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Opinion

Who are the T20 World Cup contenders?

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17th April, 2021
16

Cricket is well and truly back to life, in the white-ball game at least.

The recent India-England series showed us how rich both nations are in their talent and depth of player pool in coloured clothing. Pakistan’s tour of South Africa yielded some awesome batting displays from Babar Azam (newly ranked number one ODI batsman) and Fakhar Zaman’s blistering hitting in the second ODI. The start of the IPL is perhaps the biggest and best stage for a side’s budding contenders to showcase their skills on the premier cricketing T20 stage.

Six months out from the start of the tournament in India, I go through a preview of teams that could find themselves champions in Ahmedabad come the final.

India
No better place to start with than the hosts, whom currently sit second in T20 rankings. They are the bookie’s favourites given that the tournament is in their backyard, and recent series wins against England and Australia (while missing key players) are more than satisfactory confidence boosts. One of their only weaknesses is perhaps they will have to leave out so many talented players – with Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Rishabh Pant and KL Rahul forming the core of India’s supreme strikers, the likes of Ishan Kishan, Suryakumar Yadav and Sanju Samson will have the IPL to show their weight in gold.

They have also shown themselves to be able to break from the strategic trend of winning the toss and bowling first. From 2-1 down in the England series, they batted well first drop on both occasions to sink Eoin Morgan’s men who may be accused of being one-trick ponies so reliant on chasing totals. Shardul Thakur, T.Natarajan, Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami are ever-more reliant as India’s pacemen, while the spin bowling (oddly) may be an Achille’s heel – the way teams use Merlyn machines means that the perceived home advantage of turning pitches may be less than we thought – England batted admirably and aggressively against spin and Ravi Jadeja is the only lock-in as a premier spinner.

Krunal Pandya, Axar Patel, Yuzi Chahal, Rahul Chahar and Kuldeep Yadav desperately need to be consistent, watertight options for Kohli’s pursuit of his first title as India captain.

Virat Kohli.

India captain Virat Kohli plays a shot. (Photo by Surjeet Yadav/Getty Images)

Having said that, the Indians are in a great place building for the tournament. Their ‘choking’ semi-final and out record in ICC tournaments should be one that is confronted with fire. Providing the draw for the World Cup is the same as the 2020 one, England and South Africa will be no easy challenges, but has the benefit of avoiding England in the semis while South Africa should be beaten to qualify.

England
England may have lost the white ball series to India but were missing key players and their batsmanship is still internationally feared with Jonny Bairstow, Jason Roy and Jos Buttler experienced sky hitters. The main worry for England is their batting order – like India, they have so much quality that they are unsure of who to open with.

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Jason Roy is pencilled in at 1, but Ben Stokes, Buttler, Dawid Malan and Bairstow are all viable options at the top. It seems that the IPL is a place in which the now injured Stokes would find the form to open. Bairstow is more and more becoming a 4 which means Jos Buttler should be the favourite to open, with Dawid Malan’s awesome, clinical form making 3 his own, displacing Joe Root who should still make the squad for India.

Rest and rotation, injury permitting, should allow England to have pacers fresh for this tournament before their Ashes challenges. Jofra Archer’s injury worries will hopefully be sorted by the summer, and missing a few Tests could be for the long-term gain of reaching fitness for the World Cup and Ashes down under.

Jofra Archer.

England’s Jofra Archer. (Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

Mark Wood showed his class in India, while Adil Rashid is a more than reliable spinner with Moeen Ali as the primary all-rounder. Chris Woakes, Reece Topley, Chris Jordan, David Willey and the Curran brothers are the remaining members who will be involved with preparations, however, the third pacer was targeted heavily (Jordan) in the T20 deciders against India.

That said, the reigning 50-over champions are in steady and commanding leadership with Eoin Morgan at the helm and like India are a shoo-in for the semis.

Pakistan
The unknown beast. Much like the French rugby team pre-2020, you never know which Pakistan is going to turn up.

Well, the one that toured South Africa was one of precise and destructive batting led by Babar Azam and Fakhar Zaman. Mohammad Rizwan, Mohammad Hafeez and Asif Ali have displayed they have the quality and experience to back Azam and Fakhar.

However, consistency and lack of depth are where Pakistan’s batting is no match for the likes of India and England. Pakistan’s bowling will be spearheaded by the energetic duo of Shaheen Shah Afridi and a resurgent Hasan Ali. Muhammad Hasnain, Usman Qadir and Faheem Ashraf are more than capable steady understudies.

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Pakistan are playing their best cricket in a year where their strongest format, T20, has a World Cup held in arch-rival India’s territory. The issue for Pakistan is consistency beyond any other glaring weakness. They also have a ‘group of death’ – West Indies, New Zealand and Australia lie in wait in their pool and one slip up early could prove costly.

Never write them off, but don’t back them too confidently. Pakistan have a good chance of making the semi-final, but I fear that they will be the team that beats themselves if they fail to do so.

Pakistan's bowler Shaheen Afridi

Shaheen Afridi. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira)

New Zealand
A proud history of peaking at World Cups exemplifies New Zealand as a proud cricketing and rugby-mad nation. And I would not be surprised if Kane Williamson overturns his World Cup agony with success in India.

