Once every four years, cricket meets to do some ironing. Over creases and conflicts, differences and discords and it tries to set out its most perfectly coordinated wardrobe for its disparate, argumentative global audience. For a sport where a day's play can last 24 hours - the toss held in Napier and the last ball bowled in Kingston - the World Cup actually shrinks planet cricket and tries to flatten it out. Once every four years, the Cup brings the sport's styles, philosophies, ambitions and dreams onto a smaller, relatively even field which becomes the centre of its universe.
Over the next six weeks, that field is South Asia: the game's biggest, noisiest, yet wealthiest neighbourhood. It is the most unpredictable of places but remains cricket's most vibrant and diverse. Since the last World Cup held here fifteen years ago, India has joined the game's elite and grown into a financial behemoth, Sri Lanka has made two World Cup finals and Bangladesh is inching towards the steps India took in the short game in the 1980s and Sri Lanka a decade later. The past, really, is another country.
It was the 50-over game that gave two of the host nations their street-cred and the chance to strut alongside the game's traditional western powers. Today as the very existence of the 50-over format is being questioned by pundits and ignored by spectators in some parts of the world, the World Cup returns to its most loyal constituency.
Unlike 1983 or 1996, the Cup's 10th edition has greater significance even before it begins: it is the one that will decide what course the 50-over game will take over the next few years. It will be the first World Cup to be played after the juggernaut called Twenty20 began to move and everything that happens in the 2011 event will have consequences impacting the game's immediate future. The ICC now calls this World Cup, "The Cup that Counts", and not because it is being played in the vicinity of Mr Moneybags. That tagline is a reminder of the World Cup's very primacy and is directed at both the game's audience and its advertisers, who are as distracted by the dazzle of Twenty20 as the players.
The ICC's 49-match, 43-day, 13-venue event is intended to be the brightest advertisement of the ODI format ,which from the 1980s, has kept cricket solvent and expanding.
What 2011 is being primed to do is to erase from memory the gloom and goof-ups of 2007, and through a long, endlessly drawn-out schedule, stoke merriment, interest and just the right kind of upsets. In South Asia, the World Cup has its best chance because here, unlike anywhere else in the world, cricket is behemoth. This is where an ODI featuring any of the three home teams will fill stadiums and switch TVs on in millions of homes. Cricket is the source of the hosts' national confidence and in 2011, nowhere more than in Bangladesh. Dhaka traffic was brought to a standstill to let the Canadian team bus through from airport to hotel as if it were carrying heads of state. Colombo's civic authorities have banned people around Premadasa Stadium from untidy habits like hanging out their clothes to dry or 'engaging in street games like hop scotch or cricket matches'. In India, the giant billboards showing cricketers snarling wearing body paint or selling real-estate, cover all commercial air space and Bollywood reports that the number of films set to be released in during the period has dropped from its average of three a week to merely one solitary braveheart.
This could be the time and place where the much-abused one-day international format, instead of undergoing its last gasp, finds its second wind. It will need to do so because already there is talk about trimming the size of the field in 2015 down to ten, which Graeme Swann described as, "taking the world out of the World Cup." In Australia, they are trying to turn a 100-over contest into "quarters" at the domestic level. Twenty20 leagues are being set up in all corners of the cricket world and the first international cricketers have turned down national contracts to join a new guild of travelling freelancers.
In the first stirrings of skirmish between country and club, cricket will need its world and this World Cup to stand to its full height. It must prove that cricket needs to treasure both its Test match cathedrals as well as its rock concert arenas. Three formats of the game can only co-exist if conflicting national loyalties find common ground. After the 2011 World Cup, the ICC will set in motion a four-year ODI league structure based on its current rankings to dissolve the ODI's general meaningless spin around random TV-centric, fizzy-drink and mobile-phone Cups and give the format 'context'. It is why this Cup actually counts.
Already there is grumbling about its duration - compared to 2007, there are two fewer teams in the competition and yet only two less group games. For over a month, matches will pop up around three countries and 13 venues before suddenly moving to a knockout that will last all of 10 breathless days. There is however far less little objection voiced about the format that leans heavily towards the game's heavyweights. The admission of the same by tournament director Ratnakar Shetty was met with a gulp of acceptance as is the general vagueness around the venues, sequence and order of the quarter-finals.
