Catch our analysis of cricket's showcase event.
Australia has more pop than muck-up day at a franger factory. It has major artillery, it’s at home, doesn’t need to worry about spinning conditions, and has had a great lead-up which has enabled it to hone individual skills and team-work. The Clarke issue appears to be settled by his hammie, and it might prove that he’s not indispensable to Australia’s chances, with Smith a good one-day captain, too. Australia has such an embarrassment of riches, it might even contemplate resting Johnson occasionally, as the other lefty, the much-improved Starc, is probably a better finisher. Australia even has the luxury of picking Glenn Maxwell when it needs an offie, rather than just for his batting. The batting has no safety-first option. The top six only knows one speed, but someone always gets the runs. Australia has an ideal finisher in Faulkner, and another all-rounder ready to go – Mitch Marsh. Finch and Warner form a devastating opening combination to rival any in this format.
2. South Africa
If Australia doesn’t win, this team should. The Proteas are balanced even in the absence of the great Kallis, and their line-up is so talented and versatile, they can practically overlay their Test and one-day teams. Steyn, Morkel and Philander are supplemented by all-rounders Rossouw and McLaren. Furthermore, they have now covered a traditional weakness, with one of the best spinners going around in any form: Imran Tahir. People think Morkel is too erratic for the format. We think he’ll have a great series. They might’ve lost to Australia in the recent one-off set, but they lost nobly, and never gave in. The players mentioned, plus Amla, Du Plessis, De Villiers, Duminy, de Kock and company will be the core of a side nobody should write off, and De Villiers’ relaxed and intelligent approach to captaincy might moderate that famed intensity that occasionally messed with their heads. They might still have the thinnest joke book in world cricket, but they have an eye on the record books.
3. New Zealand
The other team with a home-ground advantage. What a great fillip for the game in the Shaky Isles if the Black Caps win. Depth will always be a problem, and they might be in trouble if pacemen Boult and Southee can’t bowl together. But if it all clicks, they have batsmen who can slug with the best of them, like McCullum and Bracewell, while men like Guptill, Rutherford and Ross Taylor are capable of alarming spikes in international performance. Corey Anderson and ’keeper Luke Ronchi have risen considerably in world rankings with some exciting international displays. The Black Caps understand the benefits of great fielding, and have a nice spread of old heads, especially as Vettori has been selected. Watch them; they play some important matches at home, should get through the pool matches unharmed, and then they’ll be a handful for anybody.
4. Sri Lanka
The Lions, too, might surprise. They have an experienced side, and though some of them are old, those oldies happen to be Kumar Sangakkara, Tillakaratne Dilshan and Mahela Jayawardene. Throw in Mathews and the cunning plunderer Mendis, who seems able to make the ball do anything but outright disappear once it pitches, and they have a good core side. Then of course, there’s fast-bowling pair Nuwan Kulasekara and Lasith Malinga. It’s axiomatic now that “The Slinga” is simply the best finisher in world short-form cricket. Kulasekara is one of the better late-order pinch-hitters. The squad has a good balance of youth and experience. Nine players have returned from the 2011 World Cup, where they were finalists. Their recent form has been good, and the determined and talented Jayawardene, the only man to ton in a World Cup final and not get the win (2011), has the added motivation of setting history right.
India will have played in Australia for around three months before the World Cup begins, and should be well-and-truly acclimatised. In addition, it’ll have enjoyed a near-perfect preparation in the triangular series against the Aussies and England. India’s selectors have dropped some valuable experience in Sehwag, Yuvraj, Gambhir, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan. Captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni, batsmen Suresh Raina and Virat Kohli and off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin are the only ones returning from the 2011 side. Sharma, Arun and Shami have the pace and, more importantly, the movement important in the format ... and of course their squad has a sound spin division. It won’t be able to sustain its performance over here long enough to win the whole shooting match, however.
6. West Indies
The Windies are probably the only players to match Australia and South Africa for talent, and there are no guarantees they’ll be easybeats. They have the aptitude to win this, but it’s never a good sign for West Indies cricket when the focus is off-field. The pay dispute with the WIPA and the Board has been a protracted affair, and there were doubts until recently whether they’d even play. The incredible, exploding Windies are a great ingredient. Distracted, they might be as random as a ferret in a greyhound race, but always entertaining. They might get the odd big win, but not the trophy. Sunil Narine, Chris Gayle, Kieron Pollard, Dwayne Bravo and Dwayne Smith highlight the obvious firepower that still exists in Caribbean cricket, but they also have a number of youngsters with no international experience. On any given day, their haphazard brilliance might come together. If they had the teamwork of those ’70s and ’80s sides, they’d be a powerful contender.
The Poms have a good squad and some well-performed players in the format. But a few consolation series wins since that harrowing Australian trip last summer won’t mean they have been fully rehabilitated. They will be playing against some of the world’s best quicks on relatively bouncy decks. However, Eoin Morgan, Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes, Chris Woakes and Alex Hales form a fairly dynamic batting line-up, and they’re young blokes with plenty of attitude and little regard for history. The talented and explosive Stokes ensures the wrathful ranga won’t be underrepresented. Steven Finn joins a good pace battery after a year out of the game, and he has wicket-taking calibre. The triangular series will be important, as their order is still in some disarray, but they hang onto a conservatism that leads them to shun full turbo power for a little safety.
