I am writing this article after Pakistan did what Pakistan does best, beat New Zealand in a World Cup game. The result of this match has made the latter half of the World cup even more exciting. The comparisons between Pakistan’s 1992 run and the 2019 run have so ceaselessly clogged the social media bandwidth that even Sarfaraz might have started planning for his political future!!
Anyway, continuing from my previous article, I will discuss the progress of the last five teams in this World cup so far
The schedule of matches and the way this team starts tournaments combined to give a perception to many like me that Pakistan are going nowhere in this World Cup. However after the game against NZ, I think that the team looks well-balanced. Pakistan’s batting in the first part of the tournament looked quite inadequate, with them depending on the top few batsmen to score any runs. Unlike India, those top three are not Rohit, Shikar and Virat either. The presence of over-the-hill players like Shoaib Malik, made the batting unit look like a bunch of no-hopers. With the inclusion of in-form Haris Sohail in place of Malik, the team’s batting unit has found a reliable middle order player who scores at a brisk pace.
Now, when I take a look at the team, I see a team brimming with solid ODI bowling talent, reasonably good batting order and a slightly below average fielding unit. With the high-class century against NZ, Babar Azam has proved himself to be a solid top order batsman. Imam and Fakhar have made comfortable starts against most teams and are in good form. The middle order of Hafeez, Haris and Sarfaraz looks better with the inclusion of Haris. The lower order of Imad, Riaz and Shadab are capable of adding useful runs to the total. As they usually do, Pakistan have solidified as a unit as the tournament has progressed.
Pak bowling looks good, as it usually does. Amir has bowled brilliantly throughout the tournament. Shaheen Afridi and Riaz are in fine bowling form as well. Shadab Khan bowled much better in the last two matches, when compared to the earlier matches. Imad has been quite economical with his accurate left-handed darts. Hafeez is available to make up for some overs in the middle. All in all a solid bowling line up. If they stay fit, they won’t let teams score tall scores against them. Against India, Hasan Ali gave away too many runs at the top. Shadab bowled way too short for a leggie. Now, those problems are gone with the inclusion of Afridi in place of Hasan and Shadab finding his good length once again. A team to watch out for without doubt.
Folks seem to have forgotten that SL is there in the competition. They are the one team in the bottom five who can qualify on their own, winning all the remaining matches. Strangely, I don’t see anyone giving them any chance to be in the SF. Here is my argument in favor of SL’s chances. They are yet to face SA, WI and India. Out of these, SA and WI are already out of the tournament. SL should count on beating them, as those opponents might not be fully focused. Additionally, when SL takes on India, there is a chance that India might have already qualified for the semi-finals. So, if luck runs their way, they might end up facing three opponents who, dare I say, may not be desperate to win the match.
Sri Lanka’s current team does not have too many stars that neutral watchers would talk about. Malinga is the only big player in the team; not trying to diminish Mathews here. However, their nondescript team is probably their strength as well. We have already seen that the pitches in the World cup have not been flat. A bowling unit with disciplined fast bowlers and good spinners have been tough to get away in these conditions. Sri Lanka have one such unit. Malinga is very hungry to finish his career on top of his game. Udana and Pradeep have given little away with their line and length. Dhananjaya has proved to be a good spin bowling all-rounder. He picked up crucial wickets in the match against England. However, Jeevan Mendis and Thisara Perera were not very consistent; they could be the weakness in the lineup.
SL’s batting is a big wild card. Kusal Perera provides the x-factor to the unit. Karunaratne, Mathews and Kusal Mendis are batsmen capable of making good scores. The way they faltered against Australia after a good start, shows the weakness in this batting order. Kusal Mendis’s failure to grow in stature has been a big disappointment for SL. SL might have expected him to grow up before their illustrious duo hung up their boots. In conclusion, this is a batting line-up that will not out bat too many opponents. The slowing nature of the pitches, however, is fast reducing the winning scores. This will make SL all the more competitive in the remainder of the competition. So, if someone like Mathews plays a careful innings and takes them to a middling total, they can try to win with their accurate bowling. Having said all this in favor of SL, even if SL reach the SF, I don’t expect them to go any further.
When I had a look at their squad before the World Cup started, my jaw dropped! Here is an assembly of pure hitters, who on their day can score 450 runs easily. However, after seeing them play, what I have realized is that, what one does in T20 matches doesn’t necessarily scale to a T50 game. In my defense, I must add that WI batsmen did not make any effort to add some nous to their batting plans as well. Is there a better book cricket kind of scoring team than one with Gayle, Hope, Hetmeyer, Pooran, Russell, Holder, and Brathwaite?
