There is surely nothing more quintessentially English than a spot of cricket on a warm summer’s day. For all its quirky oddities and perceived flaws, it is a sport that has been an integral part of any summer in these isles for centuries, arguably as far back as 1611, when two Sussex gentlemen faced the wrath of the law for opting to play an early form of the game instead of attending church. There can be a convincing argument however that there has never been a bigger summer of cricket than the one currently underway. While the small matter of an ashes series will be contested over August and September, the end of this month sees the commencing of the twelfth Cricket World Cup, and the first one to be held on these shores in 20 years. The tournament has undergone a serious makeover since its last iteration, and weather dependent will almost certainly provide some unforgettable moments of sporting theatre.
The revamped 10-team tournament has proved highly controversial however, with the likes of Ireland and Scotland arguing their exclusion along with that of other emerging nations does little to boost the perception of the governing ICC as an entity keen on expanding the game’s reach. What this format does surely guarantee however is a much higher standard of overall quality. Gone are the days when major teams could put out a second string and still comfortably overpower woefully overmatched minnows. Now, in an anyone-can-beat-anyone environment, every game will be an event. Below lie my best predictions for the fortunes of the 10 competing sides over the 6-week long extravaganza.
It says a lot about the overall quality of the tournament that even the Afghans, the weakest team on paper in the competition, will surely be quietly expecting to gain a few notable scalps in just their 2nd ever World Cup. In the mesmeric Rashid Khan they boast arguably the finest spinner in the one-day game and partnered alongside fellow spin prodigy Mujeeb Ur Rahman, they could do some genuine damage if they find some sympathetic wickets. In the batting department, veteran Mohammad Nabi has proven his worth with several impressive stints for T20 franchises across the globe and will have his sights set on providing some firepower up the order. Although a place in the top 4 is surely beyond them, even just a giant-killing or two would be enough to keep cricket’s 21st century feel good story alive and well.
Deep in the doldrums of their annus horriblis that was 2018, a fifth world cup title in sixth editions for the Aussies seemed about an implausible a concept as they come. Yet quietly and cannily they have compiled an impressive ensemble that has gained a real head of steam heading into the tournament and will of course only be bolstered by the return of Steve Smith, still perhaps the finest batter of this generation, and David Warner, who enjoyed a sensational Indian Premier League season. The partisan English crowds will relish placing this side as the pantomime villains, but that is surely only something that will inspire this gutsy yet undeniably talented group on to greater heights. Despite still being overlooked by many, do not be surprised if they transpire to figure heavily in the latter stages, and maybe even cap off one of the great redemption stories in recent sporting history with another title, at Lords, on 14 July.
The last 4 years since they made the quarter-finals of the 2015 edition of the tournament have seen Bangladesh assert themselves as an established one day power, capable of mixing it with any team in the world. Although somewhat aided by the weather, their semi-final showing at the 2017 Champions Trophy, also in England, disproved the notion of them only being able to perform at home. While doubts remain over the ability of their pace attack, in Shakib Al Hasan they boast a supremely talented allrounder whilst opening batsmen seldom come in more complete forms than Tamim Iqbal. Their prediction may well be lowly, but if they get off to a promising start, a top 4 placing is well within their grasp.
So the time for talking is nearly over, after four years of being the dominant team in one-day internationals, now it is time for England to walk the walk on home soil. While debate over the inclusion of Jofra Archer has dominated recent headlines, one cannot deny his freakish talent and his ability to improve a side that is already regarded by some as complete. Despite their status as obvious favourites amongst many pundits, as shown in their 2017 Champions Trophy semi-final defeat to Pakistan, all it takes is one weak performance, or one spellbinding opposition display, to bring the whole house crashing down. Ultimately, while this side, the core of which has grown massively together since the 2015 World Cup debacle, richly deserves the ultimate success, my gut feeling is they will fall just short.
