I am writing this article soon after Sri Lanka’s unexpected win against England at Headingley. Until yesterday, the four semi-finalists seemed to have been all but decided. But, now the possibility of England getting knocked out of their home tournament has opened up!! Let us look at how the ‘big’ teams have shaped up in this tournament so far. I will cover the other teams in Part 2 of this article.
After going through a harrowing 18 month period, where they lost most of the ODI matches they played, Australia have got their act together in the last few months. Under Finch’s imaginative captaincy, the Australians have looked their old confident self, taking calculated gambles and pulling them off as well. The return of Warner and Smith has given the team the self-belief that seemed to have deserted them in 2018. They have been efficient in their wins against the lower fancied teams and have avoided slipping on the banana skins. Their batting has looked quite solid with top order batsmen capable of playing long innings at good strike rates. Their middle and lower middle order have enough firepower to capitalize on strong starts to help finish with huge totals. In all their matches so far, their batting has come good. This includes their only loss against India and their shaky start against the WI as well. However, their bowling lacks wicket taking depth. They rely on Starc and Cummins to get wickets and keep the runs down as well. How well the Aussies bowl the other 30 odd overs will determine their final result in this world cup.
I won’t be surprised if Cricket returns to its default mode of Australia winning the World cup.
English media had been in a hurry to give the World cup to their team, even before the matches had started. None can blame them, for their pedantic laboratory based approach to cricket had yielded them great results in the last four years. This approach hides the devil, the economist’s Achilles heel, ceteris paribus. It is impossible to add big match/tournament pressure to the laboratory mix and see what the results could be. Therein lies the trouble with the English approach to most things cricket. I am not saying for a minute that England will not qualify for the semi-finals or they cannot win the Cup. However, I would like to point out that when tournament pressure is added to the mix, their run machine is showing big cracks. One thing is certain, their tournament will not be a Nadia Comaneci performance, like their supporters had envisaged.
After seeing their performance against South Africa in their opening match, I jumped to an early conclusion that the English batting was the real deal. They showed gumption against a very good SA bowling unit and managed to put up a big score. However, the condition of batting second in a chase, had still not yet come into the mix. Having said all this about their batting, I still think they have high quality players like Root, Stokes, Butler and Roy, who will deliver in most games. Root has looked wonderful in every innings that he has played. However, he failed to take his innings till the very end in both the chases, against Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Ben Stokes is definitely the real deal for England. He showed his class in the Sri Lanka chase and also in the opening match against SA. He seems to be the one English player capable of absorbing pressure in tough situations. England have to build the second half of their run chases around him.
English bowling has looked quite competent, but again has not dazzled. Archer has looked sharp and is big a threat to opposing batsmen. Mark Wood, with his pace, hurries the batsman. Moen and Rashid have been effective bowlers. However, when the Pakistani batsmen got their act together against them, they looked all at sea. Even the Bangladeshi chase was lost in the face of a huge total rather than to a good bowling unit stopping them at the gates. I want to see if this bowling unit is capable of defending 300’ish totals. Look, the lab experiment thus far has proven only one thing for England. If England bat first, their batsmen will score big runs and their bowling unit will do enough to stop the chasing team before they reach the target. Rest all is caught in the web of ‘ceteris paribus’.
India so far have looked the most complete side in the tournament. Their batsmen have played to their potential and their bowlers have delivered in every match. The top order of Rohit, Dhawan, Rahul and Kohli have been in good form. The middle order of Pandya and Dhoni have supported them quite ably. The fact that their performances have come against the better bowling units of the tournament, must give them enormous confidence. Going into the tournament, the big question mark against India was on the batting ability of their middle order. One can see a clear strategy to address this concern, in the way Virat has been pacing his innings in the past few matches. He has cut down risks, starting off cautiously and is looking to play till the 50th over. Rohit and others have been given the task to enforce authority on the bowling. Loss of Dhawan at the top, definitely, has reduced the explosive power of this line up. KL Rahul is a good replacement, but may not provide the same impetus to the innings that Dhawan is capable of providing.
Most teams have batted well in this tournament. However, in terms of bowling, it is India’s varied attack that has looked the best. New Zealand’s bowling attack will be the closest to India in terms of quality. I would give the Indian attack the edge because of its variety and its ability to pick wickets with 4 of their 5 bowlers. If I were Virat and assuming Bhuvi is fit, I would try this mouthwatering five man bowling attack with Shami, Bumrah, Bhuvi, Chahal and Kuldeep. The long tail that this team will have is the one big deterrent. Even during their heydays, Australia and West Indies had only four wicket taking bowlers in their lineup. So, I guess it is better to have the extra batting all-rounder in the lineup as an insurance, as batters get just one chance to fail.
