To kick things off, the very format for this World Cup allows for excitement. While there has been some condemnation of the fact that the tournament will be less inclusive than some of the previous editions — in terms of fewer teams competing — there are likely to be more competitive games than ever before.
The teams that should be the easiest to beat, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, are no longer slouches in any department, and when they beat even the No. 1 team in the world, it is no longer much of an upset. With every team playing each other in the first round, there is not just a chance for all to stake a claim for a spot in the final four, there is also room for crests and troughs, for recoveries, and for the strongest teams to rise to the top over a period of sustained quality.
It’s also a welcome thing that the home team is also the favourite. For long, cricket has been strongly supported in England, across formats, but their white-ball cricket has left much to be desired. While the Ashes may be the pinnacle of the game for English fans, the World Cup is no longer an irrelevance. The fact that England has failed to win the World Cup in all their attempts will have little or no bearing on this team. England has strong, aggressive batsmen who will go at the opposition for the entirety of 50 overs, something teams of the past lacked, and they are no longer diffident or sticking to the outdated formula of keeping wickets in hand for a thrash at the death. They have all-rounder who more than hold their own with either bat or ball, and the bowling to exploit what little help the atmospheric conditions may allow.
While a strong England makes for good cricket, it is also a welcome boost that five-time winners, Australia, have come together strongly, just in time. Steve Smith and David Warner spent a year out of the game following Sandpaper gate, but neither looks short of runs, confidence or self-belief. In 50-over cricket, there are few batsmen more dangerous than Smith. He hits the ball to odd pockets of the ground, has a stout defence and every big shot in the book. He’s also the kind of player who gets on a roll and then refuses to look back. If you were a betting man, now would be a good time to put some money on seeing a lot of Smith over the next month and a half.
With two title contenders easily identified, a third emerges in India. While passionate fans of the Indian team always believe their team is favourites, this time it can be said with some clarity that India has all the parts needed to succeed in English conditions. The top three, Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli, are beasts of ODI cricket, and although a chink remains in an unsettled No. 4 position, India now have all-rounder’s to call upon, spin variations that work on all surfaces and the best fast bowling attack they have ever taken into a global tournament. Jasprit Bumrah has already put his hand up to be one of the bowlers of the tournament, and this without a ball being bowled.
Now, if these three teams are odds on to make it to the knockouts, where it gets interesting is in the serious competition for the fourth semi-final spot. The West Indies has finally managed to set aside some of the differences between their cricket board and the players and unite for a bigger cause. Jason Holder leads a team that has serious firepower and does so with clarity and purpose.
New Zealand is an unfashionable team, in that they don’t have the superstar quotient that most others do. But, in World Cups, they have always punched above their weight. This is a team where the sum of the parts is definitely greater than the whole, and what they will be hoping for is just a little help from the weather gods in their key games. When there is a bit of cloud cover, no bowling group hunts as a pack as effectively as Trent Boult and his friends.
And what of South Africa? They have had some disastrous World Cups, primarily being called out for shaky temperament, but the attack they bring to this tournament is one of the scariest assembled. Kagiso Rabada swings the ball both ways at pace, and batsmen who look to play him out will have to contend with Lungi Ngidi at the other end. Ngidi, who bowls in excess of 145 kph without so much as breaking a sweat, gets the ball to move late in the air and off the pitch, and at his pace, the smallest mistake from the batsman is likely to prove fatal. This is too good a team to be ruled out in any conditions, and perhaps their time has come.
But even beyond the individual teams and players, this tournament is likely to be a stand-out one. The players know each other better than ever, thanks to the amount of cricket they play in Twenty20 leagues around the world, the longest being the Indian Premier League. The coaching staff have much the same advantage, having access to players, not merely as opponents, but from close quarters in training and in dressing-rooms in these very leagues.
From a fan perspective, more of this tournament will be beamed into their living rooms than ever before. For the first time, even warm-up matches are being broadcast live, and when the actual tournament begins, the technology on offer is right up there. And, it’s not just innovations in terms of SpyderCam (the little buggy cam that gets close to the players) and other visual enhancements; it is the array of languages in which the game can be consumed that is a major change. In India alone, you can watch the game in your language, across regions, and not have to depend on English alone. All in all, the stage is well set, the anticipation has built and all that remains is for the action on the field to live up to the hype. Fasten your seatbelts, folks, this is going to be one hell of a ride.