A home World Cup, Ashes series and historic Lord’s Test against Ireland await before the game as we know it disappears
Well, 2019 is supposed to be the year for English cricket. This is when opportunity knocks again and the old summer game captivates the nation. The England team begin the year as the favourites to win the World Cup and then Joe Root and his boys “entertain” the Australians.
That series will begin as pantomime with the villains from down under, Little Davy Warner (the Aussie mischief maker) and Serious Stevie Smith (the joker no more), taking centre stage. Then the cricket takes over and everything could be decided at the Oval on the evening of 16 September. It should all be brilliant – in theory. Tom Harrison, chief executive of the England and Wales Cricket Board, says: “It will be a once-in-a-generation summer for cricket fans in this country.” One hopes he is right.
Before all that there is the trip to the West Indies, which begins next month. Three or four decades ago this tour offered another bloody day in paradise, with the emphasis on the bloody rather than the paradise as West Indies’ peerless quick bowlers tormented the English batsmen before Viv Richards kept pummelling the ball down the high street in St John’s, Antigua.
Now it is not such a surprise for England to beat West Indies but the tour allows the possibility of sorting out the last positions in both the teams designated to bring success to the English game next summer (notwithstanding the fact that England only drew, 1-1, on their last trip to the Caribbean against a team described by the odd non-playing member of their own camp as “mediocre”). In fact England have not won a series in the Caribbean since 2004.
Hosting a World Cup should provide an exceptional boost to the game. When the competition began back in 1975 England was regarded as the obvious venue to stage the matches and it did so for the first three tournaments, which purred along happily enough. But somehow the home side never made the most of the opportunity in 1999, when England had a poor team which failed to progress to the second round.
“Let’s get things fully in proportion,” said the ageless John Etheridge of the Sun as the home side were knocked out even before the World Cup song hit the airwaves. “This was only the most catastrophic day ever for English cricket.” In May 1999 there was drizzle, a desultory opening ceremony and little foresight. At the second match of the tournament thousands of India supporters were locked out of Hove for their game against South Africa, the organisers evidently surprised by their presence in such numbers. Eventually there was some brilliant cricket but none of it involved England.
It will be different this time. On the plus side England are a much better side; the venues have all improved. However, this will be the first of the five World Cups held in this country not available live to the millions who have only terrestrial television. Such a scenario might have been a blessed relief in 1999 but that should not be the case in 2019, since the side has so many engaging cricketers.
In 2015 the Rugby World Cup was held in this country. It was readily available on our screens and captured the hearts and minds of the public in a manner that the ECB has been craving earnestly over the past few years. It will be harder to do that this time even if the England team are successful, which they should be. What a pity.
The format should help England to qualify, as should home advantage. There is a league of 10 countries and all play each other with the top four becoming semi-finalists. The England team have been especially good at winning ODI series in recent times. This suits their high-risk approach. They can work on the basis that this will win at least two thirds of their games – amid the odd implosion. However, the situation and the challenge become all the more tantalising at the sudden-death stage.
Having hosted and – who knows? – hoisted the World Cup, England have a historic four-day Test against Ireland at Lord’s before the Ashes, by which time there should be a clearer idea of the backstop (the odds are that it will be Ben Foakes).
And then come the Aussies with Smith and Warner urgently restored to score the runs for a bowling attack which is as potent as any when they are all fit. That should be fun. It must be hoped that the pantomime will quickly give way to an epic drama with the climax unknown except that Trevor Bayliss will be packing his bags for good and heading home to Sydney at the end of it all. Perhaps he will have the bragging rights – though he does not brag.
So in the best-case scenario the summer will be remembered by shots of Eoin Morgan lifting the cup and Joe Root cradling the little urn. Yet even if all that comes to pass, there remains a grim uncertainty about what follows as the ECB, to the dismay of the majority of cricket fans, embarks on its high-risk gamble for 2020 with two short-form tournaments dominating the domestic schedule through the months of June, July and August and the country’s best young county players focusing on little other than cricket matches lasting 120 balls or less.
Best to enjoy 2019 while you can.