Forty-eight years ago, when the quadrennial ODI World Cup began, the West Indies were the dominant team. Now they don’t even figure in the tournament. Afghanistan and the Netherlands qualified ahead of them this year. A lot has changed since that inaugural World Cup in 1975. Six of the ten teams are evenly matched, and the other four can cause upsets.
The home team was the winner in the last three editions: England in 2019, Australia in 2015, and India in 2011. Indian fans will have high hopes that the pattern continues, given India’s 12-year drought in World Cups despite the abundance of talent.India do start as favourites after winning the Asia Cup in Sri Lanka. But a shock defeat to Bangladesh in that tournament also showed the challenge of winning a multi-nation event.
Ten teams and 45 games to decide the four semi-finalists in a round robin league across 10 venues in a sprawling country will be a test of adaptability. From Chennai to Dharamsala, Kolkata to Lucknow, the conditions will vary much more than in a World Cup held in England or Australia. We get our first look at the 10 contenders in the first five matches, starting with a clash between the 2019 finalists, England and New Zealand, in Ahmedabad.
The 2019 World Cup final between these two teams at Lord’s was a crazy affair, with overthrows from a deflection off Ben Stokes’ bat giving England a reprieve. The match remained tied after a super over and was decided in England’s favour on an archaic boundary count rule, leaving the Kiwis aggrieved. The ICC has junked that silly rule now, but England don’t need it any more.
The defending champions, who also won the T20 World Cup last year, will be the stronger side going into the 2023 World Cup opener. The attack-at-all-costs approach England took under Eoin Morgan has continued under the current ODI captain, Jos Buttler.
The left-right opening combination of Jonny Bairstow and Dawid Malan will start the onslaught with the bat. Their express fast bowlers Mark Wood and newcomer Gus Atkinson can both cross 150 kmph, but England have to decide if they want to field them both. If the Ahmedabad wicket takes turn from the very first match, Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali can exploit it.
New Zealand keep proving doubters wrong in World Cup after World Cup. They were the finalists in the last two editions. A number of their players are used to Indian conditions, thanks to playing in the Indian Premier League (IPL). But their main strength of swing bowling may be negated at most of the venues. And key players, including skipper Kane Williamson and the experienced bowling duo of Trent Boult and Tim Southee, are coming out of injury layoffs
The massive Narendra Modi stadium in Ahmedabad usually sees a fair contest between bat and ball, as both pace bowlers and spinners get some assistance. One can expect the pitch for the World Cup opener to be batting-friendly, but the basic character of the soil won’t change. We’re in for a humdinger of a game to get the World Cup going.
Pakistan will feel at home starting their World Cup campaign in the erstwhile capital of the Nizams, where Urdu is spoken as much as Telugu, andbiryaniis as popular a dish aspappu. The locals are in for a treat too, as the classy Babar Azam, currently the world’s No.1 ODI batsman, comes out to bat on an Indian ground.
The political imbroglio between the neighbouring countries has denied fans in India the opportunity to watch cricket stars from Pakistan in the flesh. That changes during the World Cup. The tall left-arm fast bowler Shaheen Shah Afridi, who has proved to be a nemesis for India on more than one occasion, will be another star attraction. How he fares on Indian pitches will set the tone for Pakistan.
Apart from the venue, a relatively weak opponent will allow Pakistan to ease into the tournament. But although most would agree that the Netherlands are minnows, they caused a huge upset in the T20 World Cup last year, beating South Africa in Adelaide. In fact, it was that result which allowed Pakistan to sneak into the semi-finals. No team can be written off altogether.
This is one of the most picturesque grounds in the world with a backdrop of the ice-capped Dhauladhar Range, imbued with Tibetan and Gaddiculture. Although Afghanistan and Bangladesh are not among the main contenders for the World Cup, it makes for a well-matched contest at an offbeat venue. Dharamsala will host an important match between India and New Zealand later in the month—so India watchers will be keen to observe the conditions. India’s left-arm leg-spinner Kuldeep Yadav triggered an Aussie batting collapse on his Test debut here back in 2017.
The rise of Afghanistan cricket is a story full of inspiration. The spin trio of Rashid Khan, Mujeeb Ur Rahman, and Noor Ahmad, who have made a mark in the IPL, can be a world-beating combination on a spin-friendly wicket. They have some hard-hitting batsmen too, although they are more used to T20 cricket than the longer 50-over format.
Bangladesh got the better of Afghanistan in the Asia Cup. The team is on the mend under the world class all-rounder and canny captain, Shakib Al Hasan. The controversial omission of successful opener Tamim Iqbal is a setback. But the return of Mahmudullah and Mushfiqur Rahim makes it an experienced side with a good bowling mix of pace and spin.
The second game in Saturday’s double-header will be a day-night encounter in New Delhi, featuring one of the top contenders for a semi-final spot: South Africa. Anrich Nortje’s absence due to injury is a blow, but Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi, and Marco Jansen make a formidable pace bowling unit, with the left-arm leg-spin of Tabraiz Shamsi to back them up. David Miller and Heinrich Klaasen are a dangerous batting duo in the middle order, with IPL star Quinton de Kock opening.
Sri Lanka will miss the services of pacer Dushmantha Chameera and leg-spinner Wanindu Hasaranga due to injuries. But by beating Pakistan to enter the Asia Cup final, they showed they can still take on the top teams. Matheesha Pathirana, who takes after the slinger, Lasith Malinga, and mystery spinner Maheesh Theekshana have both benefited from playing under M.S. Dhoni in the IPL. They can be match-winners if the Lankan batsmen manage to pull their weight.
Delhi used to be a spin-friendly venue, but it has changed in character. The World Cup pitches will probably be batting-friendly. Coupled with a relatively small ground, it sets the scene for lots of boundaries and sixes, which may favour South Africa.
Come Sunday, and the World Cup becomes personal for millions of Indian fans. Both India and Australia will have to be on their toes from the get-go, as this marquee encounter starts the campaign for these two top contenders. They played an ODI series just before the World Cup, which India won 2-1. But we can’t read much into that as both teams were testing their options.
India’s dilemma is in picking the playing eleven. Australia have shown their hand by targeting the slow medium pace of Shardul Thakur, who went wicketless for 78 runs in Mohali on 22 September. Off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin, a last-minute inclusion in the squad, would be a better choice as the fifth bowler at the Chepauk, where spinners generally get turn and bounce. Besides, it’s Ashwin’s home ground. Mohammed Shami, who got a 5-wicket haul in the game in which Thakur got hammered, would also be a good option, complementing the pace of Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Siraj.
India can afford to forgo having a No.8 who can bat a bit, given the form of their specialist batsmen and two genuine all-rounders. But again the dilemma lies in choosing the fifth specialist batsman between Suryakumar Yadav, who got two fifties against Australia, century-maker Shreyas Iyer, and left-hander Ishan Kishan. Yadav, the world’s No.1 T20 batsman by a long margin, can be a match-winning finisher.
Australia have a redoubtable bowling attack in the pace trio of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, and Pat Cummins, leg spinner Adam Zampa, off-spinning all-rounder Glenn Maxwell, and a string of medium pace all-rounders. An experienced batting lineup spearheaded by Mitchell Marsh, who scored a match-winning 96 as an opener in the third ODI against India on 27 Sep, will be a stern test for India. All the more reason for the home team to get their playing 11 right at the very outset.
Sumit Chakraberty is a Bengaluru-based writer.