The World Cup has become somewhat monotonous since the surge of Australia in the late 1990s. While the West Indies had won the first two editions, four new champions emerged in the next four editions. But since 1999, there has been no new champion. Australia has won four of these five editions, with India disturbing the trend briefly in 2011. Australia and India are rank favourites this time, along with England. South Africa and New Zealand are contenders for the semi-finals as well. Once that happens, two wins are all they need to lift that title. Three of these five teams have never won a World Cup. There are also West Indies and Pakistan, two sides reputed for picking up momentum out of nowhere and carrying on till they end up winning. Let us summarise how the main sides stack up.
Strength: Power hitters
Weakness: Lack of strike bowlers
England had done some introspection since their disastrous 2015 World Cup campaign. They adopted a strategy of building a batting line up consisting of a bottomless queue of power hitters, even if that meant a compromise on bowling strength. In one blow, they did away with Ian Bell and James Anderson, at that point the leading run-scorer and wicket-taker in their history.
It worked. England has won 62 ODIs and lost 30 over this phase, which gave them a win-loss ratio of 2.066, the highest in the world. They have also scored at 6.17 (309 per innings) since then. To provide perspective, South Africa comes next, with 5.88. On the flip side, they have conceded 5.78 an over, the third worst over this period.
It has not just been a story of top-order success, either. England’s last four batsmen have formed the fastest-scoring tail in the world as well. In other words, at no point during their innings does England consider slowing down: they have managed to expand T20 batting to a 50-over format. If anything, the impact of this strategy has been more pronounced since 2018. England has won 24 and lost 8 – a number they achieved based almost entirely on their net run rate of 6.27 (0.65 more than anyone else’s).
A look at England’s latest ODI series will make this clearer. Pakistan scored 361, 358, 340, and 297, but England brushed them aside every time. They simply do not care about leaking runs. While Jos Buttler has been the most dangerous batsman, England’s inexhaustible cohort of big hitters extends from Jason Roy, Jonny Bairstow, Joe Root, Eoin Morgan to Ben Stokes, Moeen Ali, and even afterwards. The only evident weakness is their bowling, where they are weaker than several other outfits in this tournament. However, the rise, and subsequent inclusion, of Jofra Archer may solve even that.
Strengths: Form and class
Weakness: No recent exposure in England
Australia was thrashed 0-5 the last time they toured England, in 2018. They were without the maligned duo of Steven Smith and David Warner, but that does not explain the fact that they had failed to make it to the 2017 Champions Trophy semi-final. True, rain prevented them from winning the Bangladesh match, but then, rain saved them against New Zealand as well.
The world champions have been outstanding of late. They first came back from 0-2 to win the ODI series in India. Then they whitewashed Pakistan 5-0 in the UAE. While all this was happening, Warner had set sail in the IPL, where he ended up clinching the Orange Cap. Smith, on the other hand, has found form in the practice matches at home and in England. Australia were the only side to win both their official warm-up matches.
The bowling looks sorted as well, with a strong pace attack and Adam Zampa emerging as one of the finest limited-overs leg-spinners in the world. There is no specific weakness per se. But there is a glitch – Barring Aaron Finch and Kane Richardson, no one in the current squad had impressed last year in England. In fact, they have done little of note in this country in some time. If they can adapt to the early English summer, Australia may be the team to beat.
Strength: Talent Pool
Weakness: Too few multitaskers
Let us begin with the top three in the batting order. For India, these positions are occupied by Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, and Virat Kohli. Since 2018, they average 59.17 per innings, which is over 11 more than any other side. In other words, on an average, the Indian top three score at least 33 more than others.
There is little doubt that India has the best top three in the world. Kohli and Rohit are ranked 1 and 2 in the ICC ODI ratings for batsmen, while Dhawan, while inconsistent, can leave the other two behind on his day, and has an excellent record in big tournaments.
On the other hand, over the same period, India’s middle order (4-7) have averaged 32.45 – the sixth-best in the world. But that is not all. The top five positions in an ODI batting line-up typically consist of batsmen. At least one, if not two, are expected to chip in with the ball in case a specialist bowler underperforms, or worse, breaks down, on a given day. India, unfortunately, does not have these men. Kedar Jadhav, prone to injuries, and Vijay Shankar are the only ones who fit the role. Both have bowled four overs per match on an average. Given that they are unlikely to feature together, they hardly share the burden.