Contrary to my expectations, WI bowled very competently, at least in the first half of each innings. Cottrell, Roach and Thomas have bowled well to take initial wickets. But, the bowlers that have followed them have been ordinary. There isn’t a wicket taking spinner or a good spinner to say the least. The similarity in terms of pace, height and action has reduced the effectiveness of the WI middle over bowling. It is quite evident in the way they let Australia and NZ off the hook, after having them in precarious positions. Their reluctance to play Roach in the earlier games, ‘diminished’ their wicket taking abilities throughout the 50 overs.
Coming to their batting, in each of the games that WI played, their batsmen dazzled briefly with their stroke play. The ‘dream is diminished’ innings that Brathwaite played, will be remembered for its quality as much as for those memorable words of Ian Bishop. But, that innings is also symbolic of what WI batting was in this tournament. Their binary batting game of boundary or nothing, is the reason for their failure to win. Russell’s shot against Australia and Hetmeyer’s wild swipe against NZ need to be played over and over again in their confession rooms. True to his name, Bishop should play those visuals in the confession room and make them rue it.
The India vs SA limited overs series in SA showed to me for the first time the decline that the team was going through. Their batting unit had not found young talent ready to take the mantle from seniors like ABD, Amla and Faf. The fact that SA had to go back to Duminy for the World Cup is symptomatic of lack of depth in the system. Kolpak deals have impacted the team quite severely. But, I am not sure why Henrich Klassen did not make the team. Is he Kolpaked as well?
South African teams of the past have always excelled on the field. Tight disciplined bowling and a bunch of fielders who would let nothing go through them. But in this World cup what we saw was dropped catches, mis-fielding, hardly a direct hit on the stumps. It was not South Africa on the park at all. To me it felt like SA authorities, team and the coaching staff have taken their eye off their cricket. Players picking county cricket and T20 leagues ahead of playing for their country, shows something is rotten. I can understand to some extent WI players choosing T20 leagues over WI, as theirs is not really a country. But, South Africa?
Rabada and Ngidi, the strike weapons of the bowling unit, showed weariness. Faf, after the match against Pakistan, talked about his request to Rabada to not play IPL. It tells us that playing cricket in the hot Indian summer had affected Rabada’s bowling during the World Cup. Except for Imran Tahir, I saw very few of them running around playing with great passion for their country. Imran is 40 years old and grew up in Pakistan. Chris Morris is another who showed a lot of fight in his bowling spells. But, the others were quite disappointing. I will remember this scene from their match against Pakistan at the Lord’s. Faf had set a field for Rabada to bowl short. Rabada bowled a length delivery with no conviction behind it. Faf and QDK expressed disappointment from behind the stumps. Rabada stopped in his tracks and opened his arms wide as though to ask “What are you complaining about?” I leave this section at this point.
Last year’s Asia cup marked some kind of a high in Afghanistan ODI cricket. They tied their match against India and beat Sri Lanka and Bangladesh in their group matches. A lot was expected from them during this year’s World Cup. They had a star player in Rashid Khan, a batsman in Shahzad, an experienced Nabi and a mystery bowler in Mujeeb. However, due to some inexplicable last-minute drama, Gulbudin was made the captain. Shahzad did not make the team. The team got destabilized.
All this showed in the way they played. Their bowling, which is highly spin dependent, struggled in the initial matches which had cold and seamer friendly conditions. They redeemed themselves a bit in the way they ran India very close. Mujeeb bowled a beautiful line and length. The way he got Rohit out was fantastic. Afghanis seem to know how to bowl to Rohit! Rashid troubled him during IPL as well. During the India match, their field placement and ground fielding were brilliant. India’s batsmen struggled to find the gaps. Even when they did, they got not much more than a single.
Afghani batting has been very raw. Their best chance to out score a team was against India. They played well right through the innings, but failed to deliver the killer punch. However, it was India’s match winning bowlers who got them finally. A little bit of strike power at the top of the batting order could have won them the game. I guess, they missed Shahzad in this aspect. Anyway, South Asian countries have their own way of managing their sports teams!!
The latter half of this World cup has now become compelling to watch and follow. Sri Lanka’s magnificent win against England at Headingley has given life not only to the tournament, but to the Part 2 of my article as well! Otherwise, I would have had to write about a set of teams that would have been playing one dead rubber after the other. That is not the case now!!
Pakistan has used the opening provided by SL very well and have given themselves a great chance to make it to the semi-finals. A Pakistan team coming back from the doldrums rarely stops before winning the tournament. We saw it in 1992, 2009 and to some extent in CT 2017. Indians have seen this act of Pakistan so many times in Sharjah. Only that the World started to take notice of their habit much later!!
Note: Stokes kicking the turf after he got out, is symbolic of what the second half of this WC has become for England! So I chose the picture to show how one team’s grief can energize many others!!