Four flawed ODI teams will face off in the semi-finals of this World Cup.
Compared to the 2015 World Cup, when Australia had a dominant line-up with every base covered, there is no side extremely well rounded this time.
Let’s look at the glaring weaknesses of Australia, India, England and New Zealand.
Australia: an all-round problem
Australia have had a wonderful tournament and are a strong chance of finishing on top of the table by beating South Africa tomorrow. They have won 15 of their past 16 games despite all of those matches being played away from home.
Yet their current team is, quite clearly, not on the same level as the Aussie XI that lifted the World Cup in 2015.
The conspicuous difference is in the all-rounder department. In 2015 Australia had one of the greatest ODI all-rounders of all time in Shane Watson, the top bowling all-rounder in the world at the time in James Faulkner, plus Glenn Maxwell in the best form of his career.
This time they have Maxwell in comparatively poor touch, no bowling all-rounder at all and instead of Watson a man who has been in rank form for more than a year in Marcus Stoinis. In this tournament Maxwell and Stoinis combined have averaged 21 with the bat and 64 with the ball.
Maxwell’s batting figures are not as poor as they look, because he’s often come in late with the task of going ballistic and his strike rate has been phenomenal. But as an all-rounder he’s been an inarguable failure, having taken 0-238 with the ball.
Stoinis, meanwhile, has done a decent job with his seamers, yet he’s first and foremost a batsman and has averaged 16 with the bat in this World Cup. That average increases only slightly, to 23, over the period of his past 26 ODIs.
Australia have been fortunate that their specialists have done a fine job with bat and ball so far in this tournament, such that their bowling all-rounders have not needed to pull their weight. However, that time may come very soon.
England: there is and never was a Plan B
The last two matches for England have been hugely significant yet have also taught us nothing new about them as a side. England are back in a big way, apparently. Well, they are and they aren’t. They are back in the sense that they’re again in the running to hoist the trophy after beating India and New Zealand to avoid elimination, but those two wins did nothing to address the flaws that were exposed during their run of poor form prior to that.
No-one ever doubted they could dominate when batting first on a flat deck. Their whole game is based around belting bowlers on roads. What the losses to Australia, Sri Lanka and Pakistan exposed was their lack of flexibility and fight with the bat. Those defeats raised questions about their ability to bat under real pressure when chasing and, more than anything, about their willingness to adapt to conditions and scrap for runs when the pitch isn’t great for batting.
Those questions remain unanswered. England decided a long, long time ago they were going to slog their way to their first World Cup triumph. At no stage in the last four years did they trial any other method. Even in the deadest of rubbers in the most meaningless of random bilateral series England never tried to hone different batting strategies. As a result they have just one way of winning. If they get to bat first on roads in both the semi-final and the final, they will win this tournament. But if England instead have to bat second or play on a bowler-friendly pitch, their chances of victory will plummet.
India: a muddled middle order
India have seemed unsure for more than a year now about their best middle-order combination. While ballistic all-rounder Hardik Pandya is a lock at No. 7, India have had issues between four and six in the order. Seven players – MS Dhoni, Dinesh Karthik, Kedar Jadhav, Rishabh Pant, KL Rahul, Ambati Rayudu and Vijay Shankar – have rotated through those three batting positions in recent times.
Now Rayudu has retired, Jadhav has been dropped, Shankar has gone home injured and Rahul is opening. That leaves Dhoni, Pant and Karthik as the three players expected to bat between four and six in India’s next match, though in which order, who knows?
Dhoni has been attracting widespread criticism for the overly cautious manner in which he and Jadhav went about India’s chase against England on Sunday. That pair came together with India needing 71 from 31 balls, a difficult target but by no means impossible for two such talented batsmen. Instead of going for the win they mostly just knocked singles around. It was a curious situation which has triggered endless speculation since. Some pundits in India believe it was the reason for Jadhav’s axing.
Whatever the case, there is no doubt India’s middle order continues to be the only soft spot in an otherwise commanding unit.
New Zealand: top-order woes
Compare that to the returns of the other opening combinations which will feature in the semi-finals. Australia’s Aaron Finch and David Warner have churned out 1020 runs at 68. India’s Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul have piled up 793 runs at 66. And England’s Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow have made 803 runs at 57.
Amid the heavy pressure of a knockout match having a reliable opening combination is crucial. Bowling to New Zealand right now is a tantalising prospect for the new-ball quicks from Australia, India and England. The inability of their openers to even survive the new ball, let alone prosper against it, has placed an enormous burden on Williamson and fellow star Ross Taylor at three and four respectively.
As good as that pair are, if New Zealand again find themselves two down for not many in the semi-final, it would be very hard to see them avoiding defeat. The Kiwis have lost their last three matches, scoring just 186, 157 and 237 in those matches. Their batting is a mess.