World Cup 2019: The final third - Every victory has to be earned, says Raghav Sand

From upsets and washouts to complacency and collapses, Raghav Sand makes sense of how things stand in the World Cup ahead of the end of the group stage.

It's time to assess team performances and confidence ahead of the business end of the Cricket World Cup.   -  Getty Images

The concluding set of matches at the 2019 Cricket World Cup bring along with them the usual ifs and buts familiar to later stages of a world sporting event.

The turn of events has made pundits and ardent fans, alike, to recalibrate their assessment with respect to the teams which will feature in the semifinals, including the match-ups and be just two steps from quadrennial cricketing bliss.

Seeding, form, individual capability, home advantage and most other ingredients go for a complete spin in a World Cup, which has a completely different complexion and dynamics to a bilateral series. Some teams come here for coronation and others for redemption.

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Wherever there is lack of respect for the opposition, inevitably an upset is staged. Taking a cue from past unceremonious exits of heavyweights, we may be left to believe that teams like Bangladesh have earned their respect but given the results at the league stage, it seems some teams haven’t learnt their lessons, the hard way too.

This arrogant complacency is on show, when, teams seeded much below usurp pre-tournament favourites.

Sri Lanka defeating hosts England, came as a surprise to many but not to all of those who keep a tab on the evolution of the game. The latter fell short in a paltry chase of 233 and the sour memories of a nine-wicket victory by Lankans at the 2015 edition came to the fore.

Nations such as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh feature low on almost every conceivable metrics, but, they sure take a lot of pride in their cricket, as it’s the only source of a rare nationwide jubilation.

Sri Lanka, have been part of two of the four abandoned matches so far, earning a point each for the wash-outs. The table would have reckoned a different story altogether as these wash-outs were against fellow Asians, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

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England have a fight on their hands, and, their qualification to the last four is contingent one part on their own games against New Zealand and India and, secondly on how Bangladesh and Pakistan go about their business till the conclusion of league stage.

One saving grace for England is that, one of the two remaining games Bangladesh and Pakistan have scheduled among themselves and their contest will cancel out the prospect of dual surge. Therefore, finally it’s only one of the two who will be on the tail of three lions.

England surely have to win one of the two of their remaining fixtures against the Kiwis and India.

Though all this permutation and combination will be countervailed if, Pakistan persist their resurgence and end with tally of higher points than England – it being the most plausible result.

Nine games is a lot of time, yet, it may seem like fixtures came and went thick and fast. World Cup is no place to hide or perfect the game, it’s a platform to exhibit true potential.

It was back in 1992, when England made it to the semifinal stage, only to be losing finalists at the hands of Pakistan, team that can once again halt their march to the pinnacle of the sport.

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It’s since then, we have never seen them recover and re-establish supremacy after the fabled prominence of making the finals of 1979 and 1987 WC.

Anything less than a semifinal berth will be appraised as a wreck and may lead to an obvious implosion at the ECB.

Pakistan are being true to their nature, bewildering and puzzling at the same time. They seem to be playing under tremendous scrutiny and criticism from their fans and media alike.

The Prime Minister, taking out time from bailout negotiations with the IMF or finalising another soft loan from another Arab ally, is not far behind to suggest which course to embrace if the outcome of toss is favourable. 

The enduring abuses and toxic remarks about everything from choice of dress at the captains’ meet, to dragging family to vent resentment and not stopping even at body shaming, show the dark side of social media.

Such events prompted their skipper to admit candidly, that, these utterances have a deep psychological ramifications on players beyond the World Cup. Though all this could change if Pakistan advance to the semis and beyond, and, these same men will be hailed as heroes, a roller coaster ride every Pakistani cricketer has been on a plenty of times and will see them a few more times before they hang up their boots.

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West Indies and South Africa have been the biggest disappointments of the Cup so far.

Earlier Duckworth-Lewis took part of the blame for South Africa’s ouster, but in this edition they have only themselves to blame. The sheer lack of intent from the Proteas batsmen is baffling. Though, they may be joined by England if the four matches, featuring England vs New Zealand, England vs India, Bangladesh vs Pakistan and India vs Bangladesh yield a surprise.

A prompt from former South Africa skipper, Ab de Villiers, to come out of retirement didn’t go down well with the team and had a sniff of disrespect for the current squad, and rightfully so he was politely sent a rejoinder in the negative.

