“Missing: Pair of balls. If found, please return to the English cricket team.”
The World Cup, indeed Australia’s opening match against their most familiar foe, remains a day or two away. But the mind games have already begun, with opening shots fired by the Aussie public and press. Posters sporting the above words have appeared in Melbourne, near the venue for the hosts’ first game, the famous Melbourne Cricket Ground. This match, which immediately follows the opening match of the tournament, between the co-hosts New Zealand, and Sri Lanka, is just one of the mouth-watering match-ups that Pool A, objectively the more difficult of the two, has to offer. Here, we’ll run through each of the nations in Pool A, looking at their chances of progression, key players, and limitations.
Co-hosts; tournament favourites; the most talked about team in the world – the Aussies are the obvious team to start with. The list of reasons Michael Clarke’s men come into this tournament as the most fancied side is as long as your arm. Knowledge of conditions, incredible form, strength in depth, and a vast array of cricketing brilliance, blended with experience and tactical depth. But two things give Australia far more of an advantage over the other teams than those simple and salient factors.
Firstly, the confidence, verging on arrogance, that coach Darren Lehman has instilled in his team since he took the reigns from Micky Arthur in June 2013 has transformed Australian Test, One Day and T20 teams from struggling also-rans to top-end front-runners. That Lehman’s first series was a 0-3 Ashes loss is testament to the sheer improvement the ex-international has overseen. The mental toughness nearly omnipresent in Australian sport, is once again fused with an unbreakable self-belief a far as their cricket team is concerned.
Secondly, and perhaps more important even than the psychological aspect, is that their squad is saturated with match winners. It seems strange to suggest that in a team sport it tends not to be collective effort but individual brilliance that wins games, and indeed wins tournaments. But what you really need, especially towards tournaments’ business ends, is cricketers that can score that mammoth ton, or take that 5-wicket haul, just when colleagues begin to falter. If you are looking for examples of Australian match-winners, look no further than their latest scorecard. Warner, Watson, Maxwell, Smith, Faulkner, Starc, Johnson; there are few in the Aussie squad that you wouldn’t consider to be in the ‘world-beater’ bracket.
Confidence and match-winners, then: this Aussie squad is one to fear. But all it takes in a knockout round is one collapse, even one dropped catch, and the game can swing against you. And there is, of course, the weight of expectation. Anything other than a win would be a monumental disappointment.
The ‘other’ hosts: expect New Zealand to feature much more heavily in this competition than they have for many years. Whilst they by no means have the match-winners of Australia, the experience of Sri Lanka or the pedigree of India, the Blackcaps have a brilliantly balanced team. The batting line-up mixes the flair of McCullum and Ronchi with the solidity of Williamson and Guptill, whilst the bowling department boasts a fast-bowling trio with pace to frighten even the most seasoned of batting campaigners.
New Zealand’s recent form has put a cat amongst the pigeons: they have beaten Sri Lanka (4-2) and Pakistan (2-0) inside the last month. These are hardly minnows of world cricket, yet New Zealand have sauntered to series wins in home conditions. However, their campaign undoubtedly rests on the shoulders of a few. Kane Williamson, the new golden boy of Blackcaps cricket, will hope he can carry the form that has seen him score less than fifty in just two of his eight official innings in the New Year (this run boats three centuries, including a double, and a ninety-seven). His ability to score consistently and fluently throughout innings will be paramount to New Zealand’s ability to put up match-winning totals. Whilst Williamson is key for the batting, Tim Southee and Dan Vettori will prove equally crucial for the bowling side of affairs. It is not that these are the only players that can bowl teams out, but it is the case that they are the most experienced of the likely starters, and will accordingly need to guide the exciting new talents, Milne, McClenaghan and Boult through their first World Cup.
This year presents New Zealand with their best opportunity yet to reach the final of a major competition. If this does happen, expect their greatest maverick and most important leader, captain Brendon McCullum, to have conjured something amazing along the way. Despite not being in the best form, the ageing batsman will be keen to capitalise on home advantage, and lead his team to their best ever finish at a World Cup.
