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Dreams of glory: India's World Cup rivals

With the 2023 ODI World Cup starting on 5 October, England and Australia could be strong contenders for the title, apart from an India bolstered by their Asia Cup win

(from left) Shaheen Shah Afridi; Pat Cummins and Steve Smith; and Ben Stokes.
(from left) Shaheen Shah Afridi; Pat Cummins and Steve Smith; and Ben Stokes.

In which language does Rohit Sharma get angry? Apparently, Bambaiya Hindi (Bombay Hindi). During a press conference held to announce India’s squad for the 2023 ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup, on 8 September, the Indian captain seemed miffed when asked about the constant scrutiny and external pressure building on the team.

Mere ko abhi World Cup mein ye sab sawaal mat poochna, ki mahaul ban raha hai, ye sab…uska jawab nahi dunga main abhi (don’t ask me these questions during the World Cup... I am not going to answer these kinds of questions),” he replied testily. “How many times have I said this? We don’t care what’s happening outside. That’s not our job to look at how the atmosphere is outside. All our players are professionals. All of these players have experienced these high-pressure games. It doesn’t make sense to keep talking about it. As a team, we would like to focus on our goal.”

Also read: 5 problems India need to solve before the cricket World Cup

For cricket-crazy Indian fans, anything less than a title win may seem like disappointment. The 2023 World Cup, which begins on 5 October, is the first time that India, the spiritual home of the sport, will be the sole host of the marquee event. Whether Sharma and his team are able to block it out or not, they will be in the eye of the storm, with the noise growing louder, expectations only rising as the tournament progresses. Especially since the last time India co-hosted the event, along with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, in 2011, they emerged world champions.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni was the captain then, Sachin Tendulkar the hero on the verge of retirement. Sharma didn’t make it to the class of 2011 and a 22-year-old Virat Kohli’s most memorable contribution was carrying Tendulkar, finally a World Cup winner, on his shoulders around the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai after a win over Sri Lanka in the finals.

But Sharma is now the captain and Kohli, the embodiment of Indian cricket’s fierce ambition. Two of the best white-ball batters in the world currently, Sharma and Kohli will spearhead the Indian challenge, hoping to script a winning tale of their own.

Out of the world

With the world’s richest cricket body, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), hosting this year’s World Cup, it promises to be grander than ever. It will start and end at the biggest cricket stadium in the world—the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad—that has a capacity of over 130,000.

Also, the International Cricket Council (ICC) and BCCI literally sent the most coveted prize in One Day International (ODI) cricket out of this world to launch the World Cup trophy tour in June. The 60cm-high trophy, made of silver and gold, was sent to the edge of space—120,000ft above Earth—by attaching it to a stratospheric balloon. The trophy later landed at the Narendra Modi Stadium to begin its 18-country tour.

The World Cup, itself, however remains limited in scope. While the Fifa men’s World Cup will increase from its current 32-team final tournament to 48 countries in the 2026 edition, cricket scaled down from 14 countries to 10 in 2019. This edition will also see 10 teams compete for the title over six weeks. All the teams will take on each other in a round-robin stage, with the top four qualifying for the semi-finals.

The biggest absentees are two-time world champions West Indies, who lost to Scotland in the qualifying event—the 2023 ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup qualifier. Ireland and Zimbabwe, who are full members of the ICC, also failed to qualify for the mega-event. Meanwhile, the Netherlands return to the World Cup after a gap of 12 years. Having failed to make the cut in the last two editions, they grabbed the last qualifying spot for this year’s World Cup.

New Zealand’s captain Lockie Ferguson (second from left) with teammates at the Sher-e-Bangla National Cricket Stadium in Dhaka on September 26.
New Zealand’s captain Lockie Ferguson (second from left) with teammates at the Sher-e-Bangla National Cricket Stadium in Dhaka on September 26. (AFP photo)

Contenders for the throne

Defending champions England and five-time winners Australia are two of the strongest contenders for the title, apart from India.

Both the teams have a battalion of all-rounders and utility players: Stokes, Sam Curran, Liam Livingstone, Moeen Ali, Davis Willey and Chris Woakes for England, and Mitchell Marsh, Marcus Stoinis, Cameron Green for Australia. Aussie captain Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc are star bowlers who can be handy with the bat as well.

The 2019 finals hero, Stokes, has bolstered the England team by coming out of retirement for the World Cup. One of the best all-rounders in the world, the 32-year-old made an immediate impact on the team on his international comeback. The series against New Zealand was his first since announcing retirement in July 2022. After scoring a half-century in the first ODI against New Zealand, the left-handed batter followed it up with a massive 182 off 124 in the second match. It was the highest individual score by an English batter in ODIs.

