Twelve years have passed since the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai last hosted a World Cup match. You’ll remember the game – MS Dhoni, finishing off in style with a magnificent strike into the crowd – and if you’ve forgotten, there is now a “Victory Memorial Stand” in the block at deep midwicket where the six landed.
If India’s triumph feels recent enough, cricket has fundamentally changed since it happened. Then, the IPL was three years old, bilateral series were the bedrock of the sport’s economy, and there was no question that the 50-over World Cup was the pinnacle of the limited-overs game. Since then, the IPL and its offshoots have become a behemoth, undermining the ODI format in particular.
That has been felt most keenly within the context of bilateral series, which feel incessant despite their actual volume diminishing, and only rarely see teams field their best players. But there is an unavoidable sense that the format has suffered as a whole; the ICC’s slogan for the World Cup – “It takes one day” – feels more like an apology than a boast.
And that sentiment has been furthered by the first two weeks of the World Cup itself, which has been defined by the absence of both crowds and close finishes. Empty seats at games not involving India have been all too common – not helped by a mysterious and belated ticketing process – and not a single match has been alive heading into the final over.
Only one of the first 18 games was remotely close heading towards the end of the second innings: Pakistan’s win over Sri Lanka in Hyderabad, when they chased down 345 with 10 balls to spare and six wickets in hand. Even that lacked any real jeopardy in its conclusion, culminating in Mohammad Rizwan leading a cruise towards victory.
But two results have kept the World Cup alive: Afghanistan’s victory over England in Delhi on Sunday night, and the Netherlands’ win against South Africa in Dharamsala two nights later. As a result, both teams arrived in Mumbai this week knowing that a defeat on Saturday would represent a major setback, while a win would put their semi-final hopes back on track.
Both sides have exhibited their batting firepower across the first three games – between them, they have the highest and third-highest totals of the tournament – but had their vulnerabilities exposed in defeats and need a response. England in particular cannot afford to lose: one win in their first four games would need them leaving a perfect end to the group stage just to reach the semi-finals.
The venue could not be better. The Wankhede is yet to stage a game at this World Cup but was a batting paradise during the IPL: across the seven matches it hosted, batters hit 141 sixes and teams scored at an average of 10.14 runs per over. It is not the biggest stadium, with a capacity of just over 30,000, but feels like a cauldron when full – and ticket sales are strong.
For Temba Bavuma, South Africa’s captain, it will be a first experience at an iconic venue. “For me, growing up idolising a guy like Sachin Tendulkar, Wankhede was a stadium you always heard about. To have the opportunity to be playing here is another tick off my list as a cricketer.”
England, meanwhile, are relishing the prospect of playing at a venue which they feel will play to their strengths. “This is one of the great grounds in India. I love playing cricket here,” Jos Buttler, their captain, said on Friday. “It’s a fantastic cricket wicket… it should suit us.” Ben Stokes took a similar view: “It is generally a nice place to bat in particular.”
They have spoken this week about their approach with the bat. “We’ve had good conversations about how we want to play our cricket, and how we want to commit to the style that we play,” Buttler said. “That’s always more important than results… we know we won’t always win, but if we can stick to the way that we like to play our cricket and get to the best version of that, we know that’s the best chance we have of getting positive results.”
South Africa, too, will come hard at England’s bowlers, who have leaked runs in the Powerplay in the first three games. With Stokes’ return expected to come at the expense of an allrounder – Sam Curran looks likely to miss out – they will have one fewer option to turn to if they are under pressure.
“The guys that have played here have spoken about how it can be a batter’s paradise,” Bavuma said. “You get value for your shots and the ball seems to travel further. As batters, there can be a lot of confidence that if it is your day, you can fill your boots. And just the atmosphere of it all, it being a full ground, can be something to enjoy.”
It looks like the perfect storm: two flawed teams going at one another, at a ground that should suit their strengths and highlight their weaknesses. It could be the blockbuster that this World Cup needs.