The ongoing International Cricket Council (ICC) T20 World Cup promises to underline the adage regarding “glorious uncertainties” of the game more emphatically than any championship held till date. Though the semifinal line-up of New Zealand, England, India, and Pakistan comes close to the predictions of most observers of the game, it masks the rollercoaster ride that all sides went through during the Super 12 phase. If anything, the last three weeks of this championship has again highlighted the fallacy involved in trying to forecast a winner in a tournament of the shortest version of the game.
The group stage had seen the exit of the West Indies, the only side to have lifted the title twice in the history. The Super 12 games began with New Zealand trampling over the hosts Australia in a manner that shocked the followers of the game. The Kiwis kept up the momentum to top their group though England showed them their place by inflicting a 20-run defeat on them.
England were shocked by the underrated Ireland in a game that was curtailed by rain and were stretched by Sri Lanka before they could seal their spot in the last four stage. The much awaited clash between England and Australia did not take place as it was washed out.
The Aussies could never find their momentum and had to struggle even to get the better of Afghanistan. Despite giving England some tense moments, Sri Lanka disappointed as they could not rise to the expectations spawned by their stellar show in the recently concluded Asia Cup. Afghanistan gave Australia a run for their money but could not lift their game to set up wins while Ireland seemed content with their giant-killer status after the match with England.
As expected, India topped Group 2 despite the defeat at the hands of South Africa and close wins over Pakistan and Bangladesh. Pakistan took time to recover after their loss to India in a match where they held the upper hand till the last eight balls were bowled, and this was demonstrated in their one-run loss to Zimbabwe. But they made an amazing recovery after that and struck full stride with emphatic wins over South Africa and Bangladesh in their last two games.
South Africa, on the other hand, started out well but surprisingly lost their way after that. Their defeat at the hands of the Netherlands in the last game, when they had one foot in the semifinals, justified their tag as chokers and showed that they have not yet recovered from the trauma of the loss in the semifinals of the 1999 World Cup.
The Netherlands were the surprise package in this group, punching way above their weight, with victories over Zimbabwe and South Africa, while Zimbabwe edged Pakistan in a close game. Bangladesh started well but stumbled towards the end and lost the opportunity of getting into the semifinals by going down tamely to Pakistan in their last match.
Before going into the strengths and weaknesses of the four semifinalists, we should examine some of the common strands seen in the matches played so far. The first is that one has so far witnessed an even battle between the bat and ball, with very few high-scoring games of the nature seen in the Indian sub continent. The pitches have offered pace and bounce, which, though advantageous to the pace bowlers have helped the spinners as well. Further, we also saw that matches that do not necessarily have to produce a mountains of runs to rank high on the excitement index. Winning the toss did not confer any special advantage, as happens in matches played in some other parts of the globe. Rain created some amount of disruption in that four matches were washed out, one ended as no result and three were curtailed on this score. Sides batting second were placed at a disadvantage in all cases where game was shortened due to rain as asking rates climbed up stiffly, even as batting and running between wickets became more difficult on account of moisture in the air and wetness of the ground.
When it comes to the line-up for the semifinals, both games - New Zealand vs Pakistan and India vs England - promise to be close ones. Though New Zealand looks the better side on paper, Pakistan has struck good rhythm after the initial tumble and started looking like a champion side. In Shaheen Afridi, Haris Rauf, Naseem Shah and Mohamed Wasim they have a pace attack that will be the envy of most captains, while Shadab Khan and Ifthikar Ahmed have chipped in handsomely with the slower stuff.
The Kiwis are no pushovers in the bowling segment with an incisive attack comprising pacers Trent Boult, Tim Southee, and Lockie Ferguson and Mitchell Santner and Ish Sodhi providing the spin options. It is in the area of batting that New Zealand appears superior as none of the Pakistani batsmen can boast of the technical perfection of Kane Williamson or explosive batsmanship of Finn Allen and Glenn Philips.
However, if Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan get going at top of the order they possess adequate firepower in Shadab Khan, Mohammad Haris and Ifthikar in the middle and lower order to give the New Zealand bowlers a run for their money.
It also merits mention that this Pakistani side is bringing back memories of the Imran Khan-led squad of 1992, which fought back after being on the brink of being knocked out to win the championship in style. Hence one can be certain that sparks will fly when these two sides clash on Wednesday at Sydney.
The situation is slightly different in the other semifinal clash where India start as favourites, given their impressive show so far in the championship. However, it must be mentioned that England have not been really tested so far, except during the chase against Sri Lanka when they appeared edgy and apprehensive. Further, their match against Australia was washed out and the defeat against Ireland had come about in circumstances where rain cut short the overs at their disposal while chasing a not too insurmountable total.
India’s advantage is that all their top batsmen have got into the groove with scores of 50-plus against their name, while their bowlers, especially the young Arshdeep Singh and the experienced Mohammed Shami, have been in great form.
England, on the other hand, boasts of a luxury of bowling options, both pace and spin, and a pair of outstanding all rounders - Ben Stokes and Chris Woakes. Batting is their Achilles heel and further progress of this side will be decided by the confidence with which their batsmen tackle the Indian attack.
However, India should be on their guard against getting too complacent as this led to their downfall in 1987 World Cup where the two sides had met in the semifinals.
I join the millions of Indian fans in praying for the success of the national side and wishing them good luck for the knockout stage.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)