With regards to India, the onus would be on Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan to provide good starts followed by Kohli’s brilliance.
The Wisden editor and the Daily Mail ‘cricket hack’ Lawrence Booth made the correct prediction. We were having a Twitter interaction after the England and Wales Cricket Board announced the provisional England squad for the World Cup last month. We differed on Jofra Archer. The fast-bowling allrounder wasn’t included in the provisional Cup squad but got the nod for the preceding home ODI series against Pakistan. After a successful audition, Archer was drafted into the Cup squad at the expense of David Willey.
Booth predicted it and his logic was that Archer’s inclusion would increase England’s winning odds. This correspondent mentioned that it would be harsh on the player who would eventually face the axe, despite being part of the group for the last three-four years. As it turned out, Archer’s x-factor was far too big a temptation to resist.
The World Cup is returning to its place of birth after two decades and among all the teams, England arguably pack the most powerful punch. They have just completed a 4-0 rout of Pakistan in a five-match ODI series – the first game was abandoned. Their batting was awe-inspiring. They posted 373/3, 359/4, 341/7 and 351/9 in four completed matches. Twice they chased down totals north of 340. Batting has lifted England to No. 1 in the ODI rankings and as Virat Kohli put it, Eoin Morgan and company look “obsessed” to become the first team to post 500 runs in a single ODI innings.
Easier said than done, for the World Cup is a different ball game. To start with, this edition of the tournament offers no softies. It features 10 top teams who will play each other in a single group. This means, each side will play nine matches at the group stage, with top four teams progressing to the semifinals. On paper, England, India and Australia are the top three favourites. West Indies, South Africa – if they can shed the chokers’ tag – and New Zealand, too, have the wherewithals to go the distance. Pakistan are the dark horse. Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan are not title contenders, but they are good enough to cause major upsets.
Pitches are usually batting-friendly at the ICC events, but it’s early summer in England and there would still be some nip in the air. As 10 captains gathered to address a joint press conference in London on Thursday, Kohli put things in perspective. “It could be high-scoring, but I think 260, 270 will be as difficult to get in the World Cup as 360, 370. I see 250 being defended, too. I don’t see many high-scoring games happening in the latter half of the tournament. That’s the kind of pressure the World Cup brings,” he had said.
Morgan spoke about the tough competition. “Nobody is head and shoulders above everyone else. It is going to be very difficult. These are the 10 best teams in the world, so it is going to be extraordinarily competitive.” England haven’t yet won the World Cup because twice in the finals they lost their nerve at crucial moments. In 1987, at Eden Gardens, Mike Gatting’s impetuous reverse sweep had cost them the Cup. In 1992 at the MCG, two deliveries from Wasim Akram that dismissed Allan Lamb and Chris Lewis had crippled them. The 2016 World T20 final at Eden Gardens further attested England’s propensity for failure under pressure. Ben Stokes couldn’t defend 19 runs in the final over, as Carlos Brathwaite clinched it for West Indies.
Recently, the England football team manager Gareth Southgate, a big cricket fan, had dropped in at England cricket team’s Cardiff training camp and spoke to Morgan and his mates for over an hour. Southgate experienced the mental block issue first-hand after he took charge of the Three Lions on the heels of a forgettable Euro campaign in 2016. Two years previously, the England football team had a disastrous World Cup in Brazil. Southgate presided over the regeneration and helped England reach the semifinal in the 2018 Russia World Cup. The England football boss spoke about his journey and the cricketers were impressed. For Morgan and his team mates, the challenge this time would be to live up to the expectations.
With regards to India, the onus would be on Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan to provide good starts followed by Kohli’s brilliance. A lot will also depend on MS Dhoni, if he can replicate his IPL batting form in the World Cup. The bowling has Jasprit Bumrah’s mastery, Mohammed Shami’s refound confidence in white-ball cricket and the guile of Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal. But the middle-order comprising Vijay Shankar, Dinesh Karthik and KL Rahul – if he is an option at No. 4 – doesn’t inspire confidence. This middle-order doesn’t have a game-changer like Yuvraj Singh in his pomp or a Suresh Raina of the 2011 vintage.
The return of David Warner and Steve Smith has made Australia stronger. Both have all to prove. West Indies, too, have their big players back following a change of guard in their cricket board. New Zealand are a pretty balanced side, captained by the sublime Kane Williamson. South Africa will miss AB de Villiers, but bowling is their strength. Also, watch out for Aiden Markram.
And then there are Pakistan; a gloriously unpredictable side. They came back from the brink and won the Cup in 1992. They lifted the Champions Trophy two years ago, defeating India in the final.