Green pitches. White ball swinging and seaming. Dibbly-dobbly medium pacers. Rain, lots of rain. Reserve days.
That was the norm back in 1999 and now, two decades later, cricket’s biggest show is back to its spiritual abode in England. It’s been 20 years since it last came home. And as we are likely to find out, once the 2019 World Cup action starts on 30 May, a lot has changed in the last two decades.
When the World Cup returned to England after 16 years back then, cricket was in a transitional phase. Making sense of things is always easy in retrospect, but 20 years ago, cricket in England actually lived up to all the stereotypes. Ironic as it may seem to the modern-day cricket lover, but too much grass on the pitch was actually a thing. It was an oft-repeated complaint, mostly from batsmen those days — the pitch can’t be distinguished from the outfield.
A stranger in your own home
Twenty years later, cricket may find itself scratching its head, even unable to recognise its old home. For starters, lively grass on a damp deck has become as unknown a commodity as a free hit was those days. The white Duke ball, used only for that World Cup in 1999 and then never again, is a footnote: the Kookaburra reigns supreme. The idea of Twenty20 had probably not even entered the England and Wales Cricket Board’s (ECB) marketing managers then; today, Twenty20 is passé, “The Hundred” is the real deal, mate.
And then there were the scoring rates.
If there was one man who lit up that World Cup (well except, England who proceeded to be knocked out at their own party before even the official theme song was released), it was the combative South African all-rounder who went by the name Lance Klusener. More medium-pace then fast, bowling third-change after the duo of Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock, Klusener exploded into the cricketing world as the original finisher. With that distinctive high backlift, he stunned the world with his explosive mixture of hitting at the death, taking away games at the end. There was one blip though — that brain freeze in that semi-final, but we’ll spare him the pain. Suffice to say, there was a reason why Klusener won the Player of the Tournament award, only the second time after Martin Crowe in 1992 that a player from outside the two finalists has won that award in a World Cup.
When a strike rate of 100 was considered respectable
For those who have only grown up on the tales of Klusener’s mythical hitting, you would be forgiven for thinking that his strike rate in that tournament was a gargantuan 200 or so. Not quite. Not even close. Klusener scored 281 runs in that World Cup off 230 balls… giving him a strike rate of only 122.17 in that tournament. Which, at first glance, looks eerily similar to Ajinkya Rahane’s overall strike rate in the Indian Premier League: 121.92.
Yet in that era, Klusener’s strike rate was a revelation. Run-a-ball was par and in tricky English conditions, even above par. This was an era where 300 was still a benchmark – a yardstick which separated the possible from the impossible.
- Average score in ODIs in England, from 1996 to the start of the 1999 World Cup:
- Batting first: 238
- Batting second: 212
— (Statistics calculated from 16 ODIs played between 18 March 1996 and 13 May 1999 in England)
A time when old-fashioned seam bowling dominated
Not that teams weren’t getting to 300. Sri Lanka had already shown the benefit of throwing caution to the winds at the 1996 World Cup and teams were slowly albeit surely, following suit. There was one rider though – such a feat was thought to be possible only on batsman-friendly decks. Maybe in the subcontinent, perhaps in Sharjah. But on the cold, seamer-friendly decks on England? Not a chance. Mentally and statistically, 300 was a peak too far for most ODI teams in the years leading up to 1999.
Looking back at our vantage point from 2019, the 1999 World Cup perhaps signalled the end of traditional English cricket on the world stage. Medium pacers were a prized commodity in the years leading up to the tournament – a stat exemplified by the fact that players of the ilk of Adam Hollioake and Mark Ealham were among the highest wicket-takers in ODIs in England in the years leading up to the 1999 World Cup.
India flatter to deceive, Australia begin their reign
But more than the statistics, the 1999 edition had that odd mix of tradition and new-ageism — it was, in one sense, that one World Cup where commercialism and tradition existed in a perfect mix. Yes, there were the hordes of noisy fans taking over stadiums but there was also a touch of the traditional English flavour. In the first match of the tournament, defending champions Sri Lanka were bowled out for 204. To everybody’s surprise, India were the only team that scored the highest totals in the tournament — that 329/2 against Kenya lit up by Sachin Tendulkar’s heroic century days after his father’s death and that fabled 373/6 where Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid combined for a then world-record partnership in Taunton.
To be fair, India had quite a strange tournament. The match-fixing curse had yet to hit and captained by an ageing but still able Mohammad Azharuddin, they entered the tournament quietly hoping to go the distance. The fact that they were returning to the country for the game’s biggest tournament for the first time after 1983 — the scene of their greatest triumph — served as high motivation. But, first, a heartbreaking defeat to South Africa and then, a shocking performance against Zimbabwe proved too costly eventually.
Victories over Sri Lanka, Kenya and England (in a match that took place over two days due to rain interruptions) ensured a Super Six place which India celebrated by defeating arch-rivals Pakistan. That was all the joy they had – two quite soulless defeats against Australia and New Zealand where they seemed to just give up and throw in the towel consigned them to elimination.
Ultimately, it was all Australia, the champions. This was that great Australian side slowly finding their form. Early defeats to New Zealand and Pakistan in the group stage only hardened their resolve and thereon started a period of domination which only ended a decade later. This was an outstanding team, greatest of the greats — exemplified by none other than Shane Warne who made a mockery of the seaming conditions to finish as the joint-highest wicket taker with 20 wickets along with New Zealand’s Geoff Allott.
Twenty years have gone by. England’s storied old grounds will witness a very different World Cup. The decks look likely to be flat and 400 (or maybe 500?) seem likely in a few matches. England are actually considered favourites while Australia, talented as they are, are perhaps not even shadows of that great 1999 team. The weather may stay the same and perhaps the crowd turning up in numbers, but apart from that, nothing else will be.
A lot can change in 20 years.