The 2011 World Cup's attempt to "control the controllables" and thus prevent India v Pakistan turning into Ireland v Bangladesh is so all-encompassing, that it gives rise to an uncontrollable temptation to summon the Norse gods of mischief.
If the event has plenty of close contests that reflect the impact of the Twenty20 format on the 50-over game, the World Cup will help sustain faith in one-dayers. There are expected to be higher totals, more sixes and the full range of 21st century improvisational shot-making. Twenty20 cricket has given batsmen, what Harbhajan Singh calls a greater "liberty and confidence" to take risks. The ripple effect of this laissez faire batting mindset in a World Cup semi-final will be far removed from what happens in a domestic micro-mini bash, so the Cup's most successful hitter could well be its clearest thinker.
During the Cup, the more accomplished of the free-strikers, like Chris Gayle could find another mega-gear; there are predictions of the first World Cup innings of 200-plus and the rejigged role of the conventional 'pinch-hitter'. From being the slogger in the first 15, he must now be the man who can give his team's innings its 'kick' in the home straight of the last five or ten overs. Bring on the tactical gymnastics that are Powerplay calculations and the technological mire that is the UDRS. The 2011 World Cup promises to be peppered with both idiocy and incident.
At the moment though, most World Cup discussions centre around the event's Indian epicentre and the team's standing as the tournament's heavily-publicised, frequently-tailed and loudly-proclaimed favourites. That supremacy is determined by India's growing ability to create a foothold in the most slippery of games, the general public buoyancy around the team's success and ICC rankings, and the sheer dominant force and decibel levels of its home crowds.
Yet, never mind what the bookies say, there are others behind them with as good a chance and fewer expectations or, as MS Dhoni calls it, 'responsibilities' in the course of the six weeks of cricket. Since the last Champions Trophy, of all the leading teams in the event, India (who have played 43 ODIs, more than any other nation in this period) have 24 wins and 18 losses, are fourth in terms of win-loss ratio. Australia have had the best win-loss ratio with 26 wins and 11 losses, followed by South Africa's18 wins and eight losses and Sri Lanka's 18 wins and nine losses. This does not take into account the Pakistan team who can write the most dramatic stories in the game, five-time semi-finalists New Zealand, and West Indies, who want, as their manager Richie Richardson says, "to prove to the world that we can play cricket". (Fifteen years ago, it would have been thought that Richardson was being ironic.) All of these teams have had a grim 18 months - Pakistan lost its right to stage 14 games at home following Lahore - while in Bangladesh, there is a general sense of optimism that the moment to take their great leap forward has arrived.
The balance of whether this will be a batsman's World Cup or a display of global spinning skills is now up in the air with many theories and possibilities following the warm-up games. Australia will put their weight behind their quickest bowlers, Sri Lanka pack their side with part-time spinners to back Muttiah Muralitharan, and even South Africa have come armed with slow bowling options and a pace attack that is not half bad. India have are looking to pack in the part-timers as its quick bowling strength now rests on one fragile strike bowler and a fellow who can be both trouble-shooter and trouble-maker.
It is how all this will hold together in the last ten days of the World Cup, during the knockouts that is being chewed over. Shyam Balasubramanian, Singapore-based technocrat-fan, recently wrote in with an argument that in these definitive games needing "higher-risk strategies", teams must have two "go-to bowlers" during the restriction overs and "three manic-hitters" who can produce 120 in 80 balls three matches in a row. According to him, the only two countries that have them - Australia and Pakistan. Enough to start off squabbling and howling 24 hours before a ball has been bowled.
Imran Khan, speaking the other night on Indian television had a theory of his own: no matter what was happening within teams, every World Cup set its rhythm in motion (which has little to do with theme songs or opening ceremonies). "A World Cup gathers its own momentum", Khan said, and teams had to go with it. Those who adapted as often as they needed to were the most successful.
The 2011 World Cup may have been engineered for certainty, but finds itself in an environment full of variables. Be warned, the gods of mischief must be chuckling.