Crisis? What crisis?

In Cricket World Cup by Bill Ricquier

“ Litotes?”, a friend said in response to my WhatsApp message that my prediction regarding the Men’s Cricket World Cup – that England were a shoo-in for the semi-finals and would go on to win the final – was “slightly off target”.

Er,  no, was my first reaction; I’ve just had a check-up. Then I realised, yes, of course, litotes. I reached for the bible. No, not Wisden,  Fowler’s Modern English Usage (every home should have one). Litotes, like meiosis, is the use of understatement not to deceive but to enhance the impression on the hearer or reader, in this case. Well, yes, maybe litotes.

Talking of linguistic peculiarities, one cannot ignore the statement by Jos Buttler, in the press conference after England’s defeat by South Africa in Mumbai, that his decision to field first, with the temperature in the mid-30s, and very high humidity, was “potentially” mistaken. One wondered whether Doctor Who had joined England’s analysts, or the media team; certainly they need all the help they can get.

Of course my prediction, as absurd as it may seem, has not actually been proved wrong at the time of writing – except of course for the bit about England being a shoo-in for the semi-finals. They could still in theory retain their title. It’s just that they are going to have to beat India and Australia, as well as Pakistan, Sri Lanka and The Netherlands, if they are going to do that. Right now one would happily accept a win against any of those teams – all of them seems literally a miracle.

The joy of sport, however, is its unpredictability. Many might say this tournament is just too long – we still have weeks to go with a game, sometimes two, every day. But arguably, despite the duration, the tournament is most interesting when each team has to play each other team. That was the case in 2019, when England started brilliantly but then stumbled and needed a very strong finish to qualify, and in 1992 when Pakistan made a wretched start but ended up champions.

Literally everything will have to go England’s way for them to qualify but that is not absolutely inconceivable – just highly improbable. Losing to New Zealand and especially to Afghanistan was bad enough; being humiliated by South Africa had an end of an era feel to it. But, well, anything can happen. Pakistan are looking very under-cooked, like England. New Zealand started brilliantly but then came up against India: they were not exactly swept aside but a win by four wickets is not a close run thing, and they still have to play Australia and South Africa.  On their day South Africa look better than most, but if they can lose to The Netherlands they can lose to anyone. In my prediction I said Australia would not qualify , but now they seem the likeliest team to join India (the fact is you can never write Australia off in a World Cup – I was just dumb). Anyway, the point is, it’s not quite over yet. There are semi-final places up for grabs.

Everyone knows that this England group is capable of overcoming adversity. They have transformed the way in which they play Test cricket, and almost won The Ashes after being two-nil down. They won the World T20 Championship less than twelve months ago.

It was four years ago that they won the fifty-over World Cup on that extraordinary day at Lord’s. Because of COVID and the predominance of franchise cricket and, in England The Hundred, the ODI format has struggled to find its way since then. India still play a lot (it shows) – of course their players only play in the IPL; they aren’t allowed to play in the other franchises or The Hundred. Because of The Hundred, England’s top players play no domestic 50-over cricket at all.

That latter point is not a factor in England’s performance in this World Cup. England were relying on the 2019 squad, the players who, moulded by Trevor Bayliss and Eoin Morgan (with a little help from his friend Brendon McCullum) re-shaped the way 50-over cricket was played in much the same way as McCullum and Ben Stokes have done with the Test side since 2022.

It may be an exaggeration to say that Bayliss and Morgan revolutionised the way the 50-over game was played but they certainly revolutionised the way England played it transforming the team from the timid no-hopers who took part in the 2015 World Cup.

Not surprisingly it was to the core of the 2019 squad that coach Matthew Mott and captain Buttler looked to play in this tournament. Interestingly, England were not alone in this. One of the intriguing features of almost all the squads – Sri Lanka, Pakistan and New Zealand (when deprived of Kane Williamson and Tim Southee) are perhaps the only exceptions – is the number of players in their mid-thirties.

For England though, it seems a bit different. All of a sudden it doesn’t seem that the current squad represents the core of the 2019 champions. They seem more like the remnants. Look at who is missing: Morgan, Jason Roy, Liam Plunkett and Jofra Archer. And Stokes, the fourth or sometimes third seamer in 2019, won’t bowl at all and missed the first three games through injury. Each of them played an absolutely critical role in 2019. Have any of them really been replaced? Quite a few pundits have said the current approach is more reminiscent of 2015 than 2019.

More generally what the tournament needs is some close finishes. It makes the contrast with the high octane T20 tournaments all the more marked if the result of games becomes predictable at a relatively early stage. The India-New Zealand game at Dharamshala has probably been the closest but many thought at the half way stage that New Zealand had simply not got enough runs.

There has been an odd feel to some of the games. The tournament opened in the vast stadium at Ahmedabad with a contest between the 2019 finalists, England and New Zealand, a tempting proposition, one would think, in a country populated by millions of cricket fans. Yet the stadium seemed virtually empty. A week later, India played Pakistan at the same venue. There was, as had been predicted, a crowd of about 120,000. The ground was a sea of blue. There were probably more Pakistanis on the field than in the stands.

India look unstoppable. Rohit Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah have been magnificent. Virat Kohli is an all-time great. Ravindra Jadeja remains one of my favourite cricketers. But am I the only observer who can’t wait for their first defeat?

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