Australia, who have booked their berth in the Semifinal, seem to be deliberately, playing at a lower gear than they can – this was seen in the loss to India; rest has been smooth sailing. They have won six games with five of them coming batting first. A fact the opposing captain should keep in consideration, if he wins the toss.

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David Warner seems to have mellowed down and is in supreme touch with the bat and seems to have gained a step or two in the fielding. He is jokingly now hailed as ‘Humbull’ (blend of Humble and Bull).

Steve Smith his fellow colluder, also seems to be a calmer version of his old self. I wonder all this is here to stay or is just an apologetic gesture seeking the fans’ embrace, from their past mischief, for which both of them spent a year away from the international game.

Finch is playing the perfect captain's World Cup, with runs, on field leadership and his calmness on the surface is uncharacteristic of an Aussie skipper.

Big players - the likes of enigmatic Glenn Maxwell have yet to step on the gas which will have a positive effect when law of averages sets in.

Bowling and field have been flawless, lending a hand in defending all kinds of totals. All this should not come as a surprise to anyone, as Australia know how and when to peak at an ICC event.

The past twelve months, its turmoil, rebuilding, change in personnel and core management, nothing of those sort seem to matter.

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India have had a comfortable campaign so far, with only hiccups being the injury to Shikhar Dhawan and the toil against Afghanistan. The hat-trick by Mohammed Shami against the Afghans rescued India from the blushes. With last four league games cramped in ten days, their task is well cut out and the team management would be shrewd to rotate some fringe players without tinkering the core. The qualification to last four seems like a foregone conclusion, with formality of league position needing the approbation.

Bangladesh have an outside chance and it’s time teams start giving them consideration, which they have earned by repeatedly showcasing their capability to stage an upset and steamroll teams who treat them as feeble opponent.

Two standout games from Bangladesh’s perspective were the games against West Indies and South Africa. In the former, the Bangla tigers successfully chased the target of 322 with seven wickets and fifty one balls in hand. This match saw 41 wides, with West Indies bowling twenty five of those. In the latter game, they showed another facet when they, restricted the Proteas short in chase of 330, playing out the full fifty overs.

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New Zealand, have one the best all-round squads and can do one better than their final loss at the MCG to Australia, in 2015.

Initial signs have shown all the potential and even in the loss to Pakistan, their lower middle order showed resolve.

The factor that is in their favour is the man at the helm, Kane Williamson, who is in complete contrast to his compatriot, and skipper at the preceding edition, Brendon McCullum. It’s not just the change in personnel, but personality and temperament too.

The Kiwis have played, probably two out of the three memorable games of this World Cup so far. One featured West Indies, when defending a total and late resurgence from a bulldozing Carlos Braithwaite, they held the nerves. The second was the encounter with their traditional rugby adversaries, South Africa when the skipper along with tail, crossed the line showing why the former greats hold him in such high regards. The third exceptional game being the India and Afghanistan contest, when the fabled yet fragile middle order of Indian batting line-up, exposed a chink in its armour.

The New Zealand and Pakistan match deserves special mention when Babar Azam, finally came of age and made the world notice his ton in the winning cause. Here, too, the middle order of New Zealand reinstated faith in the team, that, when the time comes in the later part of the World Cup, they can be counted upon. Rain played spoilsport, when it washed out the India-New Zealand game – a duel which would have given the glimpse of the preparedness of two of the top three in contention for the cup.

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But this contest may probably take place at the knock-outs, fingers crossed. Afghanistan didn’t just come up to make up the numbers and give away each opponent two points; they have come to show how quickly and correctly have the picked up the nuances of the old sport which they took up playing professionally not long ago. The only games they capitulated were against New Zealand and South Africa.

In their match against England, the Afghans, showed determination in their unsuccessful chase, playing out the full fifty overs. This instance, if taken in the right spirit, has the potential for better things to come for the war torn nation. Duckworth-Lewis, made life difficult in the contest with Lankans but, even in this game Afghans did more right than wrong.

Weather has its own ways and being in the UK, one can’t resist the temptation of inescapable conversation about the meteorological ramifications. Here’s hoping for clear skies and full games.

Though semifinals and final have reserve day; and lastly the qualification to the final based on league standing if semi-final gets effected even on the reserve day. If, even the reserve day of the final gets washed out then, joint winners would be declared. This is an outcome, no one foresees, but we sure have few enticing, close to dozen matches in prospect.

The writer is an insurance professional.

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