Exactly 40 days and 45 matches after the Cricket World Cup began on May 30, the premiere One-day tournament has reached the semi-final stage. Four teams – India, Australia, England and New Zealand – will battle it out in what should be two exciting semi-finals in Manchester on July 9 and Birmingham on July 11. These four teams will vie for spots in the final to be played at Lord’s on July 14. England have reached the semi-finals for the first time since 1992; Australia and New Zealand are in the World Cup semis for the eighth time, while India will play their seventh World Cup semi-final. Australia have won the World Cup five times, India has done it twice, while England and New Zealand are yet to win the World Cup.
At the start of the tournament, most experts picked five teams with potential and capability to reach the semi-finals: India, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and England. Of the five teams, three were considered certain to make the semi-finals: India, Australia and England, the hosts and also the bookmakers’ and pundits’ favourites to win the Cup. The fourth place was thought to be a tussle between South Africa and New Zealand. In my last article on the World Cup three weeks ago, I did not rule out Pakistan’s chances for the fourth place. As it turned out, while South Africa was a big disappointment with five losses, Pakistan lost the fourth place to New Zealand in the high table because of an inferior net run-rate. In a way, Pakistan are a tragic story of this World Cup: while lady luck smiled on them in 1992, it deserted them in 2019. Ironically, it is rain which penalised them this time.
The World Cup, played over 47 days, calls for consistency and ability to recover from setbacks; a series of wins are needed in a round-robin format where each team plays all other teams at the league stage to reach the semis. The teams that were either inconsistent or did not recover from early setbacks but were capable of only the odd upset have been eliminated. Afghanistan did not stand a chance to cause any major upset but they played better than expected. Though Bangladesh finished behind Pakistan and Sri Lanka with seven points on the high table, they played better than both Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Teams that begin with a bang and threaten to overrun the competition always do not make it. But the teams that begin slowly, gathering confidence as they go along, take a defeat or two in their stride, correct mistakes and overcome weaknesses often cross the final hurdle. This has been the story of all previous World Cups and this time in England is no different.
There are usually four teams that are capable of winning the World Cup. But it’s not always the best four that make the semi-final line-up. For instance, India was not one of the best One-day teams in 1983, but still won the Cup as 66-1 outsiders. Similarly, Sri Lanka was not the best team in 1996 competition, but still managed to win the final. The case with Pakistan in 1992 was not much different. With New Zealand edging out Pakistan from semi-finals on net run-rate basis, this time the best four teams have made it to the last four of the competition. Though the semi-finalists were more or less identified days before Pakistan and Bangladesh played their last match, what remained of interest over the weekend was which team between India and Australia top the pool and what the semi-final match-ups look like.
With India winning its last game against Sri Lanka and Australia losing to South Africa in their last remaining game, India has finished at the top of the points table, followed by Australia, England and New Zealand. India is lucky to have got an easier opponent in the semis, thanks to South Africa which defeated Australia in a tense finish by 10 runs on Saturday a few hours after India scored an easy victory over Sri Lanka. The Kiwis had a good start to their World Cup campaign but all of a sudden lost momentum; they also lost their last two games by big margins. With their openers not firing, Kane Williamson, after a few stellar performances, having slowed down and Ross Taylor not scoring enough runs, New Zealand do not look the best when compared with India, Australia and England. They have also not beaten any of the top three teams in this World Cup and have won just one out of seven World Cup semi-finals.
England, on the other hand, have real momentum going into the semi-final against Australia. They also look to be the most intimidating opponents, with solid top order batting line-up as also good bowling attack. Australia would have preferred to avoid a semi-final clash against England. But then you can’t always choose your opponent and have to be ready to face even a difficult opponent. Having said that, Australia is the most improved One-day team in the competition and have played ruthlessly in this World Cup; they have also beaten England by huge margin at the league stage. Not only Australia’s bowling attack looks pretty impressive, their batting, both at the top and the middle, is capable of tearing apart a good bowling attack.
As for India, Virat Kohli and his boys have been quite consistent throughout this World Cup, save a blip against England. The top three Indian batsmen are world class; the top three bowlers are of the same international class. India’s worry is the middle order which was exposed completely in the league match against England. Based on the current form, England are the favourites to win the Cup and are a dangerous side, while both India and Australia look well-balanced teams. So, can India win the World Cup for the third time? Well, the answer is yes, but then so can Australia and England. In all previous World Cups, captains have played a stellar role in leading their teams to victory: Clive Lloyd in the 1970s, Kapil Dev and Allan Border in the 80s, Imran Khan, Arjuna Ranatunga and Steve Waugh in the 90s and Ricky Ponting, Dhoni and Michael Clarke in this century.
India has Virat Kohli, a world class batsman, an aggressive player and inspiring captain leading from the front. In 1983, no one expected India to win; in 2011 India were the favourites; this time the expectations are even greater.
The writer is an independent Mumbai-based senior journalist.