The men in green are on their way up and have newfound discipline, but take them out of the desert and they might not flourish to the same extent. The recent series in the UAE might not be the ideal preparation for bouncy wickets against world-class attacks in Australia. They have a good batting line-up, but it will be flawed in the 50-over format, even though Aussie and Kiwi decks might be dead enough for their flat-trackers to star occasionally. They’re never confident chasers, and though they have a top-six consisting of Younis, Misbah, Afridi and Suhail, they might lack the thrust to compete with the best on the big stage. This team, capable of sudden surges, is entering a new era. The win against Australia might be just what it needed as a spur, but this World Cup is a bridge too far.
A vastly improved side, as their recent 5-0 clean-sweep over Zimbabwe demonstrated. The Bangladeshis are a talented and enthusiastic lot, and make the most of a paucity of opportunities at international level. At the moment, they’re the best of the minnows, and will come on in leaps and bounds over the next couple of decades. If any of these sides is capable of making it beyond the pool stage, it’s them. Shakib Al Hasan is the fifth-ranked ODI bowler, alongside Mitch Johnson, and an exciting all-rounder who also bowls penetrating left-arm orthodox (he’s third in the ODI all-rounder rankings, too). Captain Mashrafe Mortaza has also soared up the rankings, Arafat Sunny is fast-improving and left-arm spinner Taijul Islam has proved a match-winner. Mushfiqur Rahim has been getting some handy runs, while Mahmudullah Riyad is piling up impressively high not-out scores.
Afghanistan’s rapid ascent from the fifth division of world cricket to qualification for its first World Cup has been one of cricket’s biggest success stories. It has soared to ODI status, and in its first tournament against a full member, drew 2-2 with Zimbabwe in an ODI series and 1-1 in a first-class series. Most of Afghanistan’s old hands will be playing. There’s not much choice at this stage, as they don’t possess a lot of depth. Unfortunately, stalwart ex-captain Mohammad Ashraful won’t be there, as he’s been suspended for spot-fixing. Watch out for the huge and flamboyant fast bowler, Hamid Hassan, a very respected quick who can bowl up around the high 140s. Dawlat Zadran is also genuinely fast. They might pull off a win or two in the pool phase, and that’s it – but who cares? It’s great to see this war-torn and cricket-loving nation join the game’s international community.
The Zimbabweans are lacking in the batting department. At the moment they fold like a team of washerwomen. They were recently thrashed by Bangladesh on pitches that didn’t seem to trouble their hosts. They failed to pass 200 three times. Opener and captain Brendan Taylor has proved a world-class ODI performer, but plays a lone hand. Their bowling is good, but the respected Tinashe Panyangara, who is penetrating and capable of big hauls, needs more support than he’s been getting. However, it’s good to have this strife-torn and cash-strapped nation back in the fold. They’ve struggled with oppression and lack of cricketing infrastructure, but still managed to beat Australia in the triangular tournament with South Africa earlier in the year.
Ireland has a bit of a record of overthrowing the titans of the cricketing world, having beaten Pakistan and England in 2007 and 2011 respectively. The Irish are a feisty and competitive lot, and never consider themselves out of the game. They dominated the Pepsi ICC World Cricket League Championship throughout 2011-2013 in order to qualify. They’re still hampered by residency rules, which lead their best players – like paceman Boyd Rankin and hard-hitting Eoin Morgan – to play for England. But they’re a never-say-die team with a desire to achieve full ICC membership and Test status, and they won’t lie down for anyone. It will make for some exciting pool matches.
Scotland’s run at the World Cup has been remarkable, considering some early humiliating losses, especially in the first qualifier against Hong Kong. To get here, the Scots ended up with seven consecutive wins, including the final against UAE. They’ve achieved much of this on the back of all-rounder Calum MacLeod, the first-ever Gaelic speaker to appear in a Test match (he was substitute fieldsman in an Ashes Test). Problems with his action and his form set him back years, but MacLeod has emerged as a hard-hitting match-winner. The other mainstay is captain Preston Mommsen, who they need playing. They’re a seasoned side; Mommsen and MacLeod have plenty of international runs, and offie Majid Haq has proved a consistent performer on the international stage.
The most well-heeled of the Associates, United Arab Emirates finally made it to the World Cup after finishing second in the Super Six stage of the ICC Cricket World Cup Qualifier in New Zealand earlier this year. Though they recently defeated Bangladesh at Dubai 3-1, and got their highest total against Bangladesh, it’s hard to gauge form on the deadest track in the world. Their best batsman seems to be Khurram Khan, and he’s 43 years old. He also has the most ODI wickets. Their other promising batman, Amjad Ali, is 35. It’s hard to envisage UAE pulling off any upsets.
- Robert Drane