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Cricket World Cup 2019 – The Semi-finals are here!!

Semis

Conjuring up my inner Bill Lawry…What a ripper, this tournament has turned out to be!! Until the last game, until the final moments of that game, the semi-final line ups were not decided. The organizers could not have asked for a better finish to the league phases of this wonderful tournament. India have emerged as the table topper, closely followed by Australia in the second spot. These are the two teams that have played the most consistent cricket over the past month or so and have deservedly earned their top spots.

Now, the league phase is over and whatever happened there counts for nothing in the knock out stages. It is India vs New Zealand at Manchester on the 09th and England vs Australia at Edgbaston on the 11th. Let us look at these matches and see what we can expect in this new week at the ICC World Cup 2019

India vs New Zealand

India

India were one of the top favorites to make it to the semi-finals. Credit to them that they have made it in such an emphatic fashion, topping the league phase. Surprisingly, they have made it to the top spot without having quite figured out their best playing XI yet!!

India will go in to the first semi-finals as hot favorites to win against New Zealand. After all, it is for this reason that millions of Indian fans watched the Aus vs SA match at Manchester with great interest and prayed for the Africans to win! However, we have seen enough cricket and New Zealand have match-winners in their ranks to upset India. Indian fans will remember that NZ beat them easily in the warm up match. Tuesday is expected to be cloudy and a bit rainy in Manchester. Add to that a fresh pitch with some pace and bounce, New Zealand will be more than a pushover for India.

Rohit, Virat, Hardik and Bumrah have been the consistent performers for India in this tournament. India will expect them to continue their top form in the semi-finals, so that others like Bhuvi, Rahul, and Shami et al will get the space to perform without pressure. From the outside, India’s main risk looks like it is the form of its middle order batsmen. I would beg to differ. The slowness of the pitches towards the end of the innings has made the middle order look poorer than they actually are.

I would actually say that their five bowlers only strategy is fraught with the biggest risk. As Murphy’s Law states,’ Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong’. I will add to it to state that it goes wrong in the most important situations. Bad overs these days do not mean 10 or 12 runs; it is often 25 or above. So, if India is forced to use Virat or Rohit for just three overs, it could cost them 50 to 70 runs. God forbid, if they have to bowl more than that. The worst case outcome completely negates any advantage one would get with having that extra batsman. With bowlers expected to throw themselves around in the field, an injury is not a far fetched thought. I expect Virat to play Kedar in place of Dinesh Karthik (DK) in the semifinals. If I were India captain, I will play Shami in place of DK and have Jadeja play at no.7. But, for a NZ match, I think Kedar will do fine as a bowler, if needed.

Coming to the match, Old Trafford (OT) is a big ground and the pitch offers good bounce. This quality of the ground makes it the best ground for India to play its wrist spinners in tandem. OT is one of the better places in England to bowl leg spin!! Against NZ, India’s wrist spinners can come good. If there is any weakness at all in Kane’s batting, it is against good quality spin. If that is the case for their best batsman, less said the better for others in their ranks. Apart from playing the spin twins, I would like to see Shami come in place of Bhuvi as the second seamer. Granted Shami at the death overs is asking for trouble, but he can get you wickets at the top. 20 extra runs in the death is worth the gamble, if Shami can get you that extra top order wicket in the first power play.

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As far as batting is concerned, India does not have the power packed line up of the 2011 WC. However, a fresh pitch in Old Trafford will offer good pace and bounce, which will aid stroke play. Rahul and others, who find it difficult to maneuver the ball in slow conditions, should enjoy the ball coming on to the bat at OT. The big man, Kohli, is yet to get a century in this World Cup. He is a big match player and he will be keen to make his mark in these last stages.