On paper this is a side that haven’t quite enjoyed as impressive a few years as arguable joint-favourites England. What separates them from the others however and what I believe makes them favourites to win their 3rd world cup is their abundance of star power across the board. This isn’t any truer than in the form of their captain Virat Kohli; undoubtedly the biggest superstar in the world game, along with the likes of M.S Dhoni, who continues to defy age and expectation with his performances. Whether it’s in the Indian Premier League, ODI’s or test matches, these players are consistently used to coping with the intense pressure placed on them by a cricket-mad local populace. With a squad that relishes feeding off this great expectation, they will be hoping they can ride the wave of their fervent support that will be cheering them on throughout hopefully all the way to glory at Lords in high summer.
Traditionally the “black caps” are a side regarded as the nicest, most likeable bunch on the international circuit, always capable of mixing it with the best without ever really threatening to upset the applecart. While the former part of that perception may well still be alive and true, their recent performances have very much disproven the latter and they will go into this month boasting a squad with precious few weaknesses. In Trent Boult and Tim Southee, they boast talented and devastating pace, complimented by the spin of Mitchell Santner, all of whom are well versed in English conditions. Moreover, boasting one of the most gifted batsmen of this generation in Kane Williamson never hurts. If this squad can adapt to the unfamiliar expectation on their shoulders, a potential improvement on their silver medal at the last world cup certainly isn’t out of the question. Should that be the case, never again can this nation be regarded as plucky underdogs.
As international cricket’s very own version of a cheesy daytime soap opera steadies itself for another assault on glory, predicting where this most unpredictable of teams is going to finish is about as futile a task as they come. While their Champions Trophy victory on these shores two years ago should make them one of the favourites, their recent form has been spotty at best, and coming off a resounding warm up series defeat to England many have began to (surely foolishly) write them off. Much of their potential success will hinge on whether the mercurial Fakhar Zaman can set the tone at the top of their batting order, while a youthful bowling attack must improve on its collective flaky display against the English. Ultimately, while I do not doubt their ability to dazzle and gain some highly impressive scalps, I do have reservations over their ability to maintain such standards over a 9-game group stage (now just watch as they glide into the knockout stages, storm to the title and make me look suitably ridiculous in the process!).
It’s now 20 years since that legendary world cup semi-final the proteas played against Australia at Edgbaston: a tied game that the Aussies only won by virtue of finishing higher than South Africa in the group stage. As the South Africans return to the country and the scene of surely their most traumatic defeat ever, their lack of an international title in the intervening years implies this is still a nation yet to banish the demons of that dark day despite consistently being among the best performers in the world game. For the likes of ageing stalwarts such as Hashim Amla, Dale Steyn and Imran Tahir this represents a last opportunity to register a world title their talent richly deserves. In terms of overall quality however, on paper this side doesn’t quite match up to the tournament favourites and my hunch is they will narrowly miss out on a semi-final spot.
Never in this century have the Sri Lankans ever entered a World Cup in a more pessimistic mindset. Gone are legends of yesteryear that ensured they consistently punched above their weight on the big stage and as recent results show they have not been remotely adequately replaced. This year has seen this proud cricketing nation slump to ninth in the ODI rankings and indeed they only narrowly avoided the ignominy of having to qualify for the tournament. The sacking of captain Dinesh Chandimal just a year removed from the world cup also ensures their preparation hasn’t exactly been ideal either and although in the likes of the iconic Lasith Malinga and Kusal Perera they boast players capable of world class performances, you can expect this to be a campaign of struggle for a largely experienced, low-quality line up.
Last but not least, meet my picks for tournament dark horse. Although the “Windies” survived a scare in even qualifying for the tournament, this is aside awash with promise. The remarkable Chris Gayle continues to defy the fact he is now just a few months shy of entering his fifth decade on this earth while in youngsters Shimron Hetmyer and Oshane Thomas they boast supreme talents ready to announce themselves on the world stage. Their impressive performances in matches against favourites England earlier this year proved this side’s quality and if they get off to a good start, maybe their momentum could carry them further than most expect.