If I were to ask you who is the favourite to win the 2019 Cricket World Cup, you could say England, India or whoever stirs your being.
You could also go ahead and say your gut believes South Africa will spring a surprise. Is your prediction like the West Indies of 1983 or is it like the Pakistan of 1992? Is this all about guts and hunches?
Let’s do a short exercise. Whoever is your favourite, if the same World Cup was played five times, how many times do you think your favourite would win?
Take a few seconds, we will compare notes later. If your answer is four then the team is a firm favourite in your books, and their chances are 80 per cent.
This article is an exercise in thinking about incomplete information and trying to predict what will happen if the matches are repeated again and again.
On a given day, Bangladesh can beat Australia. But is it a one in three event, or a one in 20? Yes, that one instance could be in this World Cup but anybody claiming this would be so without rationale.
The format for this World Cup is like that of 1992, with teams playing all others once before the top four proceed to semis. This evens out the luck, the variance.
Teams can start badly and pick up or lose momentum after winning. Pakistan didn’t start well at all in ’92 – they were a few minutes of rain away from crashing out, in fact, but they found their form towards the end.
England started like they were not going to lose any, but with a bit of complacency they lost a couple towards the end. Come to the semis and final, the teams became very evenly matched.
For this World Cup, the semi-final line-up can be predicted with confidence. India and England are near certainties. Next up, South Africa and New Zealand have an 80 to 90 per cent chance, then Pakistan and Australia are a toss of the coin. West Indies, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan are next to no chance.
How could you come up with these numbers? Each team plays nine matches before the semi-finals, and needs to win about seven to qualify comfortably. Winning against the bottom four could be taken as a given for the top six teams. Yes, the West Indies have indeed beaten England in two games recently, which we will come to later.
So that leaves winning three or more games against the remaining five teams.
This simplified approach and doesn’t take into consideration the latest form (for example, the resurgent West Indies), the planning of matches and venues.
Say, are a few teams playing on the same venue? The nature of the pitches, grounds suiting the host nation, if the tough matches are being played at a familiar venue.
Are the supposedly easy games right at the start or at the end or are they evenly distributed? Playing nine matches with your best 11 again and again, be it strong or weak opposition, ain’t easy!
In easy games, those players in struggling middle orders don’t get game time, which then puts you at a disadvantage against tougher opponents. It will take a good day to do all this, and I look forward to doing it just before the World Cup when the squads and the form lines are more defined.
Then all four teams reaching the semis would have a similar probability of success. England and India are ahead of the part, but not far ahead of South Africa and New Zealand in the way Australia was in 2003 and 2007.
This is how I rate each team’s chances of winning the tournament: England 32 per cent, India 26 per cent, NZ 13 per cent, SA 12 per cent, Australia nine per cent, Pakistan seven per cent, others one per cent.
These numbers are almost identical to the odds that the bookmakers are providing, too.
Interestingly, the odds directly correlate to how easily can you can select the 15-player squad. India and England can already lock in 13 or 14 players. South Africa and New Zealand have 11 or so. Pakistan and Australia, around eight. Of course, Bangladesh has their 11-12 players so they should also win consistently.
Here are my predictions before the last World Cup. Besides Sri Lanka and South Africa, they worked to a tee, even Mitchell Starc being Player of the Tournament.
Now let’s do a short qualitative analysis of different teams. Few things you can see changing over the next 90 days which could improve and degrade the odds of each team.
Yes they lost two versus the ‘weak’ West Indies and their bowling line-up is not flash, but as they have shown time and again, as a collective, they have the measure of the pitches in England.
They beat one and all there, and the bowlers also come to the party. Then there is the composed captain, the no-ego, the no-pretention team culture – they should be able to do it all at the big stage.
One of the best ODI players, Jos Butler, comes at No.6. No game is beyond England. They have the best spin combination in the last two years. How good is their supposedly poor bowling line-up – look at their results on tours of India, Australia, and SA.
World-class, experienced players at the top and a few in the bowling. The nous of MS Dhoni. A settled, experienced team.
But they have a wobbly middle order, the liability of MS in batting-friendly conditions, poor record over last two or three years in chasing scores above 280 (read: overdependence on Kohli), a foolish board that prioritises IPL over the World Cup. You are less likely to see both the highs and the lows of England.
Perennially underrated, with masterful tactics and excellent man management. Yes, Kane Williamson is a great, Ross Taylor is setting the record books on fire, Trent Boult can bolt, but there are no obvious reasons for being so good.
New Zealand have iffy openers and lower order, and only serviceable bowling. On paper, they should struggle against both England and India.
Now the teams who don’t have settled line-ups, ill-defined roles, not the best of leadership and cohesiveness. Winning consistently in ODIs takes much more than flash performers. A hundred overs require certain nous, calculations, intelligent, throughout collective plans.
A team in a muddle of late, debuts being handed out like candy. They’ve been making way too many changes to the batting order and their all-rounders. Few good players who have impressed in patches but have not been given a consistent run in the name of trying everyone. Obvious weakness against spin, propensity to attack at the wrong time rather than taking the game deep.
A pretty good bowling attack and a batting line up with Quinton de Kock, Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis and David Miller. They are still fourth in the pecking order because I expect them to sort out the mess and because the group stage is so long.
Should be one of the contenders but the directionless selection and man management aren’t helping. Coach Justin Langer doesn’t inspire much confidence, and there are serious captaincy issues.
Have a few matches to sort it out and with Steve Smith and David Warner returning, they can be a force but I just get the feeling they would still be playing individually rather than as a team.
With Mickey Arthur and Sarfraz Ahmed at the helm, a lack of mercurial match winners of the past, and the shenanigans and interference of PCB, Pakistan should be goners. But the bowling and batting are both quite un-Pakistan-esque – they don’t have significant ups and downs but are consistently decent. If the pitches are not stacked in favour of the batsmen, expect them to do reasonably well.
Their recent two wins notwithstanding, I can’t see a batting line-up of individuals playing million-dollar shots coming good consistently enough against a decent top-six bowling attack. The fielding is weak, and the bowling – one or two mercurial performances aside – ordinary.
A pretty good bowling attack, including one of the three best spin combinations in the world, should trip up a top team or two. Batting has been improving for the last year. They should beat the West Indies, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
Copy-paste all the problems and more of Pakistan, add the leadership woes of Australia, multiply the selection muddle of South Africa, divide by the obvious lack of world-class talent of Bangladesh and you get the present state of Sri Lanka.
Their spin-friendly pitches don’t breed good pacemen, and the spinners struggle on better tracks against quality opposition. The young batsmen are made to bat in absurd positions, then are jettisoned quickly without any regard for options.
The captains, coaches and selectors are outpacing climate change. Given how bad it is, it is even an achievement that they are putting out decent teams, let alone match-winning ones. Such a great cricketing culture laid to waste by administrative incompetence.
A nation struggling to balance the needs of present-day results with investing and becoming a sub-continent force in long-term. The spinners aren’t good enough, nor are the pace bowlers.
The batsmen have the luxury of securing careers with one innings, the coaches come and go like Australian prime ministers, while a dictator is sitting on the top as the chief who can ban and recall players on his whim. The bowling is so weak that it is straightforward to say they have just about no chance of progressing.
That’s it for now. If you have made it this far, all the power to you. Look forward to doing a deep dive in predictions as we approach the warm-ups.