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Cricket World Cup: A whole new ballgame

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on May 17, 2019 Published on May 17, 2019

Run rush: England is among the favourites as Eoin Morgan (right) and his men have set the pace in ODIs with a fearless brand of cricket epitomised by batsmen such as Jos Buttler (left)   -  GETTY IMAGES

The upcoming cricket World Cup is expected to be a run-fest on an unprecedented scale

Everybody likes an underdog story. So, when the football World Cup comes around every four years, fans are often excited about small, plucky nations with a can-do attitude, even as their teams begin a giant-killing campaign — Greece winning the Euro in 2004 after a string of dour 1-0 victories, South Korea beating Portugal, Italy and Spain on their way to the 2002 semi-final and so on.

Cricket fans, on the other hand, face the prospect of a World Cup where the smaller players, so to speak, are weeded out systematically. The upcoming World Cup, hosted by England and Wales, starts on May 30 and will be the smallest one yet with just 10 teams making the cut. For the first time ever, two Test-playing nations — Zimbabwe and Ireland — will not be a part of the tournament as the International Cricket Council (ICC) seeks to eliminate embarrassingly one-sided contests, which were quite common in the previous editions.

Playing conditions

With the small grounds and flat pitches in England, this World Cup is widely expected to be a run-fest on an unprecedented scale. Over the last couple of years, India, Australia and the West Indies have all toured England. The one-day international, or ODI segment of these tours were bloodbaths as far as bowlers are concerned. Scores of 300-plus or even 350-plus were chased down regularly. The last 10 overs have been smashed for 120 runs or more, with alarming frequency (England recently hammered over 150 in the last 10 against the West Indies). Teams no longer like to play purely restrictive finger-spinners to choke the opposition in the middle overs, not without attacking bowling options.

Wrist spinners such as Afghanistan’s Rashid Khan and India’s Kuldeep Yadav are the new bogeymen for batsmen the world over, and captains will bank on them to make middle-over breakthroughs, maybe even some wickets upfront if they are used within the first Powerplay (overs 1-10).

Favourites and dark horses

It’s tough to look beyond hosts England as far as picking favourites is concerned — since the 2015 World Cup, Eoin Morgan’s men have set the pace in ODIs with a fearless brand of cricket. Their batting is packed with power-hitting superstars such as Jonny Bairstow (who smashed every bowler in sight during the recently concluded Indian Premier League), Jos Buttler, Moeen Ali and Jason Roy, to say nothing of the solid Joe Root, one of the best all-format batsmen on the planet. Their bowling has variety, with two spinners in Ali and the leggie Adil Rashid, and their latest selection, the fast-bowling all-rounder Jofra Archer, providing a bit of extra pace as well as death bowling wisdom.

India, Australia and the West Indies (who drew 2-2 with England earlier this year) are all strong contenders as well. Each of these teams has powerful top-order batsmen and genuine wicket-taking bowlers. On their day, any one of them could upset England’s party. Pakistan (who won the Champions Trophy in 2017) and South Africa remain dark horses, with inconsistent ODI performances of late, but plenty of match-winners among their ranks, gifted cricketers who can turn things around very quickly.

Players to keep an eye on

Buttler has been hitting sixes for fun over the last couple of years, it seems. Last week, he tore the Pakistani attack apart, hitting 9 sixes in a 55-ball 110 — just another whirlwind effort for the wicketkeeper-batsman, now widely acknowledged as the most explosive ODI player in the world. England will hope he continues his dream run of the last two years. Virat Kohli, Mr Consistent in the ODI format especially, will similarly carry India’s hopes. Andre Russell, who set the IPL on fire recently with innings after innings of raw six-hitting power, will be a key man for the West Indies, who’re prone to a middle-order collapse following a promising start.

Among the bowlers, South Africa’s Kagiso Rabada and India’s Jasprit Bumrah are likely to rank high among the wicket-takers’ list. These two are the most complete fast bowlers in the game right now, with a full bag of tricks involving seam, steep bounce and changes of pace. Wrist-spinners Yadav, Rashid Khan and Yuzhvendra Chahal are also expected to do well, considering how poorly batsmen have played wrist spin since 2015.

Swansongs

As with every World Cup, this tournament, too, will see some of the game’s legends taking their last bow. The former Sri Lankan captain Lasith Malinga, one of the greatest white-ball bowlers of all time, will retire at the end of the tournament. Dale Steyn, surely South Africa’s deadliest fast bowler ever, will also retire from limited-overs cricket. The West Indies opener Chris Gayle, the self-styled Universe Boss of the game, has also announced that he’ll retire from ODIs after the tournament — and as his recent form against England shows, he’s more than up for the challenge (he smashed a rather scary 77 off 25 balls in a recent ODI, hitting the hapless English bowlers as though he were late for a lunch appointment).

And although he hasn’t announced it yet, Indian fans know in their heart of hearts that the end is nigh for MS Dhoni. The World Cup-winning ex-captain is the most popular cricketer in India, maybe in the world, and his departure will mark the end of an era. He’ll be hoping to finish this World Cup like he finished the 2011 edition — with a match-winning six.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based freelance writer

Published on May 17, 2019

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