Wednesday, February 9, 2011

ICC Cricket World Cup 2011: Group A Preview

The Group stage of this the 2011 edition of the ICC Cricket World Cup provides, as opposed to the format of the previous one, a more spacious berth for consistency. It also seems a much better way of going about eliminating teams. Last time round, the ‘Super 8’ format with four groups, each with four teams, had 2 teams advancing to the next stage. This meant that the one dark-horse in the group had the chance to use a heaven-sent day to cause a single upset that would propel them into the next stage – which ended up happening too – with the premature ousting of both Pakistan and India, two major crowd-pulling teams. Therefore have the organizers realized, this time round, that as much as it is important to lend a hand to minnows to use the big stage to state their cause for existence, there is a greater risk to the integrity of a genuinely competitive tourney.

At a glance, severed from current form and team structure, the teams in Group A are quite easy to call. You’d say Australia any day mate, if you’d been living under a rock, getting your cricketing news via shoddily-fashioned wooden TV antennae. Recent developments have displaced Australia so that it would be unwise for them to labour under any misguided notions of unquestionable superiority. For their companion teams, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Canada and Kenya, they are no longer the team to fear above all. And thank the Holy Spirit of W.G. Grace for that.

Ranking the 7 teams is an exercise highly prone to backfiring – especially given the aura of the big tournament, which could weigh down upon otherwise solid performers. But we humans live on air, water and speculation, so here goes:
1. The third-ranked Sri Lanka merits a higher seeding leading into this tournament. For one, they are armed with familiar conditions as well as victorious memories of the 1996 World Cup. And having wrapped up the West Indies at home, and Australia in their own hunting ground, they will be the form favourites. If Arjuna Ranatunga is to be taken seriously (despite his obviously partisan outlook), the Lankans are the firm favourites, along with India, to lift the jug, and for now, to advance to the quarter-finals, as no worse than team A2. 

2. Australia’s ratings, which had been dampened in the recent past, will have stormed upwards this month, propelled by the 6-1 victory over visitors England. A re-invented Shane Watson, with his combustible batting and incisive bowling, holds the key for them. Injury-stricken, and time having robbed them of their bigwigs, Australia will have to invoke their source to replicate their triple feat once more. But surging into the quarter-finals should not be a matter of much concern if they consider the group matches as a seamless continuation of the series gone by.

3. Pakistan, sundered, as is its wont, by controversy, will look to regain stability before its first match against Kenya, who can be a potentially harmful minnow if encountered without having your wits about you. Coming off a 3-2 series win over New Zealand will help them repose faith in their current side, robbed of the services of the Lords Three. Captain Shahid Afridi will be prevailed upon to provide sharp blasts along with Abdul Razzaq, both of whom can swing matches on their own steam. Consistency from the level-headed Umar Akmal, stalwarts Younus Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq will have to mitigate Pakistan’s tendency to display excellence on a day, and abject mediocrity on another. 

4. New Zealand is a team whom it usually is inadvisable to judge on current form. What they thrive on is a consistency borne of determination, and a blissful blindness to their ebbing fortunes. Their collective open mind makes them a contender in every match no matter the past. Having said that, the team’s current run of defeats – including the miserable Bangladesh tour – will hamper its chances, with one of the minnows becoming empowered to exploit their fallibility, even if New Zealand stands its own ground. Martin Guptill has slowly, but surely, ensconced himself at the top of the order and will be looked to to provide sturdy starts that can be converted into launching pads for the explosive likes of Jesse Ryder, Ross Taylor, Brendon McCullum and others down the order. Daniel Vettori, one of the most able captains of the era, holds the team’s bowling reins; his immaculate variations tend to force oppositions to make heavy weather of reasonable targets. He will rely on Tim Southee and Kyle Mills, who evince the likelihood of being successful in the subcontinent, to fill Shane Bond’s boots. 

5. Zimbabwe usually hold the underdog status in every group stage match. Not quite full-fledged, not quite as small a fry as Canada or Kenya, they are the most liable to cause a stir and challenge the other four teams. A team which utilizes momentum to its benefit, they will rue Australia being their first fixture, to unsettle whom for a second time, after the T20 World Cup, may be a tall ask. Nonetheless, they can score some valuable points against the other two minnows, Canada and Kenya. Its batsmen can play the big innings against potent attacks, Brendan Taylor’s recent 145 against the Proteas being an instance, and Charles Coventry also having displayed the ability to score big. Still, it may be futile, given the more just format which allows four teams to advance, to expect Zimbabwe to cause more than the one upset.

6. Jimmy Kamande commandeers a Kenyan side infused with youthful talent off late. Having secured a victory in their first warm-up game against the Netherlands, if they use the momentum to overcome West Indies on Saturday, their self-confidence may pose a threat to the other two teams of its bracket as well as perhaps an unsettled Pakistan or New Zealand. Steve Tikolo – whose presence in the side, after he had led a player strike earlier this year, was announced by the run-a-ball century he made in the first warm-up game – will be a key player to watch out for in a largely uncapped side.

7. Canada’s matches being so scheduled that it will face the group’s two strongest teams on either end of their itinerary, will allow neither any early momentum nor a strong finish. This could be a shame, with the team having ample players of subcontinent origin not being abetted by a fortunate schedule. 

Each team will have 6 goes at securing wins. Three wins – allowing for one upset against one of the three minnows, and even two losses against one of the other three – should be enough to push through to the next round. Disclaimer being: “Anything can happen”, Sri Lanka is likely to romp into the second stage. B4 (fourth place in Group B) beware!


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