March 11, 2011

WIDE WORLD OF SPORTS:

World Cup's Unlikely Heroes: A tournament in need of excitement has found a savior in the unpredictable England team (JONATHAN CLEGG, 3/11/11, WSJ)

With its jaw-dropping comeback against South Africa last Sunday, preceded by nail-biters against the Netherlands, India and an almighty upset loss to the Irish, England is in the midst of a World Cup campaign for the ages. "You can't take your eyes off this England team right now," said Michael Holding, a former West Indies bowler and now a cricket analyst.

As England prepares to play Bangladesh in Chittagong on Friday, it's become the only team to watch at this World Cup. The English have contrived to lose to Ireland in the same week they beat South Africa. They managed to tie with India days after barely squeaking past the Dutch. At cricket.

More significantly, its string of improbable upsets, topsy-turvy epics and wild finishes has helped revive a tournament many felt was nearing extinction. "We've brought the competition alive a bit," said Jonathan Trott, the England batsman.

For one thing, England's collection of unexpectedly close games hasn't come a moment too soon for cricket's one-day international format. Introduced in the early 1970s, one-day games were devised to offer instant appeal—a day's excitement instead of the strung-out epics over five.

But these days, the 50-over game is starting to look less like a colorful alternative and more like an unwanted gray area between Test cricket, the traditionalist's favorite, and the new dominant form of the game, Twenty20—which is basically one-day cricket without the boring bits.

"The problem with one-day cricket is that it's neither one thing nor the other," said Stefan Szymanski, an economics professor at London's City University and an advisor to the Indian cricket board. "So nowadays it can seem a bit ho-hum."

Last year, television audiences in Australia for one-day international matches reached a 10-year low, while England and South Africa have scrapped their domestic 50-over competitions amid waning interest from fans, players and broadcasters. Former cricket stars including Australia's Shane Warne and Imran Khan, of Pakistan, have even led calls for one-day internationals to be removed from cricket's overcrowded calendar.

At this World Cup, though, England's electrifying displays have highlighted the one-day format's enduring capacity to enthrall. The team's heart-stopping tie with India drew a television audience of 42 million in India, making it the most-watched World Cup game there for more than a decade, according to TAM India, a media research firm. Of all the games not involving the host nation, England's loss to Ireland is the highest-rated. The win over the Netherlands with seven balls to spare is third-highest.

"We're definitely doing our bit to advertise the 50-over format," said Andrew Strauss, the England captain.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 11, 2011 6:26 AM
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