THE ICC WORLD CUP gets under way on May 30 in England, a country that continues to maintain the history and culture of the sport. It is a country where people still fill grounds for Test cricket, in spite of the growing popularity of T20 cricket around the world. And this season, with the World Cup and the Ashes around the corner, and with a new Australia, the English spectators have a packed six months of terrific cricket to look forward to.
The World Cup is a huge event anywhere in the world, but it is made even more special when it is played in the UK. People from various parts of the cricketing world live there and the easy accessibility to visitors in the London summer makes it even more attractive. Rarely in other parts of the world will you see a warm-up game attracting as many fans as the one between India and New Zealand at the Oval did. Having played a lot of cricket in the UK, I am pretty sure that, at times, it will be like a home game for India at a lot of venues. Many people from the subcontinent have made plans to fly in for the World Cup, mixing their holiday with cricket, and I will not be surprised if it is a huge sellout this time.
Also, the new format, in which the games are pre-scheduled, will help fans plan their trip and decide which matches they want to see, as there is no uncertainty about which teams will play when. This will indeed be good news for the International Cricket Council.
For me, this is the best format. There will be no easy games. The best play the best, the strong play the strong and, finally, the best four make it to the semifinals. Hopefully, the ICC will continue this format in the years to come.
This World Cup will also be a very competitive one. Just a year ago, it seemed to the fans that there were fewer strong teams in world cricket, and that the game was on its way down. But, for the good of the sport, a few teams have taken some strong steps in the past six months. For me, Australia are the team that has improved the most. As I was watching India tour Australia last November, I was wondering what had happened to the best side of my generation! As much as I enjoyed India’s dominance in that series, I felt sorry for a cricket-playing nation that, from the 1990s to 2015, had such a tough team. Just when everyone started saying, “Here we go” with another strong cricketing nation faltering, they bounced back and surprised everyone. For me, their win in India gave them huge self-belief and that, too, when they were without David Warner and Steve Smith. Their bowling was always good, but their batting in that series against India, in Australia, was the worst I have seen since the 1990s. But the likes of Usman Khawaja, Aaron Finch, Shaun Marsh and Glenn Maxwell have taken their game forward since then, and this will place Australia among the main contenders. And their professional performance against a strong England in the warmup game will send a strong signal to the other teams in the competition.
England, to me, look the strongest. Their batting is probably the best ever in the history of English One-Day cricket, and the freedom with which each of them is playing is tremendous. They have consistently scored and chased 350 in the past few years, and the knowledge of their own conditions will be a big plus for them. And with India and Australia winning their home World Cups, England will believe that the jinx of the hosts not winning does not exist any more. This will ease their minds a lot as they start their journey on May 30 against South Africa at the Oval. Their depth in batting, along with the all-rounders and strong lower-order batting, will add strength to their campaign.
I am also happy to see the look of this West Indies team. They are much, much stronger than their past few teams, and the new, sensible administrative setup, with good relations between the administrators and the players, has helped West Indies cricket regain the faith of the world. The likes of Chris Gayle and the hugely improved Andre Russell will be determined to set the stage on fire. I will be looking out for Russell. His power-hitting in the Indian Premier League has been breathtaking and it will be important to see whether he can bring that onto the world stage. Someone of that ability coming in at number six or seven and changing the complexion of the game is a massive asset to any team. No score will be impossible to chase if Russell gets his act together. But the West Indies, I believe, will not just be the Russell show. They have some exciting young players, like Shai Hope and Shimron Hetmyer, who will entertain the crowds, and the best among them, Nicholas Pooran, will make this unit strong. A strong pace attack, with captain Jason Holder and Russell backing them as all-rounders, as well as good spinners who take the batting deep, will make this team the one to watch out for.
Another team to look out for will be Pakistan. They are inconsistent, as we saw in the recent five-match series against England. On good pitches, they were thrashed by the home side, which was much stronger, but Pakistan cricket has always been emotional, blowing hot and cold. Their record in England is very good. Not many expected them to beat India in that Champions Trophy final in 2017. They looked ordinary in the group stages, managed to scrape through to the semis and then put up their best performance in the two big games of the tournament and finished as champions. Teams will take them lightly at their own peril. The talent is enormous, and their rawness, at times, makes them a dangerous side.
Now on to my team, India. A lot of discussion happened on the selection and now more talks will go on after their loss against New Zealand in the warm-up game. That is quite natural with any Indian side of the past 20 years, because, for the world, India is the biggest place for the game as well as a powerhouse. India, like any other team, have their strengths and weaknesses. Their top three are the best in the business, based on just the volume of runs and hundreds they have scored, and more so for a special player called Virat Kohli, who has taken the world by storm since 2014. Now the question on everyone’s mind will be, is India too top heavy? My answer depend on how the middle-order plays. I have believed, in sport, opportunity creates players and many a time we judge individuals without giving them a fair run.
In the past, so many players have proved critics wrong and I firmly believe that the likes of K.L. Rahul and Vijay Shankar will step up on the big stage, and that too for their own pride and career.
M.S. Dhoni’s form, for me, will be crucial, and more crucial will be the way he approaches his batting. His form last year in England was poor, but he is coming out of the IPL in superb touch. The reason for that, I believe, is that he plays 20-over cricket without fear. He is very comfortable in the Chennai Super Kings atmosphere, where he is the boss, and it will be a challenge for the team management to create an atmosphere of fearlessness for him in this tournament, probably his last big one. I say this because India need a game changer in the middle.
I also believe in Kedar Jadhav. He is good, mentally strong and will not let the team down. He has shown that in the past—in pressure situations in India and Australia—and will be a strength in the middle-order. And it is very important for the middle-order to fire because, with the likes of Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami, the lower batting order is weak. They need their number six and seven to be in good form to succeed.
The Indian bowling, on the other hand, looks good and balanced. The fast bowling unit led by Bumrah and backed by Shami is at its best, and the spin of Chahal and Kuldeep will help India get wickets in the middle overs. This is where India is stronger than the rest of the teams. India’s spin power is the best in the competition, along with that of the Afghans, and this will allow Kohli to attack right through the 50 overs and pick wickets.
I would not look too much into the loss to New Zealand in the warmup game. Yes, it is a preparation for the main matches, but this Indian unit has so many world-class players in the 50-over format that they will put this behind them and come out all guns blazing.
I am looking forward to this World Cup more than any other before this, and I must say spin will play a huge part in any team’s success this year.
—the author is former India captain.