonds rejoice, not knowing what horrors await them on the flight back © Getty Images

Chasing the World Cup

By Jarrod Kimber

June 1: The journey to my first World Cup game started at a creepy internet cafe just off the Sunset Strip, with posters for cheap calling rates, and almost everyone using Hotmail. It was an email from my parents from which I found out that Shane Warne wouldn't be playing in the World Cup of 2003 due to a drugs ban.

My mates and I had planned on one month of backpacking across the US and then one month at the World Cup in South Africa. But we hadn't factored on the one logistical flaw - that we'd be in the US for the first month of a World Cup. And in places like Beaver, Colorado, in 2003, it wasn't always easy to find the internet to log on to Cricinfo. So we ended up finding our cricket in random places.

In a sports bar in St Louis or Memphis - somewhere flyover - we saw a news report on how the "South African Cricket Club" (bless them for trying) was on the verge of being knocked out of their tournament. In Chicago, in the back of an electronics shop we had entered to get my mate a replacement pair of clippers, a radio had BBC World Service tell us that John Davison - whom we had all seen as 12th man a lot for Victoria - had scored the quickest hundred in a World Cup, for Canada.

In Washington our hotel was full of Japanese basketball fans over to see Michael Jordan play for the Wizards, but there was also an Indian guy who told us how good Andrew Symonds had been against Pakistan. In New York we tried to talk to a Punjabi cabbie about cricket since he was a huge fan, but instead he told us all the disgusting details of his truly horrid sex life.

We had a week in the UK so we were able to see South Africa's Duckworth-Lewis failure - after fighting my cousin's boyfriend for the remote because he wanted to watch snowboarding videos. In an Aussie-themed pub in London - Belushi's - we watched Andy Bichel destroy England.

Then we made our way to South Africa. I saw my first ever World Cup match in Centurion, where Ian Harvey backed away to slog one at the death and ended up leaving the ball. All our stuff got nicked in a backpackers in Durban. When hanging around St George's Park in Port Elizabeth we saw the ticket desk open and went over to see if we could get tickets to the semi-final, and they had tickets to the final as well. In the final Virender Sehwag hit Brad Hogg pretty much over our heads.

We flew back the next day and were on the same flight as the Australian players. We took photos with the trophy, and Andrew Symonds was a bit unhappy with my mate's grip on it. On the plane, Adam Gilchrist exchanged seats with Darren Lehmann's wife to come into economy and help nurse his young child. He was on the same row as us. It took him hours to settle the child down, and when he finally did, they both went to sleep. Then I got up for the toilet, tripped on my mate's thighs and plowed elbow first into Gilly.

This was on my mind as I made my trip to Bristol for this World Cup, with my boys in the back of the car. Today they're going to their first World Cup game, Afghanistan v Australia. My youngest son's been saying he will support Pakistan. It took some time to convince him they wouldn't be playing. But I suppose it's all a journey.

Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo

© IDI via Getty Images

The great giddiness

By Sharda Ugra

May 29: I promise this will not be that old sports-hack boast of counting the numbers of World Cups you've attended or regurgitating the telling-the-grandchildren-I-was-there trope. (Know what, grandad/mom? The kids don't care.) There's a possibility this could be the last World Cup I travel to as a reporter, so I find it important to say this about World Cups that can't be said enough.

That when it comes around every four years - regardless of format or venue or how many teams play - the World Cup makes cricket still feel young, fresh and bursting with abandon. Not dying in one format, not getting cannibalised by T20 leagues in two, not contaminated by fixing (match, spot, whatever) across every kind, not bickering about lines or spirits. Cricket like it was when you first ran into the sport or were led towards it as a child.

From the time you hook into a World Cup, either on television in the office as un-entitled rookie or as the lucky so-and-so picking up your accreditation at the venue of your first game, its possibilities appear boundless. Anything can happen because it has, anyone can win because they do, and who knows who could become a hero, because there have been so many. There are many World Cup heroes who aren't typical "legend" material - in the thousands of minutes the World Cup occupies, heroes snatch and own an instant, freeze-framing it as theirs forever. Every fan has their own hero-entry snapshot, so out of respect I won't say what mine is. Regardless of who fills it, wherever you are, whatever you do, thinking about it will always make you stop and switch on the sunbeam in your soul.

The reason I love empty stadiums before a big game is the same reason World Cups make me giddy. The great, green stage lying in wait for a frenzied audience and its cast, characters, colours and drama. Yes, I know the game today is totally professionalised, from hair gel to boot studs, exhaustively prepared for, microscopically monitored, ridiculously controlled, and unconscionably hyped, never more so than during a World Cup. The allure, though, remains in the anticipation itself, in the sweeping statement that every World Cup makes - hey you, yes you, cricket is throwing its biggest party, the world is invited (yes, yes, ten teams is a travesty but the moment before the first ball is bowled is best savoured with a suspension of reality), so dust off your dancing shoes and hit the floor.

Gwylia mas Caerdydd, dwi ar fy ffordd. Watch out, Cardiff, I'm on my way!

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