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An unpredictable and thrilling World Cup throws up new heroes

The sheer diversity of pitches and match conditions are turning the World Cup into a tournament where anything is possible

Afghanistan players celebrate taking a wicket during their iconic victory over England.
Afghanistan players celebrate taking a wicket during their iconic victory over England. (PTI)

Giant-killers Afghanistan defended 284 in Delhi on Sunday, 15 October, marking a red-letter day in the history of the cricket World Cup. Their famous spin trio of Rashid Khan, Mujeeb Ur Rahman, and Mohammad Nabi shared eight wickets to bowl out defending champions England for 215. No World Cup is complete without an upset, and this was as big as it gets.

It was supposed to be a batting-friendly venue, with relatively small boundaries, where dew was expected to make it even harder for the spinners in the second half. That’s why England chose to bat second. But there was just enough turn for the brilliant Afghan trio to exploit and the dew wasn’t so heavy as to play spoilsport.

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It was a complete turnaround from what had happened in two other World Cup matches at this venue. Four days earlier, India took just 35 overs and lost only two wickets in chasing down a target of 273 set by Afghanistan. And in the first game in Delhi, it was a belter of a wicket on which South Africa scored a mammoth 428, with three batsmen getting centuries. Aiden Markram got to triple figures in 49 balls, making it the fastest-ever World Cup century.

It’s wonderful for cricket when a team like Afghanistan, with minimal resources, dethrone the current ODI and T20 World Cup holders with their sheer skill and spirit. It’s equally good for the game when venues are not predictable, and a variety of grounds adds to the strategic challenge for coaches and captains. India is known for its diversity, and this has been reflected in World Cup pitches.

Games beginning at 2 pm, half an hour earlier than in the previous World Cup in the subcontinent in 2011, has also contributed to reducing the effect of dew. This has made the matches less predictable than during the T20 World Cup in Dubai, where a team chasing a target was almost assured of victory.

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Australian captain Pat Cummins put South Africa in to bat first in Lucknow on 12 October, only to see his rivals post 311 and win by a whopping 134 runs. Four days earlier, it was the opposite: Cummins had opted to bat first in Chennai against India, but Australia come undone on a wicket that was tackier under the sun than under the lights at night. This illustrates the difficulty a captain and coach face as they rotate between the ten venues of this World Cup across the length and breadth of a large country.

Chennai and Ahmedabad are two venues where batting second is an advantage because the ball skids off the surface as the game progresses into the night. All four results so far at these venues have confirmed that.

But it’s only a slight advantage, which is, to some extent, balanced by the extra swing the new ball bowlers get at dusk. India were three down for two runs against Australia, before a 165-run partnership between Virat Kohli and K.L. Rahul came to the rescue. Another early wicket, which almost came about when Kohli skied a simple ball, would have exposed the all-rounders and lower order to immense pressure. It also didn’t help Australia that they managed to score only 199, allowing the Indian middle order to bat in a mostly risk-free manner.

This was also the case in the marquee encounter between India and Pakistan in Ahmedabad. With Pakistan collapsing to 191 all out, seven overs shy of their 50-over quota, and India getting off to a flyer with Rohit Sharma, it became a one-sided game in the end. But halfway into the Pakistan innings, it was shaping into an arm wrestle of a contest when Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan were at the crease on 155 for 2. Their wickets by Mohammad Siraj and Jasprit Bumrah turned the game, one from a cross-seam skidder and the other one from a well-disguised slower off-cutter.

Rohit Sharma in action against Pakistan.
Rohit Sharma in action against Pakistan. (PTI)

One-third of the way through the league stage, new venues are entering the picture this week, adding a twist to the tournament. India play Bangladesh next on Thursday, in Pune, which has been a high-scoring venue in the past.

