Six Down, Three to Go

In Cricket World Cup by Bill Ricquier

The so-called group stage of the 2019 men’s Cricket World Cup has been an unqualified success.

Group stage seems odd nomenclature because of course there was only one group. This is part of the reason for the success. Leaving aside concerns about the absence of Associate Member sides, the ten team, all play all format is the best one, avoiding concerns about one pool being stronger than the other(s) and producing an objectively fair finale.

After a particularly ghastly week in early June there were a few concerns expressed about the weather. In the history of the men’s World Cup prior to this edition two matches had been abandoned completely; four matches suffered this fate in 2019. People started bleating about the idiocy of holding such a competition in the British Isles. But the weather improved. As a matter of fact England – well, and Wales – is infinitely preferable to anywhere else for holding such a tournament, for a host of logistical reasons.

Most of the games were sell-outs and the atmosphere at many of the games was fantastic. Personally, I attended only three games – at The Kia Oval, Edgbaston and Headingley. England featured in only one of those games – at Headingley – but there were plenty of local supporters at all of them.

Outside the games themselves – and visiting England from overseas – it was less easy to detect that one was in a country in the grip of a major sporting event. This is entirely due to the absence of the World Cup from free-to-air television. The more one thinks about this the more calamitous it seems. Ludicrously, England’s Liam Plunkett almost got into hot water for innocently suggesting, or rather agreeing with the suggestion, that it would be rather nice, if England made it to the final, for the match to be televised on free-to-air television. English cricket’s “friends” and masters at Sky were not amused.

One concern expressed about the format initially was that the four semi-finalists would emerge quite quickly and that the very long group stage would end up being rather dull. As it happened nothing could have been further from the truth.

For a start there was a lot of very good cricket. There were not many nail-biting finishes, but most games were interesting enough. The nature of the pitches meant there were few really high-scoring games. There were a lot of dazzling individual performances. It has been a joyous festival of cricket, involving the last chance to see some outstanding players in a World Cup, notably Chris Gayle, a tragi-comic figure by the end, sadly, and the smart and inimitable Lasith Malinga.

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Leaving aside the intrinsic interest in many of the individual matches, the qualification process itself became a riveting affair, due primarily to one specific match, England’s loss to Sri Lanka at Headingley.

This sensational result, which nobody predicted even at the halfway stage, threw the whole competition open, increasing the opportunity for qualifying not only for the Sri Lankans themselves, who were only really within striking distance because of two points awarded for washouts, but more particularly for Pakistan and Bangladesh. It was still theoretically possible for Pakistan to qualify when they played their final group match, against Bangladesh at Lord’s. Even the very last games, between India and Sri Lanka at Headingley, and Australia and South Africa at Old Trafford were very meaningful. The fact that India won and Australia lost meant that India finished top and will face New Zealand in the first semi-final.

South Africa’s win over Australia was easily their best performance. They had a dreadful start and never really got going. But in Rassie van der Dussen they have one for the future.

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The two teams who had to qualify, Afghanistan and the West Indies, came bottom of the pile. Afghanistan didn’t win at all, West Indies once. But both teams contributed greatly to the general enjoyment. In Nicholas Pooran West Indies have a star of the future. Every neutral observer wanted Afghanistan to win at least one game. They almost managed it, against Sri Lanka and even India.

They didn’t have to qualify but many pundits thought Sri Lanka were the weakest side in the tournament. They started badly and had two games washed out. But they could have beaten Australia and did beat England. They too have a strikingly talented youngster in Avishka Fernando.

Bangladesh were generally very hard to beat and in the experienced left-hander Shakib-al-Hasan they had one of the outstanding players of the tournament, and Mustafizur Rahman is up there with the leading wicket takers.

Pakistan – well, what can one say? They were demolished by West Indies in their first-game but they beat two of the semi-finalists. Babar Azam looked just about the best batsman in the competition.

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New Zealand have been the reverse of South Africa, starting really well and getting steadily worse. Unlike the Big Three – Australia, England and India – their openers simply haven’t got going. Kane Williamson is a marvel, but he can’t do it all on his own.

After England lost to Sri Lanka they were brushed aside by Australia at Lord’s, and it really looked as though we might have the ultimate English solution – the favourite failing to qualify. But the return of Jason Roy from injury had a dramatic effect on his teammates, and in particular on his moody opening partner Jonny Bairstow, who responded with back-to-back centuries. The recall of Plunkett, such a force in England’s 50-over side in the last few years, also made a difference.

Australia won seven games out of nine while rarely looking at their absolute best. Aaron Finch and David Warner have led from the front with the bat, but consistent support has come only from wicketkeeper Alex Carey. Mitchell Starc has been relentless with the ball – he already has more wickets than anybody has taken before in a World Cup campaign – and Pat Cummins provides formidable back-up.

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India won eight out of nine and looked good in all of them; they even looked good in the game they lost, against England. Again, the top order batting was extremely strong: Rohit Sharma has made five centuries so far. Virat Kohli has looked extremely comfortable without having gone on to make a big score. One can’t help thinking that if they lost a flurry of top order wickets they might be in real trouble. But is there any hole so deep that the extraordinary Jasprit Bumrah cannot get his team out of it?

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And so we are down to the final four. Anything can happen in a knock-out match. But for New Zealand to beat India, everything will have to go right for New Zealand and everything will have to go wrong for India. Neither looks like happening at the moment. Strangely, India have taken longer than any other team to realise what their best side is; Ravi Jadeja makes such a difference.

Australia v England is harder to call but the momentum is definitely with the home side, and Australia have injury worries. But they have won five World Cups, including the last one. England have won none; this is their first semi-final since1992.

India too are used to big games.

Nobody wants it more than England, that’s for sure. How Eoin Morgan and his men deal with that pressure will be the defining motif of the coming week.

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Bill Ricquier

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