The 13th Cricket World Cup gets under way on Thursday. Though this event had been held in the subcontinent on three occasions in the past - 1987, 1996 and 2011 - this is the first time that India will be hosting the event alone. Thus, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) will be solely responsible for organisation and smooth conduct of the championship, which will be a big challenge of many fronts.
All the participating teams play against each other in the league stage, with the four top sides progressing to the knockout phase. The conduct of 48 matches within a span of 45 days, in 10 cities spread across the vast nation will pose a big logistical challenge. One can be certain that the resources and expertise of the BCCI in this regard would be stretched to the limit in organising the mega event.
Who will hold aloft the trophy on November 19? This will be the million dollar question in the minds of the followers of the game world over. It is neither prudent nor advisable to indulge in crystal ball gazing in matters involving sports. And this is doubly so when the subject matter relates to cricket, a game of glorious uncertainties at the best of times. However, the impulse to predict the course of a tournament and its ultimate winner is irresistible and hence one can be forgiven for indulging in this exercise.
The top four sides in one-day cricket today, based on the rankings given by the International Cricket Council (ICC), are India, Pakistan, Australia and South Africa. On current form hosts India look better prepared than other sides in the run up to the championship. The worries that the side on the injury front appear to have been settled with the return of K L Rahul, Shreyas Iyer and Jasprit Bumrah. Even the absence of Axar Patel, who was forced out of the squad due to strain of quadriceps muscle, turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it paved the way for return to the squad of Ravichandran Ashwin, the veteran off-spinner. This lends more balance to the side, which has peaked of late with an impressive triumph in the Asia Cup. The batting order comprising skipper Rohit Sharma, veteran Virat Kohli, Shubman Gill, Iyer and the in-form Rahul is one capable of sending chills down the spine of bowling attacks. The two all rounders - Ravindra Jadeja and Hardik Pandya - lend balance and variety, while the bowling attack of Bumrah, Mohammed Siraj, Mohammed Shami, Ashwin and Kuldeep Yadav is one of the best in contemporary cricket. The strengths of the side are the overall balance it possesses and the experience that players bring to the table. These, together with the deep knowledge of the conditions where matches are held, give the side a head start over the others. The only visible weakness is the batting which appears a bit top heavy and fall of early wickets can be potentially ruinous.
On paper, Pakistan boasts of a strong side, with three batsmen in the top 10 of ICC rankings and a sharp bowling attack. Babar Azam, Imam-ul-Haq and Fakhar Zaman are explosive batsmen, each of who can singleh-andedly turn around the course of any game once they get going. Similarly the pace bowling duo of Shaheen Afridi and Haris Rauf possess the firepower to rattle timber and run through opposing batting line-up when on fire. The four all-rounders in the squad, led by the uber-talented Shadab Khan, gives skipper Babar more options in selection of the playing eleven. But the side is yet to get over the impression of not being a tightly knit unit; besides, they also have a tendency to come apart at the seams when exposed to tense situations. But they would be the team to watch out for if they enter the last four stage.
Australian squad boasts of the presence of six all-rounders, which indicates the depth that it possesses in both batting and bowling departments. In David Warner and Steve Smith, they have two experienced campaigners who can navigate the ship even in the choppiest of waters. Mitchell Marsh, Travis Head, Marcus Labuschagne and Cameroon Green bring stability to the top and middle order while Glen Maxwell can destroy any attack on his day. Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazelwood lead the pace bowling department, with able support from Sean Abbott and Green, while Adam Zampa, the leg-spinner, has proved his utility in limited overs cricket time and again. Their only weakness is the high average age of the side (31.2 years), which may prove to be a handicap in a tightly packed championship that places a huge demand on fitness of the players.
