2015 ODI World Cup Preview - An Open Tournament
Almost by right, a World Cup ought to have a team deemed clear favourites to lift the trophy. In 2011, co-hosts India and Sri Lanka were the anointed ones, and they did meet in the final, with the former clinching their second title. In both 2003 and 2007, Australia were the obvious choice and they didn’t disappoint.
In 1999 prior, South Africa were expected to lift their first trophy, after failing in the sub-continent in 1996. Somehow they shot themselves in the foot on both occasions, as they always do, allowing Australia and Sri Lanka to take advantage. Even fancied India couldn’t stop the latter – rank underdogs at Eden Gardens.
It was in 1992, a full 23 years ago, that the ODI World Cup didn’t have an outright favourite. Sure, Australia and New Zealand started with that tag pinned on them, but that was more to do with their hosting the tournament than anything else. It was a similar case in 1987 with an India-Pakistan final anticipated even before the first ball was bowled, though West Indies and England were expected to make their presence felt too.
With West Indies’ domination making them champions-elect from 1975 to 1983, the 1992 tournament perhaps stands out as the only time when there was no definitive team expected to lift the trophy. As the World Cup returns Down Under for only the second time, the same can be said of this edition as well.
There are a couple other similarities. Coloured clothing might seem as the biggest change from 1987, but that was only cosmetic in nature. It hid away the use of two new balls and 15-over fielding rules allowing only four fielders outside the 30-yard circle for the first time. As the participating teams converge to this part of the world, they will have planned to use two new balls again while also minding a change in fielding rules again. That of only four fielders allowed outside the 30-yard circle at all times.
The most affected by this ruling have been defending champions India. For a better part of last two years, skipper MS Dhoni has tried to find an optimal balance for his team, with six batsmen and five bowlers. Not using part-timers has really caused them unease with only three wins in 17 ODIs played overseas since December 2013. They go into the tournament feeling blue, pun intended, quite unsure about what their first-choice playing eleven will be.
As such a direct derivative of India’s troubles is that teams with good bowling attacks will certainly do well. The onus will be to use the two new balls effectively and take wickets up-top so that the middle order struggles through when the balls go softer, particularly towards the batting power-play as only three fielders will be allowed outside the circle. On shorter grounds in New Zealand, this period of batting will be one to watch out for, something every bowling attack needs to guard against.
Australia have the best line-up on paper, with four pacers who can bowl over the 150-mark. Obviously they are not going to pick all in one go, despite being spoilt for choice. Even so their display in the recently concluded tri-series shows that this attack will be tough to score against and it duly makes them one of the four semi-final favourites.
New Zealand and South Africa boast of fine pace-men too, not to mention a batting line-up that looks in-form and evenly balanced. They are early contenders too, particularly the Black Caps, who will be looking to enjoy home-support. The vibe across both islands of that little nation is to be seen to be believed, as their players gear up to go the distance this time around.
If these three teams are early picks for the semis, then the fourth spot will be keenly contested one. India will look to punch above their weight, as much as their flickering bowling attack will allow having spent the last three months bowling on Australian pitches.
Sri Lanka have a near-similar advantage, in that they have been spending a lot of time in New Zealand recently. Not to mention the small fact that they have Kumar Sangakkar and Mahela Jayawardene making their final appearances. It drove them to the 2012 World T20 triumph in Bangladesh and so the question needs asking: can they do it again?
England have emerged as late favourites for the semi-final spot, particularly since their fast bowling wares troubled India to no-end in the tri-series in January. James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Chris Woakes and Steve Finn have enough firepower among themselves to upset the any batting line-up on their day. Where does this leave Pakistan?
The last time this tournament was hosted in Australia and New Zealand, the eventual champions boasted of Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, the latter two younglings back then. Over the course of next two decades, their partnership defined bowling in ODI cricket, particularly with the exemplary use of reverse swing. However, their fast-bowling cupboards have been bare for some time now, especially with Umar Gul missing out as well.
This time around they have Mohammad Irfan, Wahab Riaz, Sohail Khan, Rahat Ali and Ehsan Adil, who have played only 97 ODIs between them. The seven-feet tall Irfan and Riaz make up for all but ten matches. While Pakistan are perennial underdogs, their under-strength bowling raises questions about the viability of their challenge this time around.
Last but not the least, there remains the case of the minnows. It is a disappointment that three Test playing nations, Bangladesh, West Indies and Zimbabwe, are being mentioned here in the same breath. Even so, it is an apt marker of their falling standards.
Additionally, it is also the last time teams like Afghanistan, Ireland, Scotland and UAE will have a fair shot at making the World Cup league stage, with the competitive pool set to go down to ten teams from 2019. This is their chance to make a statement and if the warm-up matches are any indication, the race for the last quarter-final spots in both groups could be a close-run thing.
The fact that the same phrase – close-run thing – can be used about who lifts the trophy at the MCG on March 29, shows that an intriguing World Cup is ahead of us.
© Cricket World 2015