Australia hard to beat

The defending champion, