‘That is as bad as it gets.’
On 30 May 2019 the 12th edition of cricket’s showpiece event, the 50-over World Cup, kicked off in England and Wales with much fanfare.
Hosts and tournament favourite England took on a strong but vulnerable South Africa in the tournament opener. As expected, the might of the Three Lions proved too much for the Proteas, downing their opponents by 104 runs.
A fortnight has passed since the tournament kicked off, yet the event itself is yet to start building to a crescendo. It usually takes a couple of weeks before it really kicks into gear, though by this time in the last edition we had at least one nailbiting finish when co-hosts Australia and New Zealand took on each other. Trent Boult (five for 27) wrecked the Aussies for a paltry 151 and a chase that should have been a walk in the park quickly turned into a nightmare as Mitchell Starc (six for 28) returned the favour with a devastating spell.
It was indeed tense stuff, and in the end it was the cool-headedness of Kane Williamson who got the Black Caps over the line. By comparison, this year’s tournament is yet to see a thriller of a match, with the closest result being Pakistan’s defeat of hosts England by 14 runs. Things are sure to go up a notch in the coming weeks.
Here’s a look at some of the highlights from a fortnight at the quadrennial event.
Favourites bolt out of the gates
The favourites for this edition’s title, England and India, began their campaigns in telling fashion as they bolted out of the gates. The hosts trampled a strong South Africa by 104 runs in the tournament opener before being stunned by unpredictable Pakistan in their next encounter, a defeat by 14 runs. They quickly rebounded, though, to get their campaign back on track with a crushing 106-run defeat of Bangladesh.
India, who began their tournament a week after everyone else, quickly hit their straps with convincing wins over tough opponents South Africa and Australia in their opening matches, the former defeated by six wickets and the five-time defending champions going down by 36 runs.
The batting juggernaut of England was on full display in all their matches, while India’s magnificent top three and the tournament’s most versatile bowling attack made an emphatic statement of their own. Both teams are red-hot at the moment, and it will be interesting to watch how they fare in the remainder of the tournament.
Warning: turbulence ahead
The once mighty South Africa began their bid for a world title in horrendous fashion, losing their first three matches before salvaging their sole point in a rain-abandoned match against the West Indians.
To compound matters, their famed pace bowling arsenal was dealt two massive blows when pace legend Dale Steyn, playing in his last World Cup, was ruled out of the tournament with a recurring shoulder injury and young gun Lungi Ngidi was sidelined for the next few matches with a hamstring injury.
On top of that, the entire AB de Villiers issue that sprung up last week just added to the turbulence the team is facing. It will indeed take a herculean effort from strongman skipper Faf du Plessis and his men to turn things around.
The name’s archer. Jofra Archer
The world, which previously got only a glimpse of his potential, finally bore witness to the electrifying talent of Jofra Archer. The Barbados-born speedster, who made a name for himself in franchise cricket over the last couple of seasons, was finally unveiled on the international stage, in the sky or electric or whatever-you-want-to-call-it blue of England, and he wasted no time serving notice of his extraordinary talent. His ability to generate speeds of 150 kilometres per hour from a very short run-up and easy action left cricket aficionados awe-struck.
He announced his arrival on the big stage by first striking Proteas opener Hashim Amla flush on the helmet before removing skipper Faf du Plessis, a wonderful player of fast bowling, with a bouncer that was too hot for him to handle. He ended up with three wickets on his World Cup debut.
Next up was Bangladeshi opener Soumya Sarkar, who didn’t know what hit him – and neither did his off bail, castled by an express delivery by the lanky Englishman. The ball knocked the batsman’s bail off and went straight over the boundary rope in what would have been signalled as a six had it come off the bat.
Such has been the fiery pace that this wonderful new talent has been able to generate, Archer has got the game buzzing again, and everyone will be eager to see what this exciting youngster conjures up next.
Of backaches and headaches: the return of short-pitched bowling
The return of short-pitched bowling has had batsmen ducking and weaving in the first couple of weeks of the event. The West Indians were the first to employ it as a tactic in this year’s event, winding back the clock to the glory days of their big fast bowlers, and promptly blew the Pakistanis away, setting a template for others to follow.
Such has been the ferocity of the short stuff that many a batsman has left the field with a disfigured helmet, broken spirit and a jarring headache. Ask Hashim Amla, who Jofra Archer struck in the very first match of the tournament. He left the field, returning later to complete his innings, but the knock he took ruled him out of the following match.
Usman Khawaja then joined the hit list when he was struck on the grill by young Windies paceman Oshane Thomas shortly before surrendering his wicket. In fact so relentless has been the barrage of bouncers this year that team physios have been seen taking the field more often than some of the players themselves. And those who have been fortunate enough to get out of the way of the flying orb have surely ended up on massage tables to heal their aching backs.
This is just the beginning, and by the time this tournament is done, don’t be surprised if a few batsmen end up with lifetime memberships to spas to go along with their year’s supply of painkillers.
Stokes, Woakes and there’s still a lot more, folks
There have been a number of outstanding catches in the 14 days since the tournament was declared open. Ben Stokes set the tournament alight with what Nasser Hussain called one of the best catches of all time, flinging himself backwards goalkeeper-style and plucking the ball out of thin air. Not to be outdone, teammate Chris Woakes then pouched four catches in England’s next match against Pakistan, two of them at full stretch nonetheless. Shai Hope, Quinton de Kock, Glenn Maxwell, Sheldon Cottrell and Mohammad Hafeez then decided to crash the English party and soon put their names up on the honours board. With exactly a month to go before the curtain comes down, you can be sure to witness many more dazzling catches. Don’t go anywhere folks, we’re just getting started!
To retire or not to retire
The most shocking news to come out of the World cup in the last fortnight was that South African great AB de Villiers was willing to come out of retirement to represent his country at the World Cup. However, his decision to turn out in Proteas colours – apparently sometime in April – came a little too late, as the team for the tournament was to be announced the next day. The team and management would have loved to have had the legend in the side but decided it would be unfair to the rest of the eligible candidates, who qualified through a proper selection process, and turned down his request.
ABD had previously stated that the World Cup was no longer a priority and that he had made his peace with it and there was no chance of a comeback in his mind – until, uh, just before the World Cup? ‘Confused’icious, thy name is truly ABD.
Return of the Jedi (from the dark side)
Australia’s batting Jedi masters David Warner and Steve Smith made their long-awaited return to international cricket at this year’s ongoing event. The two stalwarts who spent the last year with Master Yoda, learning how to tame their dark sides and emerge from the ‘sandpapergate’ saga, turned up with lightsabers in hand, ready to do battle and ready to redeem themselves.
While the force was not particularly strong with Warner early on despite consecutive half-centuries in his first two outings, it was very strong with Smith from the get-go. The former No. 1 Test batsman first crafted a tenacious knock that held the innings together against the West Indians, and with Nathan Coulter-Nile he secured a win for his team. He followed that up with another crucial half-century against the Indians, which unfortunately couldn’t save his side this time around.
Warner finally found his mojo in the match against Pakistan, scoring a typically fluent and aggressive matchwinning century. They have both maintained a low profile so far, but things are definitely beginning to look up for the beleaguered duo. May the force be with them!
The bail is mightier than the ball
If you ever wondered whether the short and stout stature of the letter ‘i’ in the word bail made it seem inferior to its taller compatriot ‘l’, then you might want to consider the unique scenario of the bail and the ball playing out at this year’s tournament. Perhaps the most bizarre incident to occur at the World Cup thus far has been the stubbornness of the electronic ‘zing’ bails to be dislodged after fast men such as Jasprit Bumrah have struck the stumps hard. This has occurred no less than five times in 13 games when the bails have refused to budge, firmly letting the batsmen know they have got their backs. As if it wasn’t enough of a batsman’s game already, now the furniture itself has stated its clear disdain for the bowlers and the five-and-a-half-ounce sphere as well. Previously resigned to their fate of being knocked down, the bails are fighting back.
The Cottrell salute
Trust the West Indians to bring the joy to any event. The men from the Caribbean just know how to have a good time, even while competing in a major tournament like The World Cup. Their fast bowler Sheldon Cottrell just upped the fun-o-meter with his unique wicket-taking celebration – the Cottrell salute. So entertaining has it been – a quick march and salute before exploding into a backward arch with arms spread out – that most fans hope the Jamaican gets a wicket every time he bowls, just to witness the exaggerated celebration. The Cottrell salute has indeed become the wicket-taking celebration at The World Cup. It definitely has a nice ring to it as well. Chivas may want to consider rebranding its famous royal salute to the hip new Cottrell salute.
Rain, rain go away
The English summer – no, wait, monsoon; no, wait, summer. Well, this is confusing. Anyway, the weather has wreaked havoc with the cricket, with four matches already abandoned because of the rain in just the second week. That’s more than the number of matches lost in the entire tournaments of 1992 and 2003, which was each truncated by two matched, and 1979, 1996, 1999 and 2011 competitions, which lost only a single match each to rain.
‘Rain, rain go away, all the cricketers want to play’ must be the song on every cricket lover’s lips. Hopefully the weather takes a turn for the better in the coming weeks lest the tournament decides to coin its own version of ‘Brexit’.
The spirit of cricket
Even the intensity of an India versus Australia contest – and at the World Cup no less – wasn’t enough for players to wear their meanest game faces. In a heartwarming gesture Indian skipper Virat Kohli, who was batting at the time, signalled to the Indian crowd not to boo Steve Smith, who was fielding at the boundary in front of them, but instead to cheer him. The gesture did not go unnoticed, the Australian making a point of shaking his great rival’s hand at the first instance he got. The spirit of cricket is well and truly alive at the cup.
Well, the first couple of weeks of the World Cup have been eventful, to say the least, and the ensuing weeks are sure to bring plenty of thrills and spills as teams jostle for positions atop the leader board.