Pace is generally more effective than spin in Pune. So India can be expected to retain the same team, with medium pacer Shardul Thakur likely to get the nod ahead of off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin. Seeing how skipper Rohit Sharma gave Thakur only two overs in the game against Pakistan, he’s a backup to Hardik Pandya, who bowled six overs and took two wickets.

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Considering the form of India’s specialist batsmen, which hasn’t required Thakur to bat so far, there’s still a case to go for the kill with another specialist bowler: Mohammad Shami or Ashwin. That’s unlikely to happen as long as India keep winning. But it remains an area of vulnerability, given Thakur’s lack of pace making him a target on a benign pitch.

India’s next opponents, Bangladesh, started the tournament with a win over Afghanistan, but subsequently got drubbed at the hands of England and New Zealand. The team has been beset with internal squabbles after Chandika Hathurusingha was brought back as head coach for the World Cup year, and Shakib Al Hasan reinstated as captain. The dropping of experienced opener Tamim Iqbal just before the tournament was controversial.

Nevertheless Bangladesh are a passionate and talented side, who beat India at the Asia Cup. They also won an ODI series at home late last year against the touring Indians. And Afghanistan have shown that no team can be taken lightly. Pune is a venue that should favour India over Bangladesh, but making predictions is fraught with peril in this World Cup.

Two major venues entering the picture this week are India’s tech capital Bengaluru and financial capital Mumbai. Australia and Pakistan clash at the Chinnaswamy stadium in Bengaluru on Friday. It hasn’t hosted an ODI for three years, but going by the Indian Premier League (IPL), it’s a bat-second ground where defending a target will be tough. Australia will try to build on a morale-boosting win over Sri Lanka on Monday, 16 October, after starting the tournament with two losses. Pakistan will need to lift their spirits after the demoralising loss to India.

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The England-South Africa match at the Wankhede in Mumbai on Saturday promises to be high octane. Pacers and spinners alike have a chance to enjoy the bounce on the red soil wicket. At the same time, batsmen will revel in stroke-making.

England, having lost to New Zealand and Afghanistan, will be desperate to get their World Cup train back on track. But they are up against a team riding high on the back of two thumping victories over Sri Lanka and Australia. It’s a clash worthy of the Wankhede.

For Indian fans, the big game is on Sunday against New Zealand in the picturesque mountain town of Dharamsala. It’s an unpredictable, offbeat venue where Afghanistan collapsed against the Bangladesh spinners early in the tournament on 7 October. But England smashed 364 against the same opposition three days later.

India will take heart from their wrist spinner, Kuldeep Yadav’s happy memories of triggering an Aussie batting collapse here on his Test debut in 2017. The high altitude gives the spinner extra bounce to induce mistakes, but conversely batsmen can tee off for sixes on the small ground.

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South Africa scored a memorable victory over Australia.
South Africa scored a memorable victory over Australia. (Reuters)

Before thinking of Dharamsala and India, however, New Zealand have a fired-up Afghanistan to contend with in Chennai today. The spin-friendly venue will raise Afghan hopes. But, as skipper Hashmatullah Shahidi said after the historic victory over England: “One department can’t win you games.” The batsmen have to score enough runs for the match-winning spinners.

But watch out for the Kiwis getting grounded if the likes of wicketkeeper-opener Rahmanullah Gurbaz, who made a blistering 80 in 57 balls against England, get going. And as Rashid Khan quipped after the win over England, he enjoyed his cover drive against speedster Mark Wood more than any of his wickets. He and Mujeeb Ur Rahman contributed vital cameos with the bat down the order.

The toss will be crucial, even though the Afghan spinners have shown they can be a danger even with dew. Tom Latham, who will lead New Zealand again after Kane Willimason fractured a finger, is a smart operator. He won’t make the mistake of Aussie captain Pat Cummins who batted first after winning the toss against India in Chennai. Latham made the right call of bowling first in the very first game of the World Cup in Ahmedabad, proving commentators wrong.

In sum, it’s a tournament spiced up with variety, where captains and coaches have to think on their feet.

Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.

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