Teams performing consistently with the bat and the ball have a better chance of reaching the semi-finals, and even snatching victories against strong teams, writes Rabindra Mukherji
As the cricketing world enjoys cricket’s mega festival ongoing in England, it won’t be the first time that a spectacle in the form of a high-voltage rivalry between as many as 10 teams would be witnessed in a country where this four-yearly affair had started in 1975. The mighty West Indies were the proud winners of that inaugural contest and the English were the second-best. Since then English summer has never quite shone on Team England, and they have never quite got the opportunity to lift the ICC World Cup. Now that the Championship is being organized once again in England and Wales, the hosts have perhaps the best chance of winning the Cup this time around, going by their recent form in one-day internationals (ODIs). Even the bookmakers have begun to rate them as the favourites to win this year’s tournament on home turf. However, whichever team lifts the cup, it will be a fascinating month of top-class cricket with plenty of runs expected to be scored in all the matches, courtesy some placid pitches being on offer these days in England.
To make the tournament a level playing field for all the teams, for the first time in the tournament’s history spanning 34 years, the group stages will witness a 10-team round-robin format in which each country will play the other nine, and the top four will then progress to the semi-finals.
What makes England the favourites
What makes England the favourites or at least one of the favourites is not very daunting to discern, considering their team composition and their tremendous ODI form in the recent months. England have the distinction of finishing runner-up in the World Cup on three occasions, including on home turf in 1979. Currently on top of the ICC one-day international rankings, England are yet to lose a one-day international series since losing in the semi-final of the ICC Champions Trophy held in June 2017. They are quite a formidable side coming into this World Cup after beating strong ODI teams in the recent past such as the West Indies, Australia, New Zealand, India, and Sri Lanka. Moreover, going by the international ICC rankings, England are the only team which can boast of four batsmen —- Joe Root, Jos Butler, Jonny Bairstow and Eoin Morgan— in the top 20, lending the much-anticipated solidity to their batting. All the four batsmen have contrasting styles, but when they are on song, they can butcher any bowling attack in the world. Joe Root, with an ODI batting average of 50.48 and an acceptable strike rate of 87.16 in 131 ODIs, is one of those tenacious characters in world cricket who is difficult to brush aside when he is at the crease. He is adept at accumulating precious runs, even as he punctuates his slow and steady approach with some glorious strokes all around the wicket. Jos Butler and Jonny Bairstow can tear apart any bowling side, though their contrasting styles are a delight to watch. While Jos Butler, if he so wishes, can strike the cricket ball hard, right from the first ball, Jonny Bairstow blossoms as the innings progresses with some outstanding strokes to the fence. He is a difficult man to contain and conquer once he settles down at the crease for more than 10 overs. As for skipper Eoin Morgan, he can adapt beautifully according to the match situation. The southpaw has a knack for unleashing strokes of the highest quality.
England also have a very potent bowling attack with both pace and spin complementing each other. Pacer Jofra Archer could well have a statement to make through his performance, and he will be ably supported by Mark Wood, who becomes a different proposition altogether bowling in English conditions. Tom Curran has done himself no harm in the recently concluded Indian Premier League (IPL) in India bagging vital wickets. Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid, if included in the final XI, can bring variety to theEnglish bowling attack. And don’t write off Ben Stokes. He is one of the best all-rounders the world has seen of late, and may have a few surprises up his sleeve.
India not far behind
If Team England are the one to watch out for, India may not be too far behind. With one of the best all-time opening pair in Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan, India can hope the two gentlemen to give the side good starts, quite consistently. This squad reminds us of the one that won the World Cup in 1983. Just as the squad in 1983, this Indian team is also packed with quality all-rounders. Hardik Pandya and Vijay Shankar can both bowl crucial spells against any Opposition; they can also tonk the ball over the park, much to the delight of their fans. While Jasprit Bumrah’s pace and canon-ball yorkers may be the key to checking a belligerent Opposition, Mohammed Shami’s guile and swing may give the team crucial wickets upfront to push the opposition on the back foot. Kuldeep Yadav may still prove India’s trump card, as not many batsmen in world cricket are used to playing a classy chinaman bowler. But all will depend upon the batsmen to give the bowlers enough cushion of runs to play with.
The worrying aspect would, in all probability, be the Indian middle order, which has not ignited in the recent past. While Virat is slated to come at no.3, the talk is that Vijay Shankar may come in next at no.4, leaving the experienced Dhoni to bat at five with the rest. Hardik Pandya’s position will also be interesting. However, being the top batsman in the world with a batting average of 59.58 in 227 ODIs and a strike rate of 92.96, Virat Kohli holds the key to a strong Indian batting performance, absolutely essential to win crucial matches in the competition. An even more imperative question is whether India will play two all-rounders in Vijay Shankar and Hardik Pandya. While Pandya is a certainty in all games, there could be a toss between Vijay Shankar and Jadeja, depending upon the condition of the pitch. If things go according to plan and India succeed in reaching the semi-finals, then there may be an opportunity to make history again by emulating the glorious feat of Kapil Dev’s men. Team India have the requisite talent to accomplish the feat.
Team Australia looking strong
Going ahead, one cannot simply be oblivious of the fact that the return of Steve Smith and David Warner into the side has breathed a lease of life into Team Australia. With a batting average of 41.84 in 108 ODIs for the former, and 43.43 in 106 ODIs for the latter, Australia’s cricket is never quite the same in the duo’s absence. Warner has already proved his mettle in the IPL, and Smith is slowly but surely returning to his awesome form and has possibly kept in store his best yet for the World Cup. And then there is Glenn Maxwell, who with a strike rate of 121.95 can play spoilsport for many a team. As for the bowling fire-power, the Australians have always had an attack to demolish any batting line-up. With bowlers like Nathan Coulter-Nile, Jason Behrendorff, Kane Richardson, Mitchell Starc, and Pat Cummins, there is no dearth of pace and penetration in the attack, which is supported by world-class spinners in Nathan Lyon and Adam Zampa. This Australian attack also has plenty of variety to bamboozle their opponents.
