Despite the heartbreak at Manchester for Indian fans, Cricket World Cup 2019 has been glorious

Half the participating teams in the World Cup were from South Asia. And while none of the five teams managed to reach the finals, and some like Sri Lanka were below par, they played glorious cricket

Despite the heartbreak at Manchester for Indian fans, Cricket World Cup 2019 has been glorious

Ashis Ray

Will history repeat itself? That was the question on the lips on Tuesday of those who were eyewitnesses to India’s epic ambush of the West Indies in the 1983 Cricket World Cup.

Virat Kohli-led squad’s advance through the preliminary phase in 2019 had, in fact, been more emphatic and less stressful than the journey of Kapil Dev’s merry men in 1983. But subsequently eerily similar, with a deja vu of a penultimate examination at Old Trafford, Manchester. The only difference: the barrier 36 years ago were England in glorious sunshine, the hurdle this time were New Zealand in a rain interrupted interface.

The International Cricket Council (ICC), organisers of the World Cup, experienced a dip in fortuity midway through the current competition, when the fickle English weather played spoilsport and washed out four fixtures, including India’s with New Zealand at Trent Bridge, Nottingham.

But providence could not have smiled more on the governors of the game with the suspense in the tournament being sustained until late evening of the concluding day of the league stage.

It was only at the 12th hour that it emerged that India, not Australia (who lost their last match in the round robin to South Africa), would top the points table and meet the fourth qualifier for the semi-finals, New Zealand, while the second and third finishers – Australia and England respectively – would confront each other in the other encounter among the select quartet.

Although executed in the adverse circumstances of having to write a preview of the championship three months in advance of its commencement in my book Cricket World Cup: The Indian Challenge, I stand by the assertion made therein:

“If truth be told, never in the 44-year history of the Cricket World Cup (CWC) have India looked as formidable in a run-up to this competition as they do in the 12th edition of the tournament. Notably, India got the better of the hosts in the one-day series in England in 2018 and this was in fact in the month of July. Historically, bowling has been India’s weakness, the only exception being 1983, when their quicker bowlers perfectly suited for the environment in England, pulled off the greatest upset in the catalogue of the CWC.”

“Presently, India’s bowling is their distinct strength, with unprecedented sharpness in pace and mystery in spin at their disposal. They would also have an all-rounder who can be entrusted to bowl his quota of overs without too many worries, indeed with occasional bonuses, and bat fearlessly.”

“Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma figuring as the top two in the ICC batsmen’s ranking is a categoric reflection of India’s potential up the order. But why the safety valve of an experienced Ajinkya Rahane was not retained after February 2018 is quite baffling. Kedar Jadhav and Ambati Rayudu may have risen above Rahane in the rankings but only because of a diminution in data on the latter.”

“It’s the depth, incisiveness and variety in the Indian bowling that has pitchforked them as the side to beat. Since the last competition, Jasprit Bumrah with his awkward, unorthodox action, his natural angle slanting into a right-hander and leaving a left-hander, not to mention his concealed pace has become the world’s highest-ranked bowler in ODIs. He is a wicket-taker who is also economical and with his lethal yorker an asset in the concluding overs. With Bhuvneshwar Kumar, whose swing bowling is highly suited for England, and the pacey and penetrative Mohammed Shami, the threesome could pose serious questions to wielders of the willow.”

“The conundrum for India could be who to prefer between the chinaman and googly bowler Kuldeep Yadav and the traditional leg-spinner Yuzvendra Chahal who occupy the 4th and 5th positions in the ICC bowling rankings respectively.”

India have performed with remarkable professionalism. But their team selection has not been the "horses-for-courses" policy that coach Ravi Shastri proclaimed before departing Indian shores.

Three specialist seamers in an XI are generally advisable in English conditions, especially in the first half of the summer. But the Indians came, it would appear, with a premeditated plan of utilising two wrist spinners, thinking they would bamboozle opponents. This was questionable strategy on surfaces with limited turn and bounce.

English pitches are normally not as hard as their counterparts in the southern hemisphere; and they are not known to spin much until warmer weather and the wear and tear after a long season conspire in August. India got away with their ploy until England exposed threadbare its fallacy by plundering 160 runs off Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav’s 20 overs at Edgbaston, Birmingham, traditionally and even in this tourney more helpful to seamers than spinners.

