Curtain up on Cricket World Cup marathon
SYDNEY – Agence France-PresseThe World Cup got a soft opening yesterday with a predicted 2.5 billion people poised to tune in to the six weeks of action but with the 49-match program facing a series of headaches.
From security to corruption to illegal bowling actions, the 14-team tournament, being played across 14 venues in Australia and New Zealand, was launched with night-time opening ceremonies in Melbourne and Christchurch.
The glitzy showbiz events, starred two of the hosts’ musical exports, Tina Arena and Hayley Westenra, brought the curtain up on the tournament which won’t start until tomorrow. That’s when Australia tackles old enemy England at a jam-packed Melbourne Cricket Ground while co-host New Zealand faces Sri Lanka on what should be an emotional afternoon at Christchurch’s Hagley Oval.
But the build-up to the event has been squarely focused on clamping down on some of the game’s darker arts as well as a harsh spotlight shone on security in the aftermath of Feb. 11’s announcement that an “imminent” terror attack had been thwarted in Sydney.
“The global security threat is an issue,” admitted International Cricket Council (ICC) chief executive David Richardson.
The ICC has also gone to great lengths to reduce the threat of corruption -- names of fixers with links to shadowy betting networks have been passed onto the two nations’ immigration bodies.
Furthermore, anyone suspected of “live betting,” whereby bookies take advantage of the brief delays in TV transmissions to manipulate odds, will be ejected from grounds.
On the field, the tournament, widely-regarded as the most open in years, will be missing a string of A-list performers. Pakistan was deprived of the world’s leading ODI bowler Saeed Ajmal after the off-spinner withdrew from the reckoning when his action was deemed illegal -- just one of a series of bowlers caught out in a recent crackdown.
West Indies spinner Sunil Narine, though not as lethal as Ajmal, also pulled out of his country’s squad to rectify problems with his action. As well as attempting to spot an illegal action, the game’s umpires will also be expected to play their part in a tough new campaign to eradicate sledging.
“The crackdown has already started,” said Richardson. “First offence you’ll likely end up with a fine, which no player likes. Repeat offense ... some players already sitting with some offences behind their name, will be punished with a suspension.”
Pakistan can boast the sport’s tallest cricketer in 2.16-meter Mohammad Irfan who’ll certainly be an attraction when his side meets bitter rival and defending champion India in Adelaide on Feb. 15. Tickets for that game were sold out within 20 minutes.
The World Cup is India’s last engagement on what has been a thoroughly miserable Test and ODI tour of Australia with Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s team finally breaking its winning drought on Feb. 10 with a victory over Afghanistan in a warm-up game.
Australia, the four-time champion, has been sweating on the fitness of captain Michael Clarke whose hamstring problems have placed a long-running question mark over his ability to last six weeks. His 64 in a warm-up win over the United Arab Emirates in Melbourne on Feb. 11 helped ease the doubts.
West Indies, the champion of the first two World Cups in 1975 and 1979, is in turmoil with former skipper Dwayne Bravo dropped for his role in the controversial abandoning of last year’s tour of India over a pay row. Teammate Chris Gayle accused the West Indies Cricket Board of victimization in its treatment of Bravo, one of the team’s few match-winners.
The UAE, which boasts the oldest players in the tournament -- 43-year-old duo, Mohammed Tauqir and Khurram Khan -- is playing in its first World Cup since 1996.
Afghanistan is playing in its first, a widely-applauded achievement for a team that picked up the basics of the game while living in refugee camps in Pakistan.