There are two reasons why this is likely to be the hardest-fought World Cup till date – the format and the competition itself.
First, the format. There are only the ten strongest teams playing this time (unlike fourteen in 2015, 2011 and 2003, sixteen in 2007 and twelve in 1999 and 1996) and each of them plays the other nine teams once. The top four go on to the playoffs (two semis and the final). The only other time such a format was used was in 1992 in Australia, which remains the toughest World Cup till date.
Going all the way in this kind of a format requires a steely focus, deep bench strength and calm, stable leadership. The 1992 tournament had a high number of closely-fought matches and quite a few upsets. The reason is simple – there are almost no easy matches, and a bad start can be debilitating.
That’s the second reason – the competition. Afghanistan, quite simply, is the strongest minnow to ever play any World Cup; they beat West Indies twice on their way to qualification. While West Indies themselves recently drew 2-2 in a bilateral series with England – the no. 1 ranked ODI side. Moreover, there is no clear favourite in this tournament – no team like West Indies in the early-1980s or Australia in the 2000s; there is no “team to beat.” Any team can literally beat any other, even without it overwhelmingly being their day. Absolutely nothing would be an upset on the scale of the previous World Cups.
Still, England and India are favoured to reach the semis, and Australia, South Africa, Pakistan and New Zealand expected to fight for the other two places. But with the remaining four teams (West Indies, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan) always in with the chance of denting the chances of all the teams, this year’s format does not favour such easy calculations.
The Key Factor
Given the format of this tournament, teams will need to keep the intensity up for much longer than any tournament before this.
The reason why there are more notable upsets in the 50-over World Cup than the 20-over World Cup is precisely this – teams tend to not have enough time to drop their guard in the shorter version.
This tends to happen more in the ODI format, and every single team in this tournament is equipped to make its opponent pay when that happens.
Unless a favoured team has a flying start and generates a momentum early-on, it will need to be mentally strong to come back from difficult situations. Without this ability to absorb pressure, even the best teams in this edition could struggle.
The Problem With England
The top-ranked ODI side in the world today hasn’t lost a single bilateral series in the last two years. They’re playing at home now, and for the first time in cricket history, England start as favourites to win a tournament. They deserve this billing, given how this team, led by Eoin Morgan, transformed their game after their insipid show in the 2015 World Cup. Inspired by Brendon McCullum’s heroics, Morgan fashioned a group that has been fearless in its aggression, regardless of the situation.
However, there may be a bigger picture here that is disconcerting. In front of home crowds and their own press – there is a unique pressure to being favourites, especially in a World Cup. The English are not exactly adept at taking that kind of pressure well.
All evidence suggests that English teams in any sport lack the killer instinct that characterised the ruthless colonial campaigns in their history, but rather resemble the Brexit indecision when the really big moments come.
The brutal fact is that England have yet to win a single ODI world event in the near-fifty years of this format, let alone a World Cup.
They did win a WorldT20 in 2010, but that was in the West Indies, when the format was still a bit of a giggle-and-a-wallop – no slur on the heroics of Kevin Pietersen there.
Perhaps this is also why, in 50 years, England are yet to win even a European title, let alone a World title, in their most popular sport. They did memorably win the 1966 World Cup football title at home, but to see signs from the remarkable sixties decade in the current social-media-induced one is fraught with the kind of optimism that, as they say, is “not ideal.”
The only time this otherwise remarkable English team faced a situation similar to what they’re about to encounter now was in the Champions Trophy at home in 2017. They did well to reach the semifinals in that short tournament (they needed to win just three matches), but in the first knockout game, after a decent start, lost their nerve comprehensively to Pakistan. At this level, these are all the sample sizes you get.
In fact, given the above, England may be set up to replicate Australia in the 1992 World Cup in Australia/New Zealand – the only other tournament like the one in 2019. At the time, Australia were defending champions and the favourites, playing at home. Captain Allan Border’s stock was at its highest and that team had also won everything in the last two years. However, they faced two of the strongest teams first up – co-host New Zealand and then South Africa returning after re-admission, and lost both matches comprehensively. Given the edginess in their home crowd and press, their confidence was shot. They narrowly managed to beat (a relatively weak) India by a solitary run but then were thrashed by England – their World Cup pretty much over.