The other problem India may face is of a long tail. Of their five best bowlers, four – Yuzvendra Chahal, Jasprit Bumrah, Kuldeep Yadav, and Mohammed Shami – are rank tail-enders. Thus, despite having one of the best bowling attacks, India may have to replace their best bowlers with ones who can bat, thereby sacrificing on their strength to adopt England’s strategy of compromising on bowling strength for batting.
Weakness: Injuries to fast bowlers
Africa has arrived with five consecutive ODI series wins under their belt, including triumphs in Australia and Sri Lanka. Remember, they have achieved this without AB de Villiers, and largely without Dale Steyn.
Faf du Plessis and Quinton de Kock have had to shoulder much of the burden since de Villiers’s retirement. But now, just before the World Cup, a couple of developments have taken place. First, they have unearthed a special talent in Rassie van der Dussen; and secondly, Hashim Amla found form during the recent warm-up matches. The top four looks solid once again.
South Africa was also set to have the best bowling attack of the tournament, a fact even more evident after Imran Tahir and Kagiso Rabada finished as the top two wicket-takers in the recently concluded IPL. Unfortunately, they lost their fastest bowler Anrich Nortje to an injury, while it is unclear whether Dale Steyn’s injury will extend beyond the first two matches. That leaves them with Rabada and Lungi Ngidi, both of whom had stayed injured earlier this year, to go with Tahir. If they stay fit, South Africa can go the distance.
Strengths: Something of everything
Weakness: Poor overseas bowling
New Zealand has traditionally been a team of consistent batsmen, world-class swing bowlers, competent spinners, bowlers who can bat, and outstanding fielders. It is the same this time.
A lot depends on the top four, Ross Taylor being the most threatening of them. Since 2018, Taylor’s consistency (average 82.13, strike rate 92) has been next to only Kohli’s. And with the ball, Trent Boult has wrecked many a top order.
Unfortunately, a lot of that has happened in the comfort of home pitches. New Zealand has won only two overseas ODI series in the past four years: a bilateral series in Zimbabwe, and a triangular series in Ireland that also featured Bangladesh. They last played ODIs in England during the 2017 Champions Trophy, when they returned without a win.
None of their specialist bowlers, Boult included averages below 30 away from home in the past four years. However, as the India match showed, overcast conditions and a strong breeze can help their fast bowlers do wonders, even on flat wickets, and they have always punched above their weight in big tournaments.
Strengths: Relentless six hitting
Weakness: Thin bowling attack
Let us check West Indies’ top six: Chris Gayle hit an all-time series record of 39 sixes earlier this year against top-ranked England; Andre Russell smashed the most sixes this IPL and was named the MVP of the tournament; Shai Hope averaged 80.85 over his last 17 innings before the World Cup; and Nicholas Pooran, Shimron Hetmyer, and Evin Lewis, the young brigade, are all prolific big hitters, as is captain Jason Holder.
Indeed, the West Indians are the only lot who can keep up with their English counterparts when it comes to quick scoring and six-hitting. And yet, time and again, their frail, ineffective bowling attack has failed to contain, let alone destroy, strong batting line-ups. Scoring 350 will not help unless you can defend those runs.
Strengths: Record in England
Pakistan has lost its last ten completed ODIs before the World Cup. Their batsmen – especially their top three – have scored big, but not quickly enough by 2019 standards against the major teams. To make things worse, their fast bowlers, their stars over the years, have been uncharacteristically ineffective for some time, which led them to recall Wahab Riaz out of nowhere.
But Pakistan has always thrived in England – a trend they had started on their first tour here, in 1954. They made it to the World Cup semi-finals in 1979 and 1983 (after missing out by a whisker in 1975), and to the final in 1999. They also won the 2009 World T20 and the 2017 Champions Trophy here, the latter with a bunch of inexperienced cricketers. They have also stayed undefeated in their last two Test series here.
And then, there is also the fact that they have a track record of coming back from nowhere to win titles – which makes them the most unpredictable team of the tournament.