Let’s say there are two kinds of audiences invested in this World Cup. One, the older lot, who have followed this tournament since, say, 1983, when India caused the biggest upset till date in cricket history. The other, a younger audience, which really took an interest from around 1999, the last time the World Cup was played in England.
The curious thing is that younger audiences have only ever seen the favourites win in the five World Cups they have followed—Australia four times, India once. And in the last two tournaments, the favourites were also the hosts. Would you blame them for expecting a repeat? England, the hosts this time, are the favourites as the No.1-ranked One Day International (ODI) side in the world. They haven’t lost a bilateral series in over two years. England should have this in the bag.
The older audience has its doubts, though. After all, in the first four World Cups they followed, the unexpected happened every time. In 1983, India triumphed, despite odds of 66-1 at the start of the tournament. In 1987, favourites India and Pakistan, also hosts, both lost in the semi-finals, and Australia, who had been struggling through the 1980s, won. But in 1992, when they were the hosts and the favourites, Australia had an inexplicable meltdown, and Pakistan came back from the brink to win. In 1996, Sri Lanka, minnows till then, changed their history forever. How can people who followed these four World Cups subscribe to the anodyne expectation of the favourites winning?
Here, then, is the 2019 World Cup decoded through the prism of this generational reversal.
THE CONVENTIONAL YOUNGER PERSPECTIVE
The 50-over game is now played in the flattest conditions in world cricket. Since the 2015 World Cup, 6.07 runs have been scored per over in England by the hosts—the highest run-rate in world cricket. Visiting teams have scored at 5.88 runs per over, also the highest.
Batting shoot-outs will suit England, given the dividends their fearless approach, led by Eoin Morgan, have yielded in the last four years. They bat deep, and aggressively, regardless of the situation and this has taken England to the top of the ODI rankings for the first time.
Given these conditions, chasing will be a distinct advantage for any team as they will know the magnitude of aggression required to bring down a total, rather than worry about what a safe score will be while batting first. It follows then that the biggest differential would be the bowling strength of each team, given that almost every team possesses good batting firepower. In almost all limited-overs tournaments (including the Twenty20 format) bowling sides fare much better than those that rely more on batting. The key will be picking up wickets in the middle overs and defending runs in the death overs.
There are really only five teams capable of doing this well—India, Australia, South Africa, England and New Zealand.
England, by picking Jofra Archer, have increased their death-overs competency, complementing Adil Rashid’s propensity to pick up wickets in the middle overs.
India’s bowling is the best it has ever fielded, and it’s certainly the best bowling side of this tournament. Since the 2017 Champions Trophy, they have picked up the most wickets amongst all teams—averaging 7.3 wickets per match. England, in comparison, average 6.5 wickets a game. Not only do the two wrist spinners, Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav, pick up wickets in the middle overs, Mohammed Shami actually has the second-best strike rate in ODI history for pacers—8.5 balls for a wicket (Mitchell Starc is the best). Jasprit Bumrah is widely regarded as the best death-overs bowler.
And India’s top 3 batsmen compare with the greatest in ODI history—averaging 56 at a strike rate of 93. Shikhar Dhawan averages 65 in International Cricket Council (ICC) tournaments (second-best ever after Andrew Symonds), Rohit Sharma has the best batting average for an opener (minimum 2,000 runs) in ODI history and Virat Kohli is not only the greatest chaser in ODI history, but also widely regarded as the greatest ODI batsman along with Viv Richards (Kohli averages just 31 in 14 knockout games though, a curious blip).
Defending champions Australia could be the dark horse, due to their post-2015 dip and recent revival. Starc, Pat Cummins and Adam Zampa are as crucial to the team’s chances as their batsmen, many of whom have been in good form. If David Warner and Steve Smith fit in seamlessly, it’s not a pleasant line-up for opponents. Curiously though, Australia have lost their last six ODIs in England.
For the first time since 1996, South Africa are not among the favourites, but this lack of expectation could help the team. Dale Steyn and Kagiso Rabada aside, Imran Tahir is a potent wicket-taker in the middle overs and Chris Morris effective in the death overs. Their batting is a worry, with Hashim Amla out of form, and an unhealthy dependency on Faf du Plessis and Quinton de Kock.
New Zealand have everything—the batsmen, all-rounders, pace bowlers and two excellent spinners for the middle overs. But they don’t have enough death bowlers, which could end up hurting them.
Pakistan are largely toothless (with possibly their weakest bowling attack in World Cup history) and their stars from their astonishing Champions Trophy triumph of 2017—Fakhar Zaman and Hasan Ali—have been found out in the international arena.