England come into this World Cup in familiar circumstances, and with the usual atmosphere: cautious optimism. Indeed, there is much to be positive about. The men in suits made the right decision when they finally sacked and dropped former captain Alistair Cook, although the manner in which they managed the situation leaves an incredible amount to be desired – it is yet to be seen whether these wounds will heal amply before Cook returns to the Test arena. The result of that decision, though, is that this squad is the most exciting pool of players English cricket has to offer: Hales, Ali, Taylor, Buttler, Bopara, Woakes, Jordan; these guys have been knocking on the door domestically for years without gaining the international recognition they have likely deserved. When combined with the fresh captaincy of Morgan, and the relatively experienced heads of Broad, Bell, Anderson, even Root, this England side has the potential to cause problems to even the best teams.
They would never admit it, but England’s best hope is to adopt the Australian way – to play freely and aggressively. If they seek to grind teams out, or ask their batsmen to play anything other than their natural way, they will lose. Equally, if they continue to bowl poorly at the death, any hope of winning games against the likes of Australia, South Africa or India will vanish out of sight. But as with those sides, England have brought together a team of players who can win games single-handedly. In short: no-one really has a clue what to expect from England. That makes them dangerous. But if they fail in this competition, there will be no shortage of people reminding the ECB that they’ve left their biggest game-winner in the commentary box.
Somewhat like England, Sri Lanka’s biggest asset may be that they are an unknown. The recent showing against the Blackcaps would suggest we should not expect to see them in the latter stages. But with this tournament set to be the swansong of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, expect the Sri Lankans to do what they do best: raise their game for the World Cup.
These two giants of international cricket, probably Sri Lanka’s best ever batsmen, will have to have outstanding tournaments to see their team put out any of the favourites. The batting, despite these two incredible stroke-makers and the ever-growing captain Angelo Mathews, seems fragile, and the bowling, regardless of Malinga, appears short of wicket-takers. This team, probably more than any other, needs its big players to come to the party if they are to go far in this competition. But who would bet against Mahela and Sanga doing just that?
Grouping the three remaining teams together is not meant to be disrespectful. But the gulf in class between Afghanistan, Scotland, and Bangladesh and the teams listed above is so vast that it will be a huge surprise if any of them cause an upset against those more fancied. Bangladeshi fans may feel a bit hard done by, given I have grouped their team in with two Associate qualifiers in Scotland and Afghanistan. But the reality is that Bangladesh have failed to win a match against any Test-playing nation other than Zimbabwe in well over a year. Shakib Al Hasan, the only Bangladeshi with the ability to consistently perform on the international stage, will have to produce something very special to change that stat in this World Cup pool.
Afghanistan and Scotland both come into the competition with nothing to lose and everything to gain. A win against any of the bigger teams, even Bangladesh, would be a huge coup for either side. The only pressure on the associate teams in this World Cup is that it may be their last for a while – new proposals to limit the number of teams included in the World Cup to 10 recently accepted.
Afghanistan may not need to worry about that – the top eight ranking teams will qualify automatically for the 2019 competition held in England, and theoretically either the Afghanis or the Irish could challenge for those places. But the team that has, for a sustained period now, performed well against the other Associates, must start churning out results against bigger fish if that is to be the case. For Afghanistan, keep a look out for Mohammad Nabi and Usman Ghani, both handy batsmen with the potential to score runs against any bowler who misses his line or length.
The Scots, meanwhile, are going in search of their first World Cup win. In that sense, this is the perfect opportunity for a relatively inexperienced but exciting team to prove their point. An increasing number of young Scots are gaining County attention and contracts, with Calum MacLeod proving the stand-out. His scores for Durham in the T20 format last summer gained him opportunities in the County Championship side, whilst the mercurial right-handed batsman continued to plough runs for his national team – including the highest One Day International score by a Scot, 175, against Canada. MacLeod and captain Preston Mommsen will have to provide the batting impetus, and new coach Paul Collingwood the tactical and psychological experience should the Scots hope to change that winless record.
The best any of these three teams can hope for is a couple of wins against the other minnows – Scotland and Afghanistan would probably settle for one.