Also, excessive experimenting can be unsettling and is best avoided in a situation as crucial as a World Cup. Chasing down 338 runs was undoubtedly a tall task; yet, Mahendra Dhoni and Kedar Jadhav raised eyebrows by easing off in their effort to do so against England.

In India’s hero-worship environment, Dhoni’s track record seems to render him immune to censure; so Jadhav was on the face of it was made the scapegoat, with Dinesh Karthik replacing him for games thereafter up to the semi-final.

Karthik averaged 30.63 with a strike rate of 73.76; whereas Jadhav’s corresponding figures were 43.24 (quite exceptional for one-day internationals) and 100.80. Therefore, the substitution was, to say the least, unconvincing.

Even Ravindra Jadeja with statistics of 29.92 and 84.63 would have been a more justified introduction at number seven in the batting order.

That said, India brushed aside South Africa in their opening engagement and got the better of a rejuvenated Australian side to unmistakably set out their stall.

There was, admittedly, a narrow escape against minnows Afghanistan. But Pakistan and Sri Lanka were predictably put in their places and even Bangladesh’s resistance was resiliently overcome. The shift in the balance of cricketing power is such that half the participants in the World Cup were from South Asia. Indeed, what British military offensives could never accomplish, their soft power has achieved: Afghanistan has surrendered to cricket!

But the fact that none of India’s neighbours entered the knockout stage is testimony to a continuing decline in the potency of Pakistan, champions in 1992 under Imran Khan, now the nation’s prime minister, and Sri Lanka, winners in 1996.

Pakistan’s production of talent as if on an assembly line has long ceased, perhaps because of a fearful climate in which a section of violent extremists consider cricket to be un-Islamic.

Their late surge was in vain as New Zealand pipped them to the post on a better net run rate. As for the Sri Lankans, the cavernous void left behind by the retirement of all-time greats like Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Muttiah Muralitharan has been impossible to fill.

A silver lining for the subcontinent, though, was the singular all-round brilliance of Bangladesh’s Shakib Al Hasan. With two centuries, five fifties and a score of 40 plus in his eight appearances batting at number three, he transpired to be the most consistent batsman of the competition, not to mention his crafty left-arm spin. Indeed, he fairly reinforced his status as the best all-rounder in world cricket.

However, the most thundering batting display has emanated from Rohit Sharma, who by hammering five hundreds established a new record for three figure innings in a World Cup, lowering Sangakkara’s attainment of four such knocks in 2015.

With an aggregate of 647 runs, with two outings to spare, he was also closing in on Sachin Tendulkar’s compilation of 673 runs in the 2003 World Cup.

The standout bowling exhibition has come from Mitchell Starc, the highest wicket-taker and bowler of the tournament four years ago, and the Indian sensation Jasprit Bumrah.

Both have the ability of unleashing toe-crushing yorkers in the death overs, which paid rich dividends. They have been economical and threatening, as well, in their new ball and mid-innings spells. In short, a perfect package for ODIs, which others have been hard put to match.

But it needs to be mentioned that Barbados-born Jofra Archer, an inspired choice by England, with his deceptive pace, and Lockie Ferguson, with his extra velocity and vertical take-off, have also caught the eye.

International tournaments can be unsuccessful if fancied hosts make an early exit. Thus, bookmakers’ favourites England’s presence in the last four was a bonus and tonic as far as indigenous interest was concerned.

In fact, the home side did well to beat India and New Zealand in succession under pressure of their progress being uncertain after unexpected defeats to Pakistan and Sri Lanka. A semi-final against their age-old rivals Australia also energised English supporters; but they are unlikely to be satisfied without erasing the shortcoming of the game’s inventors never winning the World Cup.

Modern cricket is essentially underwritten by sponsorship and television revenues. Consequently, traffic through turnstiles has become less crucial to its well-being. At the same time, there’s nothing more heart-warming than the sight of packed stadiums.

In this respect, the 5th World Cup in England has been particularly pleasing. The ICC and the England & Wales Cricket Board have Indians and people of Indian origin to thank, for theirs has been the biggest contribution to the coffers. Indeed, in their meeting with India at Edgbaston a sea of blue Team India shirts overwhelmingly embellished the stands.

It could well have been Baroda and not Birmingham!

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