Likely XI: Rohit, Rahul, Virat, Rishab, MSD, Hardik, Kedar, Ravi Jadeja, Chahal, Bhuvi, Bumrah

My XI for this semis only: Rohit, Rahul, Virat, Rishab, MSD, Hardik, Kedar, Ravi Jadeja, Chahal, Shami, Bumrah

New Zealand

Many, particularly Pakistanis, have questioned their place in the Semi-finals. They have a point and Kane will be keen to prove them wrong. The main problem for the Kiwis has been their lackluster batting. Their top order has routinely let them down in this tournament and even in the earlier ODI series against India, asking Kane and Ross to save the team from trouble.

Martin Guptil has been a pale shadow of himself with the bat in this tournament. Colin Munro has looked poor. His replacement, Henry Nicholls, looked very low in confidence in the two outings that he has had in the tournament. He did not consider himself worthy enough to ask for a review of his LBW in the last match against England. I think it is better to gamble with a Munro, who can chance his arm, rather than an under-confident plodder like Nicholls.

The middle order with Kane, Ross, Latham, and Neesham looks strong on paper. Latham coming good in their last match will bode well for the Kiwis. On a sluggish pitch, Latham timed the ball extremely well against England. If he comes good, then New Zealand will be confident of posting a good score. Neesham and Grandhomme have come good on a couple of occasions in this tournament. If the sun is out, OT will be a good place to bat. NZ have the batting strength to take advantage. However, on current form, their batting looks quite weak in comparison to India.

When it comes to bowling, I think the Kiwis have a solid unit. Lockie Fergusson will come back into the team after his minor injury. Henry, Boult and Fergusson will make a deadly combination at the top. India have found Boult quite troublesome on more than one instance. Santner, Neesham and Grandhomme have proved to be quite good in the middle overs. I expect a professional bowling and fielding performance from the Kiwis, no matter what the conditions turn out to be. It is a bankable unit.

If the overhead conditions aid swing bowling, India will be in a big spot of bother. In recent times, NZ have bowled India out very cheaply on two such occasions. They will hope to get up on a cloudy Tuesday in Manchester and win the toss. This is their best and arguably their only chance to beat India in the semi-finals. If the match happens on a sunny day, New Zealand’s bowlers are good enough to keep India tied down. But, I will not bet on them winning it for them. The recent series between these two teams in NZ validates my point. The one match when India batted first in seaming conditions was the only time, NZ beat India. At all other times, India beat them resoundingly. The probabilities will play exactly that way, for the semi-finals as well.

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Likely XI: Guptil, Munro, Kane, Ross, Latham, Neesham, GrandHomme, Santner, Boult, Henry, Fergusson

Verdict: If I were Kane, I will pray for a cloudy day and hope to win the toss. Otherwise, I expect India to play on the 14th at Lord’s

England vs Australia – Ashes precursor

England

Many expected them to steam roll their opponents in this tournament and top the league phase. However, they have only themselves to blame for losing to teams like Sri Lanka. Additionally, it shows that however strong you are, your key to that strength is the interplay of the cogs. For the few matches Jason Roy was out, the English team struggled. One might say, what difference does the absence of one player make? Absence of Roy, made Bairstow play cautiously and made him lose his mojo as well. Roy and Bairstow at the top is the key combination for this English batting juggernaut’s success. Take one of them out, they will and have come down to mortal levels.

With no injuries in the side, England will be expected to play their first choice team. However, fate does not always favor you. Australia is definitely not their first choice opponent for the semi-finals. Australia handed them a big defeat at Lord’s. If you took at close look at their match, Australia’s bowlers, particularly Starc and Behrendoff, swung the ball and dismissed the English cheaply. However, as Nasser mentioned on TV, it swings in Lord’s while it does not in Edgbaston. So to soothe their wound of having to play Australia in the semi-finals, Edgbaston is possibly the best place for England to face Australia.

The teams will play on a fresh pitch at the center of the ground. So, the worry of short boundaries on one side, is out of the equation. Moreover, with seam bowling dominated attacks on both sides, the short boundaries will matter even less. While batting, England will look to Roy, Bairstow and Stokes to play to their potential. Root has gone off the boil in the latter half of the tournament. Morgan will expect Root to come back to form and hold one end with his run-a-ball innings. He would expect the rest of the middle and lower order to tee off alongside Root. Having said all this, I expect England to come good with the bat in Edgbaston. How big they score will determine their chances of a win. England will win or lose based on their batting. No great secret!!

