The best time to be in front is at the end. So that now that the final warming-up is done and the real business has begun, expect Australia, England and India to be out front in a league of their own.
Two vowels are left but one place. Either Oman or Uganda might have qualified automatically but they’re not among the remaining contenders. All seven, therefore, including one team with two liens on the trophy and two others with one each, will be vying for that coveted fourth spot in the semi-finals, which start on July 9.
In theory, we shouldn’t write off Pakistan, winners in 1992 under Imran Khan, and Sri Lanka, who were led to victory in 1996 by Arjuna Ranatunga. But neither team currently boasts a wealth of outstanding talent or a leader able to take a game by the scruff of the neck and make it do his bidding.
Additionally, chronic inconsistency in the one case and a lack of real depth and quality in the other suggests that neither can win the six or five matches needed to ensure progress from the round robin phase.
Both their form and the format seem to militate against Safaraz Ahmed’s side. In Babar Azam, Fakhar Zaman, Imam-ul-Haq, Mohammad Hafeez and Shoaib Malik, it boasts batsmen, new and old, who are capable of great feats of batsmanship one day and great flops the next.
More relevant, perhaps, is that the team is unlikely to be oozing the kind of confidence required to contend against highly rated opponents. They failed to win a single one of the five matches in the pre-tournament series against England and also then went on to lose a warm-up fixture to minnows Afghanistan.
And on Friday, the West Indies exposed what looked like frailty against the short ball.
They have respectable pace options in Shaheen Afridi and Mohammad Amir while workhorses Wahab Riaz and Hasan Ali along with Imad Wasim’s tidy left-arm spin will keep batsmen honest without seriously threatening them. Pakistan’s best wicket-taking option, however, is certain to be Shadab Khan’s reliable leg-spin. But on recent evidence, if the Pakistanis are to have a sniff in the remaining eight games, skipper Safaraz will have to make magic with his bowling attack.
Magic-making captains—1983 and 1992 come immediately to mind—have lifted ordinary teams well above themselves all the way up to World Cup victory. Don’t expect it of the 2019 Sri Lanka Tigers. Their batting lacks the awe-inspiring devastation of a Sanath Jayasuriya, the solid assurance of a Kumar Sangakkara or the daring of a Tillakaratne Dilshan or a Mahela Jayawardene.
Unavailable to them too are the wiles of Muttiah Muralitharan (534 ODI scalps at an average of 3.93 per over and 23.1 per wicket). They still have former skipper Lasith Malinga but he is now considerably diminished, now a largely toothless Tiger, some say, ever since, the terrific mauling he suffered at the hands of Marlon Samuels in the 2012 T20 World Cup final.
But what they lack most is dynamic leadership. Current leader Dimuth Karunaratne really lacks that steely quality that takes the bull by the horns and wrestles it single-handedly to the ground.
Who has that quality? New Zealand’s Brendon McCallum did. Writing in the May edition of The Cricketer Monthly about the McCallum-led Kiwis, Melinda Farrell has this to say: “The New Zealand team was sexy. They played with a mix of joyful exuberance, calculated risk and generous spirit that appealed to fans worldwide.”
Note the tense: ‘was,’ ‘played’ and ‘appealed.’ It is a moot question whether that remains true. What is beyond dispute is that, despite McCallum’s inspired leadership, New Zealand remain without a lien on the World Cup.
Talent is not the problem. That means that, if their 28-year-old captain, Kane Williamson, has his way, there is a chance that will have changed by the end of the 2019 tournament. Along with India’s Virat Kohli, Australia’s Steve Smith and England’s Joe Root, Williamson is arguably one of the best batsmen of his generation. His ODI record shows 5,554 runs, including 11 hundreds and 37 half-centuries, in 139 matches at an average of a shade under 46.
His ODI performances have been largely mediocre for some time now and he last scored an ODI century in March last year. He enjoyed a modest season—not just by his high standards but by any standards—in the last IPL after sustaining a shoulder injury in mid-March.
His World Cup form would also have been a concern, his best score in 13 innings so far being 57. But he got two half-centuries in the warm-up games and looked something like the man Kiwi supporters know to be capable of turning on both the style and the runs.
Martin Guptill (169 matches, 6,440 runs) and Ross Taylor (218 matches, 8,026 runs) have bags of ODI experience, Guptill’s 237 not out against the West Indies in 2015 still being the highest ever individual World Cup score.
On their day, Tim Southee and Trent Boult comprise as potentially devastating a pair of pacemen as any captain can wish for. And with Lockie Ferguson’s express 150kph pace to call on if needed along with Mitchell Santner’s miserly left-arm spin, Williamson can have little to complain about in terms of bowling resources.
But not for the first time, the Kiwis flattered to deceive in the 2015 tournament, which was played Down Under. They gave great bang for their buck throughout but merely whimpered in the final after losing McCallum in the first over.
Ambition, says the poet, should be made of sterner stuff. And, despite cruising to an easy 10-wicket win over Sri Lanka in yesterday’s opener, the 2019 Kiwi ship may not be completely watertight from bow to stern.
So it would not be unreasonable to expect them not to get out of the group stage this year.