The eleventh cricket World Cup begins today and it promises to be amongst the most competitive ever. Not only are the team strengths closer to each other than ever before, but also there are clusters at each level. Before getting to excitement and predictions, a bit of background information on the formats of World Cups.
Format: Conventional or Super 6/8
The present conventional format is the one followed in all World Cups, except the three Super 6 (or Super 8) format used between 1999 and 2007. By conventional, we mean a series of round robin matches and then the knock-out stages of quarter and semi-finals. There are plus points for each format. The Super 6/8 format allows for more random variation and this extra uncertainty can generate some excitement. However, it can often lead to dud outcomes. For example, this format allowed for strong teams like England, Pakistan, South Africa, and West Indies being eliminated at the group stage in World Cup 2003. And for a hopeless team like Kenya to get into the semi-final. India won that match easily only to lose as easily to Australia in the final. Not surprisingly, the ICC decided to bring back some sense into the format of the World Cup so that the roster for the quarter and semi-finals would more accurately reflect team strengths.
All references to strength of teams, probability of winning, etc, are from data and analysis contained in Criconomics, our newly published book on ODI cricket, its uncertainties and how some of them can be reduced by statistical modelling. Think of our forecasting exercise as an opinion poll—need not be always right, or always spot on, but approximately right on average.
A lot has changed since the pools were decided by the ICC based on the teams’ ICC rankings a couple of years ago. Today, four of the top five teams are in Pool A (see accompanying chart). New Zealand, Australia and South Africa are bunched closely together for the numero uno status; England and Sri Lanka are next with near identical team strengths, and then there is India some distance ahead of Pakistan and the West Indies. Stated differently, the three worst teams out of the top eight—India, Pakistan and West Indies—are clustered in Pool B. South Africa is poised to top the table for Pool B with India as a likely second, and Pool A is likely to be headed by the two host teams, with New Zealand having a slight edge (the league match between them being in New Zealand helps).
The team strengths reported are after inclusion of home team advantage, and, historically, this edge has not been small—a 50-50 match between two equally strong teams on a neutral venue turns to a 60-40 match-up in favour of the home team (about 8 extra points in the index). It is likely that in 2011, when India had a better team, India won the tournament with no small thanks to playing on home pitches!
As Indian partisans, what our analysis suggests is that it is critical for India to at least come second, if not first, in Pool B. A second place finish will likely pit them against England or Sri Lanka, against whom (given present form) they will have a 44% chance of winning; if they finish third, their chances of entering the semi-finals reduces to only about 30% (against Australia/New Zealand).
But if the predictions come true, spare some sympathy for the South Africans. On neutral grounds, they are far and away superior to all other teams. And they have the players to prove their superiority. Dale Steyn is ranked fourth (by Criconomics) in the world; and De Villiers is one of the finest, all-time best batsman. Watch his career—the batting future is for him and/or Virat Kohli to behold.
The dark horse of this tournament, if there is one, is likely to be England, and only because they have the best bowling attack. Jim Anderson and Sean Finn are ranked number one and two in the world. Its batting sadly is presently ranked the lowest (among the top 8 teams).
On current form, there is almost a 50% chance of one of the home teams winning the Cup, with an Australia versus New Zealand final showdown quite likely from the several possible; but South Africa is very much a contender at 18%, as the pre-tournament probabilities suggest. Note that New Zealand has reached the semi-final six times, and South Africa has done so in three of the six World Cups they have participated in; neither has ever reached the final.
Since the final is in Melbourne, the home team advantage will be with Australia. If Australia wins, it will be their fifth triumph—a near-unbeatable record (except by Australia themselves!). Given their domination of one-day cricket (their 1999-2008 Waugh-Ponting team is the best in the history of ODI cricket), it is doubtful whether anybody outside of Australia will be rooting for them to win. This should make for an exciting World Cup, as New Zealand and South Africa are formidable contenders.
Surjit S Bhalla & Ankur Choudhary
Bhalla is co-author with Choudhary of the recently-released book
Criconomics—Everything you wanted to know about ODI cricket and More. Match updates (and forecasts)
on Twitter: @criconomics2015