The first if the three major sport World Cups played this year starts tomorrow (actually today in the UK because of the time difference) namely the Cricket World Cup which is being held in Australia and New Zealand. The first point is that the tournament’s format is terrible. A 14 team event lasts 44 days (the FIFA World Cup last year had 32 teams and lasted 32 days) and it takes a month to reduce the number of teams from 14 to 8 (and it is highly likely that we know who the last eight will be). With that said how will the tournament go?
A key feature of One Day international (ODI) cricket in recent years is that scores have been rocketing upwards. Two examples of this from this winter were Rohit Sharma’s 264 for India and AB de Villiers’ amazing 31-ball century for South Africa last month. Paradoxically that makes bowling more important. It is clear that unless a fielding side can take early wickets with the new ball, have a wicket taking spinner and have good “death bowling” then they will be hammered. Since the top eight sides all have destructive batting the sides that do well will be the ones that have the bowling to stop these strong batting line-ups.
So let’s take a team-by-team look at the teams in the World Cup.
Group A – Australia – The hosts are the favourites and rightly so. Aaron Finch, David Warner, Shane Watson, the vastly improved Steve Smith, captain Michael Clarke(when fit) and six hitting machine Glenn Maxwell make up a scary batting line up even by this tournament’s standards. And the fast bowling is formidable. Mitchells Johnson and Starc plus youngsters Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood. Two weak spots. They don’t have a wicket taking spinner. Maxwell’s bowling is far less scary than his batting and Xavier Doherty is average at best. And will the hype get to them? They flopped in 1992 as hosts. Could history repeat itself?
England – When England left Sri Lanka last year with their tails between their legs their World Cup chances looked slim. But the sacking of Alistair Cook and his replacement by Eoin Morgan has produced some improvement. Probably not enough. They were outclassed three times by Australia in their warm up tournament. There are signs of an exciting batting line up of Ian Bell, Moeen Ali, James Taylor, Joe Root, Morgan and the explosive Joss Buttler. However they are inconsistent. The bowling is a worry. If James Anderson and Stuart Broad don’t take wickets with the new ball and Steve Finn does not bowl quick it is very batsman friendly. If England can get to the Semi Finals – and they haven’t done that since 1992 – it will be an achievement.
New Zealand – New Zealand are usually the Oakland As of cricket. A team of underdogs punching above their weight. Not this time. This New Zealand team is seriously good. Three world class batsmen in captain Brendon McCullum, Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor, plus big hitters Corey Anderson and Luke Ronchi make a formidable batting line up. The bowling has depth in pace with Trent Boult, Tim Southee, Adam Milne and Mitchell McClenaghan plus a vetran spinner in Daniel Vittori. If they cope with the pressure this is the best chance New Zealand has ever had of getting to the Final.
Sri Lanka – One man holds the key to the 2011 Finalists chances. The batting is strong and experienced lead by Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardane and captain Angelo Matthews. They also have a reliable spin attack. But Sri Lanka in order to perform well need Lasith Malinga the best death bowler in the world to be fit and firing. He is just coming back from injury and went at six an over in both Sri Lanka’s warm up games. If he is at his beat Sri Lanka could get to the last four at least. If he is not they will not get beyond the last eight.
As for the other three teams in the group Bangladesh could cause an upset – but only one – the fact that Afghanistan are here at all is a fairy tale – in 2008 they were in Division Five of the World Cricket League playing the likes of Jersey – but they and Scotland probably have no more realistic hope than to win the game against each other.
Group B – India – the holders have a strong batting line up led by Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Shikar Dhawan and captain MS Dhoni but the bowling (especially the fast bowling) is not as good and their form is awful – they haven’t won an international match on their tour to Australia and confidence is low. If they lose their first two games to Pakistan and South Africa they will be under huge pressure from a demanding public(India is as fanatical about cricket as Brazil is about football and over a billion people in India will be watching them). Could get to the last four but unlikely to go further.
Pakistan – What Winston Churchill said about the USSR – “A riddle wrapped in a mystery wrapped inside an enigma” – could well apply to Pakistan. They could win the whole thing – or suffer a humiliating defeat by Ireland and go out before the last eight. One suspects they will struggle this time. Apart from two recent games in New Zealand they haven’t played outside Asia since 2013 and will need experienced players like captain Misbah-ul-Haq , Younis Khan and Shahid Afridi to fire to have a chance of a last four place. Still they beat England in a warm up match and can’t be written off.
South Africa – based on talent this team should be in the Final. AB de Villiers – the best batsman in the world – Hashim Amla , Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander are a world class core, Quinton de Kock, Rilee Rossouw and David Miller are exciting young batsmen and Imran Tahir is a wicket taking – if sometimes expensive – spinner. However they have a reputation for being “chokers” – not performing well in big games. A reputation is very hard to get rid of. South Africa could yet again win all their group games look unbeatable and then blow up when the pressure of knock out sport comes in the last eight (perhaps even losing to England?).
West Indies – Oh dear. From 1975 to 1983 they were the team every one wanted to beat. Now they could be the team everybody beats. For some reason best known to themselves they appointed a 23-year old rookie Jason Holder as captain and left out Dwayne Bravo and Kieron Pollard – probably because they lead a players’ revolt in India last year. They still have world class batsmen Chris Gayle and Marlon Samuels but the bowling is awful – as de Villiers showed in South Africa. There is a chance they don’t get out of the group. If they get beyond the last eight I will be amazed.
Of the other teams in the group Ireland humiliated Pakistan and England in the last two World Cups and if anyone is to stop the last eight comprising of the “big eight” it will be them. Zimbabwe beat Australia last year and could cause another upset while the UAE are probably the weakest team here and are unlikely to win a game.
So who will win? If I had to predict I would say that the Semi Finalists will be Australia, England, New Zealand and Sri Lanka with the Final on March 29 in Melbourne being between the hosts – Australia and New Zealand – with the Aussies favourites to win. But it is not a certainty by any means. Let the cricket begin…