The biggest spectacle in the cricketing world kicks off in England towards the end of this week. With the Lok Sabha elections coming to a close, full attention of the Indian media and a large percentage of Indian population across the world would be focused on the happenings in cricket grounds spread over various parts of the Old Blighty. Indian fans would be rooting for the victory of the national side; there would be prayers on the lips of the faithful while some would even go the extent of offering special poojas for the side. In short, cricket fever is set to grip the country from May 30 onwards which would hold it in thrall till well after the last ball is bowled in the championship.
The most obvious question presently doing the rounds among the followers of the game would relate to who would emerge as champion. It is always risky to make a prediction in this regard as so many things can change once the matches begin. Further, cricket history is replete with too many upsets where the underdogs have prevailed over their more fancied opponents. However, there exist certain critical factors which usually have a great bearing on deciding the winner in a championship of this nature.
The first and most obvious one is the presence of a side which is streets ahead of others in their overall strength. The West Indies team during the 1979 championship and Australia in the 2003 and 2007 editions are prime examples of outfits that were far superior than the rest of the participants in all departments of the game. This was evident during their performances as well as the manner in which they pummelled all the opposition that came their way. The West Indies side had developed some cracks by 1983, which were not apparent to everyone, till India exposed them to the hilt to register a shock victory.
It is evident that none of the teams taking part in this edition can claim to possess the firepower and resources that would give them an overwhelming dominance over others. In such instances, the important aspects that decide the fortunes of sides are format of the tournament, playing conditions and form of individual players. Each of them is as important as the rest and, more significantly, have a bearing on each other. It would be interesting to analyse these factors and the manner in which they could impact the progress of the teams in the tournament.
The format of the tournament has undergone a change this time, with all participating teams required to play against each other in the league stage. The practice of grouping the sides into various pools and the most successful ones qualifying for the knockout stage has been discarded this time around. This is a more fair and open system as it ensures that all teams are required to play against each other and only the best four would move to the next level. The flip side is that this would prolong the duration of the championship, as more matches are required to be played.
It would be worthwhile to recollect the happenings in the 1992 World Cup when the same format was employed. In that edition, Pakistan emerged triumphant after a slow and unsteady start that saw them slip to almost the brink of elimination. England and New Zealand, who lost in the final and semifinals respectively to Pakistan, were in peak form and fitness during the league phase but had started getting jaded by the time the last four stage began. Hence this format, for all its fairness, places a heavy demand on the stamina and physical conditioning of the players. Pakistan were not the fittest of all sides, but were fortunate enough to peak at the right time. Thus, only those teams that possess either the endurance skills to withstand the rigours of the long tournament or are blessed with ample doses of good fortune to peak at the precise time can expect to go all the way.
Regarding the playing conditions, the International Cricket Council (ICC) would go to any lengths to ensure that pitches prepared are flat ones full of runs. However, pitch forms only one of the many elements which constitute playing conditions in this game, with the other relevant ones being cloud cover, temperatures and presence of rain. The length of the championship, which stretches from end of May till middle of July, ensures that it straddles both the first and second halves of the English summer. Traditionally, the first half is considered to be cold, wet and given to more clouds and rain while the latter portion of summer is usually warmer, drier and sunnier. Thus, seam bowlers find the conditions more to their liking during the first half while the second half yields better results for the spinners. Teams from Asian countries, who possess more ammunition in the spin bowling department, have found it easier to adapt to the playing conditions in England during the second half of summer. However, what has confounded pundits is the fact that last summer was one of the warmest and driest in England’s history. Any repeat of that this time around would give a definite advantage to teams that have quality spinners in their ranks. On the other hand, if weather Gods decide to bless the country with showers right through the summer, swing and seam bowlers would lick their lips.
Dip in form
It is not unknown for teams to lose form once the championship commences. Australia, then reigning champions, were the favourites to win the title in 1992, but suffered a defeat at the hands of co-hosts New Zealand in the first match, a reverse from which they did not recover. Similarly, the Indians left for the 2007 World Cup with high hopes, but lost their way in the very first match where they lost to Bangladesh, which led to the team crashing out of the championship in the league stage itself. If one goes through the history of championship, it would be seen that all sides have suffered such reversals in fortune at least once. The worst aspect of these sudden dips in performance levels is that the very nature of the tournament acts against a quick recovery. It was not that India was a weak side in 2007. However, they were so bereft of ideas that they could not even put up a decent fight in their last pool match against Sri Lanka, which they were required to win to progress to the next stage.
Finally, the World Cup is the biggest stage in cricket and hence creates a pressure cooker atmosphere that can test the nerves of even the most experienced of players. A study of the sides that have won the title would show that invariably they were ones that were better led. Captains who have commanded World Cup winning campaigns have not only led their side with panache and flair, but also come up with individual performances at critical junctures during the tournament. Clive Lloyd’s 102 in the 1975 final, Kapil Dev’s unbeaten 175 against Zimbabwe in 1983, Steve Waugh’s undefeated 120 against South Africa in 1999, and Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s 91 not out against Sri Lanka in 2011 final are examples of such instances where captains have single-handedly turned around the fortunes of their teams in crucial stages of the championship. Thus, the performances of captains would hold immense significance in deciding the course and fate of the campaigns of the participating sides.
Based on these parameters, who stands as favourite to win this edition? Being a blatant patriot and an incorrigible optimist, I would place my bet on the Virat Kohli-led Indian side, despite the question marks that have emerged of late on the form of certain key players. The other three sides that appear capable of making it to the semifinals based on the above criteria are Australia, England and South Africa. And should any of these four sides suffer a sudden loss of form, I would pick the West Indies as the team having the potential to make it to the last four stage.
Cricket is a game of glorious uncertainties and it is this innate feature of the game that makes it all the more fascinating. As action begins in England, here is wishing all the lovers of the game an exciting, exhilarating and entertaining World Cup.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)