Knock Out

And so the group stage is over. I was hoping to be writing a different story today. One about Pakistan or Bangladesh or the West Indies. But instead we are looking at the semi-finals that everyone expected and quietly feared: the Big Three plus spunky New Zealand. It was almost a foregone conclusion, despite England’s wobble against Sri Lanka. And so I am not telling the story of how Pakistani or West Indian or Bangladeshi immigrants were treated by their new home, the United Kingdom, the host of the tournament. There is no poetic bend to this World Cup toward justice. It’s not that story. Instead it’s cricket’s usual story, the one we hear all the time, the horror story that is the Big Three’s utter domination of world cricket. How they manipulate the game to hoard even more power.

Many people — myself included — bemoaned the fact that there were only 10 teams in the format chosen for this World Cup, because it all but completely denied access to the non-Test nations. But another part of me is like, who cares? We just would have watched India and England and Australia run roughshod over countries who don’t have access to the money and power that those three countries have. But what do we do about this? Nothing. All three final matches will sell out. All three will attract huge television ratings — again, myself included — and all three will be flooded with buckets of cash from sponsors whose products we all buy. And so we are just as culpable. The system is corrupt, and we fund the system.

We didn’t get the semi-finals that we wanted. But we got the semi-finals we deserve. In the world that we fantasize about but do nothing to bring to fruition, Pakistan is playing England tomorrow, perhaps, and maybe South Africa is taking on New Zealand or India. Dream match ups. Instead, we will watch the semi-finals we were expecting to watch and were already bored with the minute the format was announced.

I am being overly cynical, I know, and probably a little harsh, especially for the fans of those four teams. Having your favorite team in a knockout match in the World Cup is a special kind of joy for a sports fan. It’s thrilling and nerve destroying and occasionally even fun. Tomorrow a billion cricket fans in India will tune in to watch the new guard and the old guard take on New Zealand, a like-able but fiercely competitive 11. And not as many people will watch England play Australia on Thursday, but across Australia people will rush through dinner to watch the first over, which will happen in Sydney at around 7:30 in the evening. Kids will be allowed to stay up late but not too late. And throughout England, a kid here and there will watch and fall in love with this remarkable old game, and that kid might be the one that saves it.

Again, I was being harsh. At the end of the day it’s cricket. It’s fun. We maybe didn’t get the semi-finals the poets in us all wanted, but we will get to see the best four teams in the one day game play each other. That’s maybe not poetry but it’s justice, in a sense. We will get to watch Kohli and Sharma and Taylor and Warner and Root. And Bumrah and Boult and Starc. What a shame if any of those players had been left watching from home? We would have missed out on the best cricket has to offer. So, yeah, it’s a shame that Jason Holder is already back in the Caribbean, but we do get Ben Stokes, who has played out of his mind, shaking Bristol off his shoulders, and has carried England to the knockouts.

Even when it is predictable, there is always poetry in cricket, that’s what keeps us coming back.

And cricket, more than any other sport on earth, is intensely and aggressively fair. So maybe it’s not anyone’s fault that the best teams in the world batted and bowled through damp and bad luck bounces and wickets that were roads to get to the knockouts, because that’s just how cricket works. We can’t blame a corrupt system if the game itself is what gave us the semi-finals we got.

Mostly, though, I will watch because I will be sad when it’s over. For nearly six weeks we have watched cricket every day, all day. A festival of the game we love. And on Sunday when the shadows start to grow long in St. John’s Wood, we will know that the end is near. And then the champion will be crowned and the guns will fall silent. And after six weeks of cricket every single morning, we will be greeted with nothing but quiet. And when the trophy is lifted, we will think about where we were four years ago, when Brendon McCullum was bowled out by Mitchell Starc with the third ball he saw, and David Warner and Michael Clarke and Steve Smith put out the result out of doubt. We will think about where we were then, and we will think where we will be four years from now, when India’s openers trot out into the heat and the haze of the tournament’s opening match. Where will I be? Where will all of us be? So much has changed in the last four years, and it will all continue to change. And we will mark time by these tournaments, and hope for a memorable final that we can hang onto as life happens over the next 48 months until we are all here again, writing, watching, cheering. Because it’s a World Cup summer, and World Cup summers are always the best summers.

Until next time.


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