Windies still pack a punch
When talking about World Cup cricket, one should not forget the exploits of the Windies in the 70’s and 80’s of the last century. Clive Lloyd had a formidable side then with the likes of Vivian Richards, Desmond Haynes, Lloyd himself and the unforgettable pace attack spearheaded by Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding, Andy Roberts and Joel Garner. But the current West Indian side is a poor shadow of the legendary side they once had. However, the Windies are known to up the ante when it comes to the big stage. With the infusion of power-hitters Andre Russell and Chris Gayle into the side, it would take more than a mediocre performance from the other teams to beat the West Indies. Their bowling may be relatively short of experience, but on a day they can match any opposition, provided their batting clicks. In fact, Andre Russell and Chris Gayle can decimate any opposition by the sheer power of their batting. If there are enough runs on the board, even a mediocre attack looks more than handy and can hand out defeat to any Opposition. The onus will, therefore, be on the power-hitters of the side.
Lack of consistency in South Africans
Even as all the teams have almost an equal chance of making it to the final, if not emerging as the champions, the team that has, over several World Cups, shown the promise early on but failed to outshine their opponents during crunch times, is the South African team. They are a balanced side in terms of batting and bowling. With the likes of Faf du Plessis, Quinton de Kock David Miller and JP Duminy in the squad, the South Africans have enough men to provide their bowlers plenty of runs to come to the party.
While Hashim Amla must justify his selection, Aiden Markram has still to make a mark in this format of the game. But South Africa do have the ammunition to defend any total with men like Kagiso Rabada, Dale Steyn, Lungi Ngidi, Anrich Nortje, Imran Tahir, Tabraiz Shamsi in their ranks. If the South Africans have anything to worry about, it would be the lack of consistency in their performance when it comes to the big stage in world cricket.
Sri Lankans not the serious contenders this time around
The Sri Lankan team do not have much to pin their hopes on, going by their recent ODI performance. They have to play out of their skins to be a serious contender for the World Cup. The team sorely misses the services of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, and in their absence looks a depleted side. Though the team had shocked the South Africans recently by winning the Test series in South Africa for the first time, an undoubtedly creditable performance, their ODI fortunes have not sparkled of late. Their batsmen like DimithKarunaratne, Angelo Mathews, ThisaraPerera, KusalPerera and others must unleash their fire power consistently to support a very potent bowling attack spearheaded by Lasith Malinga, and ably supported by Nuwan Pradeep, Suranga Lakmal and the likes.
New Zealand the balanced team
One team that has all the ingredients to make it to the final and even lift the Cup is Team New Zealand. They have everything aplenty, whether it is in the pace department, the spinning option or in the batting prowess. Their skipper Kane Williamson can match any top batsman in the world and he can change gears anytime, from one of defense to offence. Ross Taylor’s experience will prove handy in the middle order. Martin Guptill may not have bloomed in test cricket, but he is a different proposition in the ODIs. Colin de Grandhomme and Colin Munro can take the aerial route and hit the cricket ball harder than many in the game. Tim Southee’s spells upfront will be crucial as his skipper will want him to make early inroads into the Opposition. Mitchell Santner normally does not disappoint when he is asked to bowl and picks up wickets when his Team wants him to perform. Ish Sodhi can lend variety to the attack with his leg-spin.
Of all the teams it is Team Bangladesh that have improved the most over the years. Bangladesh have done wonders with both the bat and the ball in recent years. They have beaten Sri Lanka and the West Indies in ODIs recently. Bangladesh can truly boast of a young and potent bowling unit, led by their young sensation Mustafizur Rahman, who was named the ICC’s emerging cricketer of the year in 2016. He has a tally of more than 50 wickets in ODIs till date. However, the team will have to perform optimally throughout to make it to the semi-finals.
Pakistan have been a mercurial side in many of the World Cups. In the past World Cup Championships, the Pakistan team have at times seemed to be in the dumps, only to arise and beat stronger sides in the competition. In fact, they won the ICC Champions Trophy in England two years ago, beating the host nation in the semi-finals. However, Pakistan’s ODI performance, of late, has been characterised by a lack of consistency. But, in Imam Ul-Huq and Babar Azam, who both average more than 50 in ODIs, they have the talent and power to destroy any pace attack.
Though Team Afghanistan are not expected to win the World Cup by any stretch of imagination, they can, churn out a stunner at least in the round-robin stage. With leggie Rashid Khan and off-break bowler Mujeeb Ur Rahman ranked in the ICC top 10 bowlers, they have enough power to pick up a win or two, even at the expense of some of the bigger nations in the competition.
Even as we assess the chances of respective teams vying for the coveted World Cup, it may all come down to the state of the pitch on the day the teams begin their hunt for the cup. English pitches no longer assist swing or seam bowling to the extent they did, though reports suggest they may provide some reverse swing later in the match. Also, it is summer in England, which means very little assistance for the bowlers from the prevailing natural conditions. However, if the warm-up games are an indication, there may be enough in the pitch to keep all the pacers interested. Spinners, for their part, have to do the containing act, and wickets may be a bonus for them. Spinners like KuldeepYadav and Rashid Khan, though contrasting in their styles, may opt to attack and leave the containing act for others in the team. But most of the matches are expected to be high scoring ones, with aspirations reaching as high as crossing the 500-run mark.