Part two of this preview for the Cricket World Cup 2015 sees us delve into the latter of the two Groups, after our exploration of Group A yesterday.
“C is for Champions”. This was the inspirational phrase that South Africa brought into the last World Cup, seeking to shed the chokers tag they had long-since been attributed. Unfortunately for Graeme Smith’s men, New Zealand made sure that the South Africans went home feeling more the latter than the former. A lot has changed since 2011: coaches have come and gone, and three stalwarts, legends of South African, and indeed world, cricket – Smith, Jacques Kallis and Mark Boucher – have retired. One would expect any team to come in weaker having incurred such monumental losses.
But if anything, South Africa come to this World Cup stronger than ever. The meteoric rise of the World’s most exciting player, AB De Villiers, has somewhat overshadowed the brilliance and balance of the rest of the team. Hashim Amla and Faf Du Plessis are two of the classiest batsmen in the world, and much of what AB De Villiers does is contingent on these two setting up the innings. No target is too great for South Africa, this much is clear.
And yet, somehow, the bowling repeatedly outshines the batting. Dale Steyn, undeniably the greatest bowler of the post-Warne-and-McGrath era, leads an attack that is feared the world over. Morkel, Philander and Tahir have proved world-class options, whilst Wayne Parnell (the probable fourth seamer) is more than capable of backing them up. South Africa win more games when defending 250 or more (for those new to cricket, 250 would normally be considered a substantially sub-par total) than any other team.
So how can they possibly not win this competition for the first time? South Africa have failed to win a single knockout match in a World Cup, despite having the second best record of any nation (no prizes for guessing who comes first – Australia have dominated this tournament since it began) in non-knockout competitions. More worrying even than that is that out of all of the top teams in Pool A (one of whom South Africa are likely to face in their first knockout game), South Africa’s win/loss ratio is only positive against the Blackcaps since 2013. Australia, Sri Lanka and England have all beaten this incredible team more often than not in the past two years. South Africa’s flaws? Middle order batting, and death bowling – expect these to play a major role should the Proteas fail.
South Africa need to win a World Cup. With the staggering talent and depth in the squad they have brought to Australia and New Zealand, it is a brave man who bets against them. But whilst fortune normally favours the brave, in this case, the stats do too.
My colleague Anmol has already previewed India’s World Cup chances, so I will keep my analysis brief. I am inclined to be a touch more pessimistic when it comes to India’s chances. Anmol correctly points out that India are the reigning champions, and more controversially asserts that, the Aussies aside, they have the best record in the World Cup. Even if we take that statement as fact, there are qualifications to be attached: around 90% of all major tournaments are played in the sub-continent, in conditions India thrive in. The second thing to point out, which Anmol articulates particularly well in his longer piece, is that for all the batting talent in India’s line-up, the bowling is appalling. Ashwin aside, none of the Indian bowlers would make it into another top team’s bowling unit on current form. Taking ten wickets is a monumental effort for this Indian squad. Getting to the final would be a big achievement here for India. To retain the trophy would be quite astounding.
Another unknown. Pakistan are perhaps the least consistent of the big nations. Having steamrolled Australia in the UAE, they barely turned up against New Zealand – a worrying sign given the conditions that await in the World Cup.
The biggest problem Pakistan have is a lack of experience. Misbah Ul-Haq, Shahid Afridi and Younis Khan will need to perform brilliantly in order to afford the younger players some time to grow into the tournament. Saeed Ajmal (finally) being pulled up for throwing the ball rather than bowling it has seen Pakistan lose its biggest threat. He has been the number one spinner, if not bowler, in world cricket in recent times, so to lose a man of his calibre before this event is a huge cause for concern.
There are exciting talents in this squad, no doubt. Mohammad Irfan is over seven feet tall – in these conditions, that can cause immense problems for batsmen should he get his length right. Umar Akmal has, in the past, produced incredible innings and is capable of winning matches in the unlikeliest of circumstances, whilst Afridi (‘boom boom’) raises people to their feet whenever he is thrown the ball or walks to the crease.
Pakistan are to cricket what France are to rugby. Which Pakistan will turn up this time?
“Turbulent” is how Rahul Dravid describes West Indies cricket. If you are looking for political turbulence in a cricketing context, look no further than the Windies. There was uproar when the West Indies Cricket Board announced the squad for the World Cup. Two of their most seasoned pros, Dwayne Bravo and Kieron Pollard, were left unselected, whilst their most effective player, mystery finger-spinner Sunil Narine, has told the administration he is unavailable, saying he needs more time to work on his action.
Chris Gayle is probably the only player who puts bums on seats in the squad. Even so, anyone who thinks Gayle is good enough to drag this time to the latter stages of the competition hasn’t watched enough of either the left-handed batsman, or the rest of his team-mates.
The West Indies narrowly beat Scotland this week, winning by 3 runs having leaked over 300. This is not a good omen. Expect their games with the minnows to be closer than those with South Africa and India. These are dark days for a nation that has boasted some of cricket’s greatest ever players. Do not expect that to change in the coming months.
As with Pool A, the rest of the teams, encompassing one test-playing and two associate nations, can be grouped as one. Yet this time it is probably not the test-playing nation, Zimbabwe, but the better of the associates, Ireland, who will feel aggrieved to be lumped in with the others. Time and time again Ireland have caused upsets – most notably beating England in 2011, with that special Kevin O’Brien innings, and Pakistan in 2007. Smarting from the decision to limit the World Cup to 10 teams, the Irish will be looking to make their mark again on the international scene. A win against Zimbabwe is particularly attainable, and could prove particularly salient too, should the Zimbabweans end up being the opposition for Ireland in the first ICC Test Challenge in 2018. Stealing that fourth qualifying space from the West Indies, even Pakistan, is not out of the question.
The others will struggle – the UAE particularly, but Zimbabwe too. The UAE will be delighted to be there at all, having lost games against Pakistan A and even Nepal in 2014. That doesn’t mean they have no chance of upsetting one of the other nations, but they’ll need their captain, Khurram Khan, to come up with something special if they are to record a victory. The picture is brighter for Zimbabwe, though only marginally. Aside form Brendan Taylor, a man with a test and ODI average of over 30 and multiple centuries to his name in both of those formats, Zimbabwe have little to offer – gone are the days of the Flowers. But Taylor has dragged before, and can drag again, his side into contention against the lesser sides in this Pool. Expect a tough tournament for them – the highlight will be their game against Ireland, given the context.
South Africa and India are nailed on to progress. After that, it is anyone’s game. Pakistan may have beaten England in their recent warm-up game, but these match-ups tend to mean little when push comes to shove. Anyone from Ireland to Brendan Taylor – I mean Zimbabwe – could cause upsets against the Pakistanis or West Indians. Expect this pool to throw up some close games, as well as some real whitewashes.