South Africa are a bit of an unknown entity among this lot. Except for veterans Quinton de Kock and David Miller, none of the batsmen have more than ,2000 runs against their names in One-Day Internationals (OD’s) while only Kabaso Ragada has picked up more than 200 wickets. This shows that the side is bit weak on experience. This, coupled with their tendency to choke during critical points in important matches in big tournaments, places them on a weak wicket at the start of the tournament.
Title holders England have surprisingly been placed at the fifth position in ICC rankings. This does not do justice to a side that has top performers such as Ben Stokes, Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow, Jos Buttler, Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid. Like Australia, they also have six all-rounders in the side, with Sam Curran, Chris Woakes, David Willey and Liam Livingstone supporting Ali and Stokes. Dawid Malan, who will open the innings with Bairstow, Root and skipper Buttler will provide the depth in batting, with young Harry Brook on the sidelines ready to step in when required. The presence of many all-rounders who can bowl pace as well as spin lends variety to the attack led by the red hot pace of Mark Wood and big turning leg breaks of Rashid. The side also appears to be in top form as seen from the manner in which they defeated New Zealand in the just concluded series. The absence of the experienced Jason Roy at the top of the order appears to be the only chink in the otherwise well-knit armour of the reigning champions.
New Zealand were the finalists in the last two editions of the World Cup and their loss at Lord’s four years ago was nothing short of heartbreaking. However, the Kane Williamson-led side has not been in top form of late, with the skipper himself being indisposed due to injury during the last six months. Their attack, which is dominated by the fast bowlers Trent Boult, Lockie Ferguson and Tim Southee may find the going difficult on the batsmen-friendly pitches in India. Their batting appears to be too dependent on Williamson and Tom Latham while Mitchell Santner and Ish Sodhi, the two spinners, are not in the same league as their counterparts in other sides. Besides, the Kiwis have a history of not doing well in championships held in the subcontinent and it appears unlikely that this side will rewrite it.
Though Sri Lanka had to face the ignominy of reaching the World Cup through the qualifiers, they are not a side that can be written off. They have a set of capable batsmen in Kusal Mendis, Kusal Perera and Pathum Nissanka while Matheesha Pathirana, Maheesh Theekshana and Danish Wellalage are top performers with the ball. Their knowledge of the grounds and pitches will work to their advantage. Besides, they have a history of doing well whenever the championship has been held in the sub continent, lifting the trophy in 1996 and reaching the finals in 2011. Thus, the Lankan appears well suited for the tag of the “dark horses”, capable of springing an upset or two in this championship.
Bangladesh have proved time and again that they cannot be treated as pushovers, but they do not appear to possess the firepower to last the full distance. Afghanistan and the Netherlands will see the championship more as a big stage to showcase their talent. None of the three sides can be taken lightly though it is difficult to visualise any of them defeating one of the seven other teams in the fray.
Thus, based on current form, the sides that appear best set to reach the semifinal stage are India, Australia and England. They last spot will, in all probability, be taken by either Pakistan or Sri Lanka. Bangladesh, South Africa and New Zealand can spring a couple of surprises but may not be able to progress beyond the league phase. From the last four stage onwards, the team that performs better on a particular day will win as there will be little to choose between the sides on expertise and experience.
With nine matches in the league phase and another two in the knockout, each team will be required to play plenty of cricket during the next six weeks. The packed schedule, with continuous travel from one venue to another crisscrossing the country, is bound to take its toll on the physical fitness and mental wellbeing of the players. It is also imperative the sides to preserve their energies and peak at the correct time to stand a chance of making it to the final.
Pakistan emerged as the winners when the World Cup was held in this format for the first time in 1992, where all sides played against each other in league phase. They had never been the fittest side nor were the most well-knit one. Besides they had a very poor start to the championship. But Imran Khan's men peaked at the right time and succeeded in carrying forward this thrust and momentum.
I join the millions of cricket lovers in the country in wishing good luck to the Indian team for winning the World Cup. It is our earnest wish and prayer that the side attains top form and outclasses all opponents to regain the top prize in international cricket.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)