Australia, however, have had a far from ideal run-up to the World Cup. Some of their key players are returning from injury layoffs—Cummins (wrist), Starc (groin), Smith (wrist) and Glenn Maxwell (ankle soreness/paternity leave)—and may not have enough game-time. One of their key batters, Travis Head, picked up a finger injury in South Africa and is likely to miss the first half of the World Cup.

They also lost the ODI series in Australia 2-3 and were beaten by India comprehensively in the first two games of their three-match series here; they won the third. Worryingly, their lead spinner, Adam Zampa, leaked 113 runs in 10 overs against South Africa in the fourth ODI, to equal the record for the most expensive spell in 50-over cricket. Australia, however, shrugged it off as one bad day at the office and have big plans for Zampa, who is bound to play a crucial role on India’s spinner-friendly wickets. He is also the most successful bowler—from the 10 teams competing—in the last four years. The leg-spinner has taken 77 wickets since the 2019 World Cup.

“Zamps, he’s effective at not only keeping the run rate down but he can take a couple of wickets at the death,” Cummins said at a press conference after arriving in India. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we keep two, three or four overs up our sleeve with him.”

Unlike some previous editions, South Africa are flying under the radar this time. They have a few match-winners in the ranks, like Heinrich Klaasen and David Miller, who have done well in these conditions in the Indian Premier League.

“Entering the World Cup as non-favourites can perhaps help us. People are not backing us to win but that could work to our benefit,” pacer Kagiso Rabada told Wion. “It’s about clicking as a unit, as a team. We need performances to come at the right (time) when we need it.”

On the last two occasions that the ODI World Cup was played in the subcontinent—in 2011 and 1996—Sri Lanka made it to the finals. They won their first and only World Cup title in 1996 and lost to India in 2011. But the Sri Lankan team is in a flux and their captain, Dasun Shanaka, is just about holding on to his spot in the team. They have also been hit with injury worries—all-rounder Wanindu Hasaranga is likely to miss the World Cup due to a hamstring injury and Dushmantha Chameera is struggling with a pectoral muscle injury.

They will also still be reeling from the defeat to India in the Asia Cup final on 17 September. Playing at home, Sri Lanka were bowled out for a mere 50 runs, the second lowest total in their ODI history. Indian pacer Mohammed Siraj tore through their batting order, dismissing opener Pathum Nissanka, Sadeera Samarawickmara, Charith Asalanka and Dhananjaya de Silva in one fiery over. India knocked off the required 51 runs in 6.1 overs to complete a 10-wicket win.

Earlier in the tournament, India demolished the confidence of their biggest rivals in the sport, Pakistan.

Pakistan’s battery of pacers—Shaheen Shah Afridi, Haris Rauf and Naseem Shah—were the talk of the town before their Super Four clash against India. During the group stage match between the two countries, they had sent back India’s top four before the first 15 overs. But the Indian batters, led by openers Sharma and Shubman Gill, met the challenge head on. Their lead bowler, Afridi, finished with an economy rate of 7.9 as India plundered 356 runs in 50 overs. In reply, Pakistan folded up for 128. The team looked in disarray after the defeat.

Also read: ICC Cricket World Cup: How team India can lift the cup again

This young Pakistani squad, captained by Babar Azam, is not as menacing as its predecessors. Even before they set foot in India, they lost Naseem Shah to injury. One of the most mercurial teams in the world, however, they can never really be written off. Their blockbuster clash against India, scheduled for 14 October in Ahmedabad, is the most anticipated match of the World Cup so far.

Earlier this month, it was reported that tickets for the India-Pakistan match were selling for as much as 56 lakh. For all of BCCI’s riches, the issues in scheduling and ticketing before the World Cup may see many of the genuine fans left out. The schedule has, for instance, seen a number of changes and few tickets are available for the public.

India’s strong finish at the Asia Cup—the comprehensive wins over Asian powerhouses Pakistan and Sri Lanka—was a statement of intent. Though the competition at the World Cup will be far fiercer, the Indian team is shaping up well for the title hunt.

Though there is some truth in Sharma’s arguments that his players are constantly subject to scrutiny and know how to deal with it, a World Cup at home is a different beast altogether. All that noise, all that frenzy will be dialled to the maximum. Apart from Kohli, none of the players in the Indian squad has quite experienced it.

If the Indian players are not aware of it already, they will surely be reminded that the last three ODI World Cups have been won by the home team. No pressure then.

Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.

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