Here are my brief portraits of the eight "good" sides in the cricket world cup that began today. I have a few more thoughts on Samizdata.
- The West Indies are hosts of the tournament. The English speaking countries of the Carribean have fielded a single cricket team for about 80 years. This team slowly rose through the ranks of cricketing nations for its first decades of existence, and was extremely competitive from around 1960. In the mid 1970s it rose still further, and through having great fast bowlers and spectacular batsmen it dominated international cricket until the early 1990s. Since then it has suffered many defeats, but the team still contains some very impressive players. In full cry, present West Indian captain Brian Lara is one of the most awe inspiring players in world cricket. However, there are questions about his and the team's attitude. One sometimes thinks the players would rather visit nightclubs than cricket grounds. The West Indies will probably flame out at some point, but they may well play some great cricket before doing so. If they make the later stages of the tournament, this may concentrate their minds well enough to do well in those later stages.
- Australia are the defending champions, and are attempting to win the tournament for the third time in succession and the fourth time in total. Australia have lost a number of good players since the last World Cup, and have several injuries to key players. The lost of fast bowler Brett Lee is a big blow. Andrew Symonds and Matthew Hayden are important players, but will be back hopefully fit in time for the later stages of the tournament. Australia's batting is strong regardless of this, with Adam Gilchrist and Hayden destructive at the top of the order, Ricky Ponting in the middle order, and Sydmonds and Michael Hussey as finishers. However the bowling looks weak. Glenn McGrath (playing in his last tournament) was a great player but is not any more. Stuart Clark is a fine test bowler, but is untested in one day internationals. Andrew Symonds is unlikely to bowl much due to his injury. Brad Hogg is an effective spinner (and played a big role four years ago) but is curiously out of favour with the selectors and is low on confidence. Australia have lost their best finishing bowler in Lee. In truth though, Australia's middle over bowlers lost the plot about a year ago. Sides with decent batting can score an outrageous number of runs between the 20 and 45 over marks when Australia are batting. This has been obvious for at least a year, but team management has carried on as if there is no problem. Australia have been thoroughly found out in recent games, and go into the tournament having lost five games straight. They are very vulnerable to smart opposition who can outthink them and take advantage of the conditions. Although Australia are still favourites with bookmakers (although their odds have lengthened considerably over the last couple of months) I do not expect Australia to make the semi-finals. I hope I am wrong, but I do not really believe I am. It is almost beyond description how much I wish Shane Warne were playing.
- South Africa are second favourites with bookmakers, and have by far the best form of any team coming into the tournament, having destroyed Pakistan and India at home in their most recent series. Their batting side is very impressive, with players like Jacques Kallis, Graeme Smith, and Herschelle Gibbs having taken them to very large scores in recent games. Their bowling is good, but relatively unimaginative, being based around pace. This may not suit them in the West Indies. Their captain Graeme Smith is rather unimaginative and not a greet tactician. If there is a side that is going to power through the tournament and win it easily, the the South Africans are it. However, they stand to be surprised by a side that out thinks them at some point. If this happens prior to the semi-finals, it does not matter, as they should make the semi-finals easily enough with their present game. If it happens in the semi-final or final, they lose. History does not help. They have often played well at early stages of previous tournaments, but have then been out thought, out sledged, and overwhelmed by the occasion later on. And I am not sure what to make of their ability to be eliminated from previous world cups in truly bizarre circumstances, other than to see it at a tremendous source of amusement. They cannot possibly beat the previous world cup, in which they were eliminated after a rain shortened game was tied on the Duckworth-Lewis rule after the captain got his calculations wrong. Or can they?
- New Zealand are a side with a history of making the most of rather limited resources. Cricket is a very poor relation to rugby in New Zealand, which is a small country. None the less, its cricket team has a history of being very well captained and coached. In World Cups it has often played very well early in the tournament, but upon reaching the semi-finals the lack of depth and the lack of really top notch players has showed. The present side fits this description well Captain Stephen Fleming is the best captain in world cricket (and a good batsman). All rounder Jacop Oram has been playing superbly recently, and the middle and lower order have been batting with a wonderful never say die attitude. (New Zealand come into the tournament having beaten Australia 3-0 at home). Shane Bond is one of the great tragedies of modern cricket: a wonderful, technically correct seam bowler who would be one of the best bowlers in the world if injuries had not shortened his career. The conditions in the West Indies will suit him, and he will once or twice take five wickets and win a game for New Zealand. However, he is only allowed to bowl ten overs and the rest of New Zealand's bowling may not be good enough to finish the job. The Australia v New Zealand game from four years ago probably summarises the problem. Bond took 6/23 and reduced Australia to 7/84, but he was not allowed to bowl any more overs and Australia recovered to 208 and won the game easily. That kind of thing may happen again. New Zealand will make the semi-finals, but probably don't quite have the class to win the tournament.
