Jockeying for Position

In Cricket World Cup by Bill Ricquier

Twelve days, and fifteen matches, including the washout at the Ageas Bowl today (Monday 10 June) seems a good time to see where we are with the 2019 edition of the men’s Cricket Would Cup.

Are we any closer to being able to say who will, or at least who cannot possibly, qualify for the semi-finals.

Only up to a point. At the beginning it always seemed almost inconceivable that Afghanistan and Sri Lanka would qualify. Nothing has changed there. Everybody wants Afghanistan to do well. The very fact of their participating in an elite global sporting competition – their second men’s World Cup- is a genuinely remarkable story. They can be great to watch, but at the moment it seems unlikely that they will cause a y surprises; they have already failed to beat Sri Lanka.

With Sri Lanka it’s a slightly different story. It’s worth remembering that only five countries have won the men’s World Cup, and Sri Lanka is one of them, and they appeared in two of the last three finals. This time they are appearing with at least one hand tied behind their back. Their captain, Dinuth Karunaratne, hadn’t played a one day international since the last World Cup. Their most consistent top order one-day batsman and regular wicketkeeper, Niroshan Dickwella, is making runs for Sri Lanka in India. Former captain Dinesh Chandimal was also dropped. Against New Zealand at Cardiff, when their best player, Angelo Mathews, batted at number six as they were bowled out for 136 and lost by ten wickets, they looked out of their depth.

Many people would have ranked Bangladesh as not far above Sri Lanka but for a while now they have been better than that. They are a highly experienced unit, with some very reliable performers. Shakib al Hasan is the world’s leading all-rounder in one-day internationals and, as at the time of writing, the leading run scorer in this World Cup. Their game against New Zealand at The Oval, which New Zealand won by two wickets, was the most exciting of the tournament so far.

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The most surprising, almost shocking, aspect of this early part of the competition has been the form of South Africa. The absence of the magnificent AB de Villiers was always going to leave a huge void. There were surely always going to be issues with Dale Steyn’s fitness but his not playing at all was a savage blow. And talking of blows, the one to Hashim Amla’s helmet delivered by Jofra Archer’s bouncer in the first match, was an alarming sight for any batsman to observe. Played three lost three is new territory for South Africa. Normally they start like champions and end in an embarrassing muddle. Now one would think that they will have to win the remaining matches, and even that may not guarantee qualification; and of course against West Indies they share the two points.

The other six teams are difficult to separate in that it is not hard to imagine any one of them qualifying and going on to win.

West Indies set an early trend with their reliance on fast, short-pitched bowling. They have two of the most exciting young batsmen in the tournament in Nicholas Pooran and Shimron Hetmyer. But their attack is thin on spin, and there is a danger that their ageing superstars, Chris Gayle and Andre Russell, may struggle to last the distance.

What has been the worst performance of the World Cup so far? Possibly Sri Lanka’s against New Zealand, but equally plausible is Pakistan’s against the West Indies at Trent Bridge. Pakistan were bowled out for 105 and West Indies won by seven wickets. The whole game took 34.5 overs.

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And what has been the best performance? Well, that was probably Pakistan’s victory over the hosts, and favourites, England, also at Trent Bridge. England failed to chase down a target of 349 – a World Cup record – despite Joe Root and Jos Buttler scoring centuries. There was a lot to savour in Pakistan’s win, especially the performances of their veterans Mohammed Hafeez and Wahab Riaz. But the washout at Bristol where – surely (?) they could have been relied upon to beat Sri Lanka – may cost them dear.

Australia have failed to look totally convincing. They took their time to accomplish a straightforward seven wicket win over Afghanistan at Bristol. Victory over the West Indies at Trent Bridge owed much to a startling 92 off 60 balls by number eight Nathan Coulter-Nile, and five wickets for Mitchell Starc. But they came a cropper against India at The Oval. The Indian batsmen made mincemeat of their attack and once Aaron Finch was run out their top order batsmen could not build sufficient momentum: David Warner made 56 off 84 balls.

New Zealand have looked thoroughly competent in disposing of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan but obviously things are going to get more challenging now. With Martin Guptill, Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor in the top four they should make enough runs and their attack, minus the dependable Tim. Southee and with the pacey Lockie Ferguson, has done a good job so far.

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India looked immensely impressive at The Oval and indeed when they beat South Africa at the Ageas Bowl. Both their openers have scored centuries, Virat Kohli looks to be in incomparable form and their middle order is as potentially destructive as England’s. Their attack is varied and incisive – and two men who could probably walk into any other team – Ravindra Jadeja and Mohammed Shami – haven’t even got on the field yet. All that said, both their opponents so far were decidedly below par. India’s test will come when they play a top side in top form.

Despite their loss to Pakistan, England still look like the top side. There are a couple of worries. Moeen Ali has lost all form with the bat and was dropped against Bangladesh, and Buttler has done something to his hip. Basically though, the formula that has worked so well for the last four years is continuing to do just fine, as illustrated perfectly by the 106-run win over Bangladesh at Cardiff. And then there is the Archer factor. One incident – apart from the Amla strike – will suffice to explain. Archer bowled the Bangladesh opener Sounya Safkar. The ball clipped the off bail and then continued over the boundary. Without bouncing.

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At least the bail came off. On five occasions now the stumps have been struck by the ball, usually quite forcefully, without the bails being dislodged. The most recent instance was at The Oval on Sunday when Warner edged a ball from Jasprit Bumrah – no slouch – into the stumps, with no effect on the bails.

This has generated a lot of discussion among commentators. Sanjay Manjrekar suggested the administrators should consider dispensing with the bails.

A discussion on the TMS podcast led to my favourite comment from the World Cup so far. Charlie Dagnall was saying this was a really serious issue. Something had to be done as an incident might occur which was critical to the outcome of a match. “That’s already happened” replied Geoff Lemon. “If Warner had been out Australia would have won.”

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