In 2019, England face two tricky opponents first up – South Africa and Pakistan – both teams probably without the firepower to go all the way in a tournament like this, but with enough ammunition to cause some serious dents, especially early on. Then, England face Bangladesh, who have caused them serious strife in the last two World Cups. If England start shabbily, they are very likely to replicate Australia in 1992.
As it is, whenever things go off the rails even a bit, the English way today is to shoot themselves on the foot with a flourish. That’s how they took out Kevin Pietersen from their equation, later Ben Stokes and now Alex Hales (it is mystifying why they choose to mock their own investments and destroy their own team instead of punishing just the player by fining him very heavily or something like that). Paul Farbrace, their most influential coach in the ODI setup, hasn’t lasted till the World Cup as well. England’s opponents would actually be advised to mentally unsettle them early on – perhaps by deliberately targeting that perfectly legitimate dismissal with a racist name – “Mankaded,” and have them hyperventilate about the “spirit of the game” long enough to drop the can.
The Problem With India
The best bowling sides tend to do well in such tournaments historically. India scores well on this count; there is no doubt in anybody’s mind that this is the finest bowling side India has ever had in any World Cup. That should see them go some distance in a tournament where they could get swinging conditions one day, and a desperately flat pitch the next.
However, they may struggle when it comes to the key factor identified above – absorbing pressure. Both Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma are past their prime, and despite Virat Kohli’s recent peak (which is due for a trough now), how the team’s middle-order performs may decide India’s fortunes this time.
MS Dhoni is still solid, but his strike rate has gone down considerably in this format and he has also lost his effectiveness to a great extent as a finisher (regardless of what the IPL has suggested; that is a different format with different requirements a lot of the time.) Kedar Jadhav has played an outstanding hand off-and-on but he is injury prone and has not been the most consistent. Hardik Pandya has shown more than ample signs of being devastating down the order, but not with the consistency that is required in this team, for a tournament as long as this.
This is why Dinesh Karthik might well be the most important batsman in the second half – his specialist finishing has been consistent in the last two years and his controlled hitting the x-factor this team badly needs.
But there is no place for him in the eleven if Vijay Shankar, a safe option at best, plays at number 4, touted to be the most likely possibility. If India do not push Dhoni up to number 4, and get Karthik at number 6 (after Jadhav), India’s batting might struggle to close the innings well consistently. If the team management sees him only as a reserve wicketkeeper, or if Karthik struggles with form or injury, it could be a serious Achilles Heel for India. It’s a strange name to pick as the key player, given that most did not even see him get picked for the World Cup squad. But such are the vagaries of team-sport.
As favourites after England, there will be enough pressure on India as well. Unfortunately for them, they face three of the strongest sides first – South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, back-to-back. If they lose two of these, it is not clear if this team has the wherewithal to bounce back in such a high-pressure tournament.
Still, if England and India start well, they would be expected to reach the semis. However, in a knockout match, the ability to take in pressure becomes even more pronounced, and both these teams could struggle then.
A lot of this could change if the pitches are flat every time, and the encounters become mere batting shootouts. It would almost certainly spoil the World Cup as quite a few of those games (where the team batting first makes 330-plus) would then become one-sided affairs, as in most cases, the life would be snuffed out of the game pretty early on in the chase. And the toss could well play a disproportionate role in such a tournament, as the chasing team would usually have a better chance (when the target is not ridiculously high, which happens less often obviously). Hopefully, better sense will prevail and they can make the ball compete with the bat more. Any analysis only has value in that scenario. Still, mental strength and the ability to absorb pressure will play the biggest role in this World Cup, more than any other previously.
This article is the second of a three-part series – coming up next, Why an Unexpected Winner in 2019 is Likely.
Also Read: Why the 1996 World Cup Is the Best Till Date
(Jaideep Varma is the founder of Impact Index – the most written-about alternative stats system in cricket, resulting in the book Numbers Do Lie with Aakash Chopra. He is also a writer-filmmaker.)
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