- Sri Lanka revolutionised one day cricket with their performance in winning the 1996 World Cup, in which the quality of their batting and their strategy of attacking from the first ball when fielding restrictions in place surprised much of the rest of the cricketing world. (It shouldn't have, because they had been playing the strategy effectively for at least six months going into the tournament). It also marked their transition from the easybeats of world cricket to a powerful, dangerous side. Since then they have beaten and embarassed a lot of other teams, have annoyed and frustrated a lot of opposing players with their ruthless and forceful attitude to the game, and have caused considerable controversy by selecting spin bowler Muttiah Muralithuran, whose bowling action is considered by many to be of questionable legality. Still. they are a smart and canny side who can exploit difficult batting conditions. Whatever the merits of his action, Muralithuran will be a dangerous bowler in these conditions. Jayasuriya is back in the side for one final swing at the World Cup. There is plenty of batting talent in the side such as captain Mahela Jayawardene, Marvan Atapattu, and Kumar Sangakkara. Sri Lanka are going to be very dangerous indeed in this tournament. I wouldn't be very surprised if they won it.
- Not much can be said about Pakistan other than that they are Pakistan. They produce a large number of greatly talented and exciting players. However, the players seldom appear united on the field. They have an endless series of match fixing scandals, drug scandals, dressing room rebellions, weird political intrigues involving corrupt government ministers, and goodness knows what. Going into the world cup, the most recent problem is a drug scandal (steroids). Pakistan also lack the bowling strength of a few years back. There is nobody of the talent of Wasim Akram or Waqar Younis. The most exciting bowler than do have is Shoaib Akhtar, who was involved in the doping scandal, was "acquitted" and is now out "injured". In their most recent series Pakistan were horribly beaten by South Africa. The only captain who could ever make Pakistan play as something resembling a united team was Imran Khan, who took them to World Cup glory in 1992. Many of us have fond memories of a very young Inzamam al Haq playing spectacular shots under the MCG lights in that tournament. Inzamam is today captain of Pakistan, and in the years since has been consistently one of the world's finest batsmen. However I cannot sensibly see Pakistan overcoming their problems to get far in this tournament. On the other hand, sense and the Pakistan cricket team seldom seem to go together.
- India are the great enigma of world cricket. They won the World cup completely unexpectedly in 1983, when unbackable favourites the West Indies failed in the final . That inspired a huge party in India in response, but that would be nothing compared to what would happen if they did it in these days in which modern media and economic growth has drenched India in cricket to an extent that is hard to describe. India have great batsmen in Sachin Tendulkar, captain Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag, and fine spin bowlers in Harbhajan Singh. Their seam bowling is perhaps a little weaker and I am not sure they are a great tactical side, but if everything comes off they are likely to be extraordinarily likely to beat. They have a frustrating inconsistency about them, however. Some days (particularly in test series against Australia) they can be brilliant. In others deeply disappointing. Their form is mixed going into the tournament: they have recently beaten South Africa and the West Indies, but were badly beaten by South Africa over Christmas. That was in very different conditions though. I think if India get momentum going, they will be hard to stop. but it is very questionable whether they will get momentum going.
- And last, England. England are widely being predicted as being a dark horse in the series. after playing utterly terribly for most of the Australian summer, England turned around at the last possible moment in the Commonwealth Bank series, winning four games straight to take the tournament. The return of captain Michael Vaughan appears to make a huge difference to England. With him they believe in themselves. Without him they do not. Generally, though, England are well led, fit, and well coached. They played outstandingly to win the Ashes about 18 months ago.
That is the rub, however. Other than the last four matches, England's good performances in recent years have come in test cricket. In one day cricket, they have generally been terrible. I do not think they have enough tactics, enough game planning, and enough skill in one day games to win the tournament. Perhaps they will make the semi-finals. I think though that strategically better teams will come through in the end.
On the other hand, Vaughan is a very good captain. And the conditions will suit Monty Panesar. So who knows?
Semi-finalists: South Africa, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, and India.
Finalists: South Africa and India
Champions: South Africa
However, the tourament is the most open I can remember. In the last five minutes I have changed the side I have predicted to win from Sri Lanka to India to South Africa. I really have no idea.