The Achilles heel for this team is the fitness of their first choice line up. We have already seen Dhawan exit the tournament. Bhuvi is injured and will miss the next two matches at least. The players coming out of the bench to replace them are not equally gifted as them. Shami is a wonderful new ball bowler, but leaks runs at the death. Bhuvi bowls well at both the ends. Rahul is a very good batsman, but he will not tear apart bowling attacks like Dhawan can. Hence, the biggest challenge for the team will be to stay fit until their last match in this tournament.
The question mark on their middle order’s ability has not been answered convincingly yet. I, along with many other observers, would like to see how this batting unit would perform, when Rohit and Kohli have a bad day. Even worse, if this bad day happens to coincide with semi-finals or finals.
How fit the bowlers stay through the tournament and how well their middle order holds up will determine India’s success in the second half of the tournament. Of all the teams, as on today, India looks the best bet to win the Cup.
The Kiwis have a brilliant World Cup record and this team of 2019 continues this happy tradition. As a nation of small population, we are often tempted to say that they are punching above their weight. However, we do great disservice to the 11 on the ground that comprises World class performers like Kane Williamson, Trent Boult, Ross Taylor, Santner and others. They are a team with enough heavy weights of their own.
One main reason for New Zealand’s success is their unflappable temperament. One will rarely see a NZ team losing a match due to the pressure of the occasion or due to lack of effort. They will be outclassed by better opponents; but rarely will they choke or under perform. The other reason for their successes is their brilliant Captains. Kane Williamson, Daniel Vettori, Stephen Fleming, Martin Crowe have shown fantastic strategizing and decision-making capability with their teams. They have been brilliant marshals of their units. It is not surprising that CSK have a brilliant record in IPL with Fleming as the coach or that India’s renaissance started with a Kiwi coach overseeing them. The opponents will have to strategize against a team that will perform to their on-paper potential, almost every time.
Coming to their relative strengths, I think New Zealand have the second best bowling unit in this tournament. Some analysts have rated them to be the best in the tournament. I won’t fight those analysts tooth and nail, for there is enough truth in their statement as well. They have good wicket taking bowlers in Trent Boult, Matt Henry and Fergusson. Tim Southee is another worthy bowler sitting in their bench. Santner or Colin can be wicket takers as well based on the conditions on that day. So, one can reliably expect them to challenge their opponent’s batting unit in every match. Teams can’t expect any freebies from their fielding unit either. Kiwis will catch a fly, if they have to.
However, batting is their weaker discipline. They rely heavily on Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor to make the big runs. Tom Latham has been surprisingly ordinary in recent matches. Martin Guptil seems to have lost some of his explosive power at the top. Apart from the two star batsmen, the Kiwis rely on their all-rounders to take them home. Colin played a very good attacking innings against SA allowing Kane to hold the other end steadily. If teams manage to get Kane early, this New Zealand batting side may not flourish. Here in lies their weakness and teams will burn the midnight oil to strategize against Kane.
The Bangla tigers have been the dark horses in this tournament, playing with flair and exuberance. If one had followed Bangladeshi cricket over the past few years, the results they have produced in this Cup will not have come as a surprise to them. In the past, Bangladesh would not even have a team on-paper that could win against big opposition. Now, they definitely have a team on paper that can beat any team in this competition on their day.
Their biggest strength is their batting ability. Shakib, Tamim, Mushfiqur, Liton and Mahmudullah have shown great class in this tournament. If you bowl below potential, this batting unit will kill you. Every bowling unit has found this, when they have gone against the Bangla tigers. None of these names are new as well, except Liton Das. This batting unit has been jelling well for some time now. Shakib has been brilliant with the bat all through the tournament. Though his eye-catching innings have been against WI and England, I would rate his 60 odd against a high quality New Zealand attack higher.
The main reason for Bangladesh losing matches has been their poorer effort on the field. Their bowling does not have the teeth to take wickets regularly to restrict their opponents. The ‘Fizz’ seems to have lost his wicket taking abilities off late. Or I guess his cutters and slow balls require subcontinental conditions. Another negative aspect of this bowling unit is their inability to keep calm under pressure. Time and time again, we have seen Bangladesh bowlers let go of their opponents after putting themselves in strong winning positions. Bangladesh’s bowling will remain their weakness and will probably be the reason for failure, if they get knocked out in the round robin phase.
The tournament thus far had gone on form or as per expectations. The SL vs Eng match at Headingley has injected some much-needed drama to the latter half of the tournament. We now have six teams with a chance to qualify for the semi-finals. One would still be tempted to maintain that India, New Zealand, Australia and England will be the four semi-finalists. May be even in that order.
However, one thing is clear, as it always has been in Cricket. It is the bowlers who will reliably win you matches. Once again, the team that bowls best, along with adequate batting support, will emerge as winners of this Cup. It is based on a simple logic. Bowlers can get hit for consecutive boundaries and still come back to get the batsmen. Batters don’t have that luxury. Winning based on batting is highly laborious, things need to go right for 40 to 45 overs at least. But for the bowlers, it might be a question of 6 to 7 deliveries only. Sometimes just two magic deliveries. Ask Imran, if you had any doubts.