English bowling is one-dimensional. All of the seamers are hit the deck, back of a length bowlers. They focus more on containing the teams than taking wickets. Even their preferred spinner, Rashid, bowls to contain than to pick wickets. This is where English weakness lies. Australia will look to target Wood and their fifth bowling combination of Rashid, Root and Stokes to put pressure on Morgan and score their big runs. Woakes and Archer have been tough to get away in the first power play. Both have given nothing to hit and their lines have been brilliant. A right hand, left hand combination of Warner and Finch will test their lines, unlike the batting line up of India or NZ did. If the opening bowlers have a slightly off day, I expect England to go for plenty with the ball.

Australia

Australia, on-paper, have the most balanced team for these conditions among the four semi-finalists. Their top four bowlers, Starc, Behrendoff, Lyon and Cummins, are wicket taking bowlers. Additionally, in Warner, Finch and Smith they have big match batsmen, who can win with their bat.

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Australian batting is solid, but not without its concerns. Warner has been in prime form after a fairly sluggish start to the tournament. Finch is back in form and his captaincy has positively impacted his batting than weigh him down. However, it is Smith’s batting that will concern the Aussie supporters. He has looked the pale shadow of himself since the sandpaper event. The shame that came after it seems to have taken the edge off of his batting. Smith will look at the semi-finals against England to redeem himself and put the ghost behind him once and forever. The middle order is their biggest weakness. Alex Carey’s form with the bat has added much-needed strength to it. However, Khawaja’s injury in the final league match does not bode well for this beleaguered part of the batting order. If I were Finch, I will send Carey higher up the order and play him at 5. His innings at the Lord’s against NZ, showed that he can pace his innings well. Additionally, he is in fantastic form. So, Aussies should use him fully higher in the order than let Maxi and others get out cheaply and put the team under pressure.

Coming to the bowling, this will be Aussie’s trump card in the semi-finals. Eng batting vs Aussie bowling will decide the fortunes of this match. Starc and Behrendoff have been in good wicket taking form in this tournament. However, they seem to depend a bit on swinging conditions to be absolutely lethal. Behrendoff is particularly vulnerable, if there is no swing on offer. England will count on this weakness to get over them at Edgbaston.

Lyon and Cummins will do a good job in the middle. If the pitch slows down a bit, Lyon with his tweakers and Cummins with his nagging back of a length bowling will make it difficult for the English to score big runs. Cummins has shown his ability to pick wickets in such conditions in India. Their fifth bowling combination of Stoinis, Maxwell, Smith and Finch will be targeted by England to get their runs. Having said all this, Australia will look at their bowling performance in the last match against SA and look to improve on it drastically. If SA could score 325 against that bowling, England will stop with nothing short of 380.

Verdict: Australia will sneak past England. I expect Australia’s varied wicket taking bowling combination to restrict English batting just enough for their batsmen to out-bat the English!!

Concluding comments

The league phase of this World Cup has been brilliant. The run of events has kept the teams and the spectators guessing until the last match to decide on the semi-final combination. This is not withstanding the first couple of weeks that saw matches being washed out or decided on DLS. A word of commiseration is due for the Pakistan team. In the second half of the league phase, they played like a brilliant unit that deserved a place in the last four. However, they have only themselves to blame for not reaching the last four. Not Dhoni for batting slowly or for NZ to have lost to England. They cannot come to an event and then use the initial matches to find their best XI. This has been a perennial problem for Pakistan and they have only themselves to blame for not controlling the controllable. Winning a World cup is not just about the playing squad. The pre-tournament preparations and strategy play a big role in achieving it. It is time that teams like Pakistan understand this reality and do not blame NRR or tournament rules for their debacle. Remember, Murphy’s Law!! If it can fail, it will!!

 

 

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