Why the 50-over Cricket World Cup is more vital than ever in modern era

In the moments after Australia’s historic victory over India on Sunday, a euphoric Pat Cummins described how this Cricket World Cup had made him “fall in love with ODI cricket again”. Going by the numbers at least, it appears he wasn’t alone.

A 46-day epic that began with the previously unthinkable image of Sachin Tendulkar striding out into an empty Indian cricket ground ended up setting a record on the gates with 1.26 million people understood to have passed through the turnstiles at the 10 venues, nudging it just past the 2011 World Cup as the best attended.

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The digital streaming service in India, Hotstar, had its record for the number of concurrent viewers broken four times during the tournament and not just by dint of the national team playing. Glenn Maxwell’s remarkable double century in Mumbai sat among the top three before Sunday’s final – a peak audience of 59 million – proved the zenith.

It will take a week or so for the linear TV audiences around the world to be calculated and collated but the International Cricket Council, having reported halfway through the group stage a 43% rise in viewing minutes compared with 2019, expects to trumpet more record digits. The Indian Premier League is the prime real estate these days but the men’s Cricket World Cup remains a hugely lucrative plot.

All this sounds terrific but, cricket being cricket, it will do little to douse the debate about the sport’s future and, in this instance, the ODI format. Even before Trent Boult sent down the first ball of the tournament to Jonny Bairstow – man, that feels a lifetime ago – chatter was swirling about how 50-over cricket survives in the T20 era.

As it stands, not least given the numbers, the men’s Cricket World Cup will live on, with broadcast rights sold in India until the 2027 edition being hosted by South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia. Deals in other territories such as the UK go further still, with the 2031 World Cup – due to be staged in India and Bangladesh – already signed off.

As such, despite some recent headlines that an ICC board meeting will “discuss the future of ODI cricket”, it is not on an agenda that features topics such as the terms of Sri Lanka’s recent suspension and an update on gender qualification in the sport. If there are talks, these are likely to centre around a suggestion from Cricket Australia to revive the ODI Super League that, briefly, added some extra meaning to bilateral series.

This is 50-over cricket’s main challenge. While Cummins was whispering sweet nothings to his shiny new trophy, his admission about “falling back in love” highlighted how the romance in between World Cups has waned for himself and others. It may be that we have witnessed some of the knock-on effects in terms of the cricket.

As many have noted, even with a good variety of surfaces this tournament has lacked a decent number of tight finishes. With the volume of ODIs dropping off in recent years, a lack of familiarity with its rhythms could well have been at play. But to advocate an increase would be to deny the commercial reality and a schedule already straining like the shirt Shane Watson originally wore on commentary.

Either way, a personal view is that the World Cup is possibly more vital than ever. It is the one event that brings together the cream of the Test and T20 talent pools on the same world stage and allows them to showcase their true skills; the technical precision of Virat Kohli topped the run charts but the mad professor stuff from Maxwell produced its most jaw-dropping knock thanks to the broader 50-over canvas. For bowlers, T20 variations have enhanced armouries, no question, but a command of Test lengths has still been central – see Mohammed Shami’s sparkling campaign for more details.

Lose faith with this quadrennial global gathering and two hugely different formats will be left, in all likelihood followed by just one in time. There are valid discussions to be had over possible tweaks to the World Cup, such as bonus points during the group stage – net run-rate chat is a serious drag – or a crunch down to 40 overs. But overall it remains a binding force across the sport, the loss of which could have unintended consequences.

Given the deals already done and the numbers from the past two months, all this remains moot for the time being. That said, one record wasn’t broken this time around: the 92,453-strong crowd at the Narendra Modi Stadium on Sunday was 560 shy of the World Cup final at the MCG in 2015. As a fine India team discovered on the night, you can’t win them all.