The World Cup is going as per predictions, barring England’s early exit. Their early departure is hugely disappointing, because England did show a lot of fight in the tri-nation series, but their bowling was unexpectedly poor.
As much has been made of England’s batting being from another era, it is their bowling, lack of individuality, and uncreative captaincy that hurt them the most.
They play most of their cricket in England where bowlers enjoy an advantage even in shorter formats. As a result they haven’t developed skills to outthink batsmen when the shoe is on the other foot.
Their reluctance with James Tredwell is case in point for lack of imagination – he is their premium spinner, and has confounded India, and Sri Lanka in the past, but thou shalt not play two spinners in an England setup.
Individual talents are either cast aside or moulded into something they are not – over-coaching and emphasis on numbers over individuality has killed the English setup right from the bottom.
But let’s get over the sad story and see what we have to look forward to at the business end. I will go from pretenders to contenders, quarters to semis, and then finalists, in that order.
Pakistan will beat Ireland, allowing the West Indies to qualify, but they along with Bangladesh are just there to make up the numbers. New Zealand versus West Indies and India versus Bangladesh should be as one-way traffic as they come. Yes, Bangladesh did beat England but they were woeful in their warm-up against Ireland not long ago, and were thrashed by Sri Lanka just a match prior, not very becoming of a Test-playing nation.
West Indies, as Michael Holding said, are doing a lot of batting but little thinking. Their tactics and giving up with a fair bit to go against India indicate their state of mind and ability. Even if Pakistan does lose to Ireland, the semi-final line-up should not change, but I would hate to miss out on Australia against Pakistan.
Pakistan are next – they have a match against Australia at Adelaide. They bowl with a lot of spunk but as evidenced by statistics since the medieval times, you don’t need much to trip them while chasing. Without a quality spinner and having shown a lack of faith in a good leggie, they are not doubling down on their major strength. But their bowlers always find a way and give them a chance.
It is their batting which comes undone, especially chasing. Can they bat first, make 260 and give themselves a chance? History in big tournaments has shown that Pakistan batsmen find a method to post a decent score if batting first, when even their ardent fans don’t expect them to.
It is not going to be a walk in the park for Australia but they will get there in the end.
South Africa versus Sri Lanka at Sydney is tricky – especially if Sri Lanka get over their injury concerns. AB de Villiers chest-thumps that his is the best team in the world – the only captain to do so – and yet they have had a pretty average tournament thus far. Yet he also indicates that his fellow players have to perform and that he can’t win the World Cup on his own – well, I can’t see how this is helping their campaign.
Even New Zealand and Austalia have been cautious with respect to their favourites tags, I really don’t know what affords De Villiers this luxury of boasting; it might be his personality and the team dynamic.
The larger concern is his below-par captaincy – he doesn’t want to keep because then he can’t communicate with the bowlers, but the calibre of bowler he has should be self-reliant (Even the ‘poor’ Indian bowlers make their own plan, and MS Dhoni interferes only when water is above neck during the games).
South African bowling has been fairly ordinary. De Villiers’ tactics to bowl part-timers at crucial junctures against India and Pakistan cost them the match.
Frankly, they are pretenders, but given how many world-class players they have, people just assume they have a very good chance. Do any poll and their bowling would be called as the best in the world, yet people regularly mistake their virtues in longer formats are the same in shorter ones. Given enough time the Proteas bowlers will get all batsmen out, and cheaper than most, but shorter formats don’t afford this luxury.
Dale Steyn can’t have his regular off the boil first spell as he regularly does in Test matches and then get back with his eyes flared up and turn the match on his head. Vernon Philander can’t choke the runs because of luxury of movement and risk involved for the batsman. Morne Morkel can’t build on the pressure and force batsmen to play higher risk shots. Their best bet in shorter formats is actually the weak link in long format – Imran Tahir. Man he is so consistent.
They are again playing by reputation by benching Kyle Abbott who is far more skilled one-day bowler then Philander – both upfront and especially at the death.
While their batsmen have the best record since 2013, their numbers are just dismal while chasing – they don’t even last 40 overs. JP Duminy made the right noises after the loss to Pakistan – conceding that they deter from team plans and start individual games when chasing; something they just never do while batting first. But it is a vicious cycle – lack of experience in finishing off while chasing leads to lack of confidence, leading to further losses.
Their bet on De Villiers over Hashim Amla as captain in shorter formats doesn’t sit right with me either. In a run-chase, Amla is the biggest wicket and while De Villiers sizzles, always he also fizzles in equal amount via his high-risk shots while chasing. Given he is a middle-order bat and generally bats most number of minutes in chases he should be able to shepherd the chase tactically, inspiring and motivating fellow batsmen on what to do when, but he is no Michael Bevan. His high-risk play betrays his faith in the fellow batsman to stick around.
Coming to the actual match, if injury concerns are not an issue for Sri Lanka, I can see them winning in a close one.
Now the semi-finals.
New Zealand’s middle order is suspect, being heavily reliant on high-risk gambles at the top order by Brendon McCullum. Kane Williamson, who I thought would be lighting up the charts by now, has shown nerves in the inconsequential opener but came back to seal it against Australia.
But their bowling is so good that it would be an upset for anybody to beat them in New Zealand.
I wouldn’t have considered India versus Australia to be close had the Aussies played Nathan Lyon and Ryan Harris. But apart from the major threat of Starc, consistent 6.0 runs per over for one or two wickets from Faulkner, and hit-and-miss Mitch Johnson, they have poor bowling. If they gamble to include Mitch Marsh at the expense of anoth bowler to further strengthen their batting it could be curtains. In a knock-out you want clearly defined roles for the batsmen and not the luxury that there is still batting to come down the order.
Sydney was India’s best chance to pip Australia in a Test match but their off-the-boil bowling let a potent opportunity go. But this bowling unit seems to have finally worked out the Australian conditions.
The other dynamic is India’s proud record in tournaments and their vigour to avenge defeats against Australia. India does seem to be only team which stays in Australia’s face all the time.
So what could be the make-up for the final? I can see New Zealand versus Australia, or New Zealand versus India to be the most likely outcomes.
Either way New Zealand, whom I must reiterate I admire so much, will not win.
There are three reasons why:
1. Whoever wins the India vs Australia match will be on such a high that they would go all the way.
2. New Zealand have played no matches in Australia and the conditions are worlds apart. In New Zealand, one bowls fuller and gives it a chance to swing, while the smaller grounds don’t help with bowling short. In Australia, especially on the flatter and drop-in pitches, the modus operandi is more back of the length. The ground dimensions and size add another dynamic and reward trying to bounce opposition out.
New Zealand bowlers are world class, and if it swings may be the best new-ball bowling pair in Test matches (yes, ahead of the South Africa counterparts) and could adapt, but their major threats Boult and Southee rely on movement and fuller lengths.
3. New Zealand’s middle order doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. Corey Anderson played woefully when put in a pressure situation against Australia, not unlike South Africa – trying to hit out of trouble. Ross Taylor has a poor strike rate when it comes to winning performances. This, along with their reliance on McCullum’s tactics of attack with both ball and bat, work in smaller New Zealand grounds but should backfire in bouncier conditions and in crunch situations, against in-form opposition.
So who will win the cup? Australia or India.