West Indies have the batting to cause a major upset or two, but not the bowling to take them all the way. Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan all have firepower to cause upsets, but not much else.
The semi-finalists are likely to be England, India, Australia and New Zealand (with South Africa at their heels), with an England-India final in which India prevail because they have more experienced big-match players.
THE OUTLANDISH OLDER PERSPECTIVE
No World Cup has ever had this level of competition. Not only are there just 10 teams; each one is capable of beating any of the others on any given day. Afghanistan, technically the minnows, beat West Indies twice while qualifying for this tournament. West Indies, just three months back, drew 2-2 with England.
2019 also has the toughest format—every team plays the other once, before the knockouts. This was last followed in 1992—till now the toughest World Cup in history, with the most number of close matches and upsets. Australia had a breakdown at home and Pakistan, led by Imran Khan, arguably the greatest captain in cricket history, came from behind to win the tournament.
It is often said that mere talent does not produce a world-class player, mental toughness is equally important. This is equally true of teams playing this tournament—the team that prevails will have to demonstrate fortitude and ruthlessness.
England have done remarkably well with their brand of attacking cricket in bilateral series but the pressure of a World Cup, in front of home crowds and local press, as favourites for the first time in their history, is a different cup of tea. On the four occasions the current England team has reached a series decider or a tournament knockout match, it has lost twice (most notably in the Champions Trophy 2017 semi-final, at home)—both times batting first, and self-combusting.
At any rate, collective English sporting endeavour under pressure has resembled Brexit indecision for a long time. This is why they have never won a single world ODI event. If they don’t start the tournament well (they play the dangerous South Africa and Pakistan first, then their nemesis in the last two World Cups—Bangladesh), they could well go the way favourites and hosts Australia did in 1992.
India, despite being an outstanding team (though the top two openers, Dhawan and Sharma, are not at their peak any more), do have one glaring weakness—finishing. M.S. Dhoni is not the ODI batsman he once was; his strike rate has gone down in this format. Kedar Jadhav is excellent at times, but he has not been consistent and is also notoriously injury-prone. Hardik Pandya can be devastating, but consistency is again a problem. The key factor here may be the specialist finisher Dinesh Karthik—exceptional under pressure—but how will he fit into the eleven if Dhoni does not bat at No.4 and if Jadhav is always accommodated? Without this X-factor under pressure, this team could be badly exposed. They play three of the strongest sides first—South Africa, Australia and New Zealand; it remains to be seen if the team has the wherewithal to come back after a bad start.
Australia’s recent mini-revival has been led by Aaron Finch’s and Usman Khawaja’s form, but will the law of averages temper that? Will David Warner and Steve Smith fit in within their team dynamics after their post-ban return? If they get positive answers to these, this could be a team to watch, again. Mental strength is never a problem with Aussie teams.
New Zealand have a lot of things going for them—they can answer flat pitches with hard-hitting all-rounders, and even slightly seaming conditions with a pace attack second to none. They bat deeper than most teams and field better on most days. They are also led by Kane Williamson, one of the most successful captains in world cricket in all formats, who absorbs pressure with exemplary calmness.
Williamson is already an all-time-great player—a good qualification to have in light of previous World Cup-winning captains; every one of them ticks that particular box (presumably that’s the stature required to take a team along in such an event). Kohli is the only other one in the fray on that count, but it is debatable if he has the balance and poise to take his team along during tense moments. If England, led by Eoin Morgan, who doesn’t quite tick the all-time-great box, win, it would be an enormous break from history.
Surprisingly, despite being finalists from 2015, New Zealand have the advantage of no expectation and zero pressure this time—something they have always thrived on (producing unlikely heroes in many World Cups). They have been World Cup semi-finalists seven times—only five-time winners Australia match them on that. On every single one of those occasions, New Zealand lost to an indisputably better side, except perhaps in 1999, when conditions changed dramatically during the match and the ball stopped swinging when they bowled to Pakistan. Winning the equivalent of the Champions Trophy the very next year—New Zealand’s only world title till date, wouldn’t have been compensation enough.
They have unfinished business. If the New Zealand-Australia final that should have happened in 1999 takes place in 2019, it will add that much-missed unexpected element. And if New Zealand win their first World Cup, it will make up for the predictability of the last five Cups.
Notwithstanding the luck of winning the toss and getting favourable conditions, this could well be a tournament where mental strength plays a greater role than firepower, resulting in some surprises. But if that does not happen, and if England and India compete for the title, as everybody expects, it is not unreasonable to conclude that something has changed irrevocably in the data-driven, footage-centric game. Upsets like those seen in the four World Cups between 1983-96 are a thing of the past, and life has become altogether too predictable.