David doesn’t beat Goliath every day. Likewise in any World Cup, there are minnows who would invariably upset the applecart. That is a given and we hope for more such moments, for they enliven the game and the spectacle as a whole. Ireland have added to the colour and more so in this particular tournament than in 2007. Their rise has added to the debate fuelling over the participation of associate nations in 2015, but that is a topic for another day.
Then there are those matches in the fixture-list that, albeit not a match-up against two unequal teams, but still heavily loaded against one due to pitch or other factors. Take Bangladesh for example and much was expected from them by hoards of their fans - who are, one must add, the most colourful this time around. But the stark truth about the Tigers continues to be the overall good-humoured surprise whenever any serious victory comes about. Playing all their league games at home, with a combination of slow-turning tracks and dewy outfields, they were expected to push and challenge for a quarter-final spot.
The defeat against the West Indies brought out the worst in some of their followers. It would be so for any sub-continental team, for fans in this part of the world are an over-zealous lot. If India, Pakistan or Sri Lanka would have been blown away for fifty-odd runs, the homes of their cricketers would have been blackened, their cars damaged and their effigies burnt by now. Having said that, it wasn’t just a reversal for the cricket lovers in Dhaka alone, it was for their team too. And it is very tough to come back from the brink, for 58 all out only represented the edge of exiting the championship. But come back they did, beating England in style – and not before half-dead in that game too – and it reflected on how Bangladesh show flashes of brilliance. They exhibit glimpses of the mental toughness that we come to expect from better teams and we hope for from the lowly ones.
England’s loss wasn’t all that surprising, in the sense that they have looked a forlorn team for the better part of their tournament. Could mental and physical fatigue be the reason after a long lasting season? Or are they still hung-over from their Ashes triumph? It may only be a week to go in the first round scheduling of the World Cup, but it is still too early to be writing their obituary yet. For a team that defended a target of 180-odd against a dominant batting force as the South Africans shows they have the requisite mental toughness. And they had the tenacity to chase down 338 against India in front of a capacity Bangalore crowd shows that they are resilient. To find this team in a three-way battle (atleast) for a fourth place finish in their group is a bit startling yes, but a week is a long time in cricket.
Group B has been muddled a bit with this particular match. As it is, this was always the group of death and one or two upsets were always going to alter the course of progression. What Bangladesh’s win and England’s loss, coupled with South Africa’s last-over win against India, has done is open up the list of permutations and combinations anew. None of the top teams are now safe and even India can go out of the tournament, if other factors go against them at the same time. In that respect, none of these teams will be playing safe in their last league games while Bangladesh and South Africa having two to play will warn against complacency.
In comparison Group A was always going to be easy. But then a third kind of World Cup matches played out this past week when New Zealand took on Pakistan. In such contests, both sides are at an equal footing, yet one is more fancied because the form of the other has been near shambles. In any other universe that team would have been Pakistan but that they are not is a marker of intrigue of this World Cup. A healthy bunch of cricketers from that country is always for benefit of the sport in general, but it is New Zealand that many worried were about. The Kiwis simply haven’t taken flight in sub-continental conditions in recent times, and the series defeats against Bangladesh and India didn’t help their confidence.
When Kamran Akmal dropped Ross Taylor, he re-instated some of that belief. Cricket may be a team-game but it can be turned around by any one man at any instant of time. Those last five overs were not even part of the power-plays but they bled more than a hundred runs, meaning that there were not three good teams and one also-ran in this group anymore. There are four very lively teams upping the ante for fanciful slots in the quarters. Daniel Vettori’s men got a second wind and this should be able to carry them far enough. Their best chance lies in the last league game against Sri Lanka at Mumbai – yes, the Lankans are playing away from home and could easily be ambushed.
A week ago though, New Zealand wouldn’t have qualified more than fourth place and would have taken on India who were sprinting towards topping their own group. In a span of seven days, the two tables have been turned around and it needed a mere two games, such is the beauty of cricket and mathematics. These two teams will most probably qualify in different spots now and in between six other quarter-finalists will also be decided. But who those six might be? That question cannot be answered for the complexion of the World Cup, going into the last week of its first round, has changed dramatically.
© Cricket World 2011