Pundits have now talked of New Zealand boasting proper strength in their depth – an attribute I highly regard as a requirement for being successful in any sport. Devon Conway has been a revelation for the Kiwis while Martin Guptill has been there and done that. At 34, he still has it and is a brutal striker.

Ross Taylor could well play his last-ever ICC tournament before finishing as a Kiwi cricketing legend of the game. It is safe to say the Blackcaps have a perfect blend of innovation with Conway, brute strength from Guptill and calm, applied batting from Williamson and Taylor in the top four.

Jimmy Neesham will hopefully show some form in the IPL and Mitch Santner is an accurate spinner that needs to form an attacking partnership with Ish Sodhi in India. Pace bowling-wise, the Kiwis are in good stead – Trent Boult is working wonders for Mumbai and is one of the best bowlers of this generation.

Lock Ferguson is the enforcer of the attack while new boy Kyle Jamieson is a sensation excelling in all formats of the game. Colin de Grandhomme and Tim Southee may find it hard to make the team given how much quality the Kiwis have.

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Like Pakistan, New Zealand have a tough draw. But given their history and newfound limited-over superiority against Australia, they could ‘pull a New Zealand’ and go all the way to the final unnoticed.

Devon Conway of New Zealand.

Devon Conway of New Zealand. (Photo by Kerry Marshall/Getty Images)

Australia
The recent tour of New Zealand with largely second-string players yielded plenty more positives than negatives for Justin Langer’s men. Marcus Stoinis, Glenn Maxwell and Aaron Finch found some dazzling form while Jhye Richardson looked composed with the ball in hand.

Ashton Agar is severely underrated and will be a weapon on turning decks with Adam Zampa.

Batting-wise, the Australians have depth and quality without finding the right combination. Every so often when Finch undergoes a rough spell, Matthew Wade will come and do a job before Finch rediscovers his touch. Finch and Warner should be the opening pair in India given their exceptional records and experience.

Matthew Wade and Steve Smith are the best-suited options at 3 and 4 – Smith had an awesome white ball series against India, not to forget two 60-odd ball tons at the SCG.

Marnus Labuschagne is an outside bet as someone who could also find his way into this side. Stoinis’ glowing 2020 IPL and more frequent showings of his hype assure his spot in India. Glenn Maxwell is beginning to find his touch in the IPL and will be a vital bowling option on the subcontinent.

When it comes to heat bowling, the Aussies are stacked – Pat Cummins has been on form for KKR, Jhye Richardson, Kane Richardson, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc are all options who should be involved come October. Starc’s absence in the IPL should mean he is raring to go when needed. If the right people find form at the right time, the Australians are in good nick to qualify for the semis.

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Ashton Agar.

Ashton Agar. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

But given their pool, their fate could be decided by a couple of coin tosses given how little there is between them, Pakistan, New Zealand and WI.

West Indies
The T20 specialists may have something of a dad’s army – Chris Gayle, Kieron Pollard and Andre Russell are 30-plus, but don’t put it past the reigning champions to click in India. Nicholas Pooran is a classy batsman, as is Shai Hope.

Evin Lewis and Shimron Hetmyer take out anger on the ball much like Dre Russ. Remember their massacre of Pakistan at Trent Bridge? Well, Shanon Gabriel, Sheldon Cottrell, skipper Jason Holder and Oshane Thomas are more than willing to extract every bit of bounce in India.

The Windies need more clarification at spin – Rakheem Cornwall is showing more with the bat as of now but is in contention for the World Cup squad. Don’t be shocked if the Windies out-smash their way to glory in what could be Chris Gayle’s swan song. The quality is definitely there, whether we see it is a question for another day.

Jason Holder

Jason Holder. (Randy Brooks/AFP via Getty Images)

South Africa
Probably a dark horse or far outsider, but I paint a picture where AB de Villiers potentially returns to the side. All of a sudden, you have a more than decent top five of him, Quinton de Kock, Faf du Plessis, Temba Bavuma and Rassie van der Dussen.

The young-and-upcoming Janneman Malan and Aiden Markram are perfect bench players for this scenario. David Miller at 6 caps off an experienced and reliable top six.

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Where South Africa lack quality is at all-rounder – Chris Morris has always shown glimpses of talent, but his IPL heroics for Rajasthan Royals showed he can handle pressure. I would place Morris at 7 above Andile Phehlukwayo, who has not taken the many opportunities he has been given. A quality spinner is needed but Keshav Maharaj and Tabraiz Shamsi are no mugs.

Then, a battery of quality pace bowlers follows – Marco Jansen has shown me he is more than good enough at 6″8 and with a good yorker, he should be given a go before any Kolpak deal emerges. Anrich Nortje was one of the best bowlers in 2020 IPL and is partnered with a fellow Delhite in Kagiso Rabada, which makes South Africa’s team a serious beast regardless of choking claims.

Kagiso Rabada, bowling at Lord's.

South Africa’s Kagiso Rabada. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

It could happen, but it is probably likely that it won’t. But if they came in with that starting XI, they can turn over most teams on their day. Whilst it would be nice to see South Africa win an ICC trophy, I would worry about the egos of many South African fans given their rugby triumphs.