Several commentators at the Cricket World Cup 2023 seem to be of the view that the competition lacked spark in its opening stages. The criterion for this appeared to be a dearth of close, exciting, finishes.
But their reflections ignored the broken records and two shocks of the tournament, one last Saturday and a second on Tuesday. Afghanistan’s deserved victory over a lacklustre England in Delhi generated serious doubts about the latter’s ability to secure a place in the final four.
It means that the defending champions are faced with the likelihood of having to beat three out of India, Pakistan, Australia, and South Africa to stand a chance. On current form, this is a tall order.
India’s resounding win over Pakistan in Ahmedabad in front of a sea of blue shirts worn by more than 100,000 adoring supporters provided another example of the nation’s dominant and expectant attitude. It feels as if the other teams are battling to become India’s opponents in the final.
England’s defeat opened up the competition for this position even more than before. New Zealand and South Africa had set the pace. However, the latter’s case was set back by a shock defeat to the Netherlands in the dramatic Himalayan backdrop of Dharamsala.
This was a match which may not have taken place or not been witnessed by incoming observers. Weather forecasts for Dharamsala in the preceding days, suggested temperatures of 5 degrees Celsius, plus rain. There have been instances of professional cricket being played in temperatures of 7 degrees and 8 degrees in the UK. Surely, 5 degrees would be too cold to play a World Cup match. Fortunately, the forecasts improved, and 15 degrees was predicted, albeit with the ongoing prospect of rain.
However, the forecasts took second place to the logistics of reaching Dharamsala. Your columnist, along with a few other would-be spectators, were booked on a 11:10 a.m. flight from Delhi on Monday, the day before the match. Shortly before boarding time an e-notification was received to inform of a delay to 12:30 p.m. This time came and went, with an indication of boarding at 1 p.m. Doubts crept in that were realized with the announcement of cancellation. Although the plane was in Delhi, poor weather conditions in Dharamsala provided too great a risk to land there.
A melee ensued around the departure desk. Information emerged that the airline was offering a flight to Chandigarh and the provision of road transport to carry passengers onto Dharamsala, a distance of 450 kilometers. This did not appeal to some passengers, who included four eminent former international cricketers. At this point, alternative offers from the airline were not forthcoming.
However, a more immediate problem needed to be solved, the repatriation of passengers with luggage which had been checked in for the cancelled flight.
This meant transfer to the arrivals hall where the melee reformed. After customary jostling, it emerged from the beleaguered ground staff that an alternative offer was available. This involved a flight the following morning at 6:40 a.m. accompanied by an overnight stay at a hotel designated by the airline. Eight people, all seeking to attend the match, were in this predicament.
The hotel had seen better days, so we decamped to another venue for the evening. Everyone responded to a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call, and the 6:40 a.m. plane took off late but arrived early.
On leaving Dharamsala/Kangra airport it is difficult to miss a large poster of Anurag Thakur. He is a local MP and minister of information, broadcasting, youth affairs, and sport.
On the journey to the ground, more of his posters are strategically positioned. They are occasionally accompanied by posters of the Indian Premier League chair and former Board of Control for Cricket in India treasurer, Arun Dhumal, who happens to be Thakur’s brother.
What appears to be an excessive exercise in personal branding must be seen in the context of national elections due to be held next spring.
Currently, in Himachal Pradesh, the Indian National Congress party has 40 seats in the State Legislative Assembly, gained in 2022. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which rules nationally, has 25 seats. A fierce battle for votes is already in play for next year.
Further spice to this situation is added by the fact that Thakur was president of the BCCI between May 2015 and February 2017, when he had to stand down after the Supreme Courts’ order on BCCI governance.
It also seems that he has been involved in a legal battle between the Himachal Pradesh State Government and the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association over the rights to the Dharamsala cricket stadium. At one time, Thakur served as president of the HPCA. Indian cricket and politics remain firmly intertwined.
Against this political background and the natural, geologically formed backdrop of the lower Himalayas, the Netherlands team forged a dramatic upset in one-day international world cricket.
Unfancied and practically written off, they were asked to bat by South Africa, the start having been delayed by two hours of rain. This looked set in, but relented.
Reeling at 82 for five after 20 overs, a remarkable transformation to the innings was then driven by captain, Scott Edwards. Even at 140 for seven, a shock seemed improbable. An outburst of clean hitting by Edwards and Aryan Dutt propelled the total to 245 for eight. South Africa did not help their cause by bowling 21 wides. Such ill-discipline is unforgivable, and the team seemed flustered when put under pressure.
The Netherlands opened with a spin attack, which appeared to unsettle South Africa’s top order, which slumped to 44 for four. The team never recovered, despite some middle and late order attempts to restore balance.
The victory was the Netherlands’ first over a Test-playing nation at an ODI World Cup. It will be forever remembered by the team and its supporters, who celebrated in their traditional orange on the Dharamsala outfield.
It is reassuring that cricketers can still generate spectacular upsets and thrill fans when the game’s administration appears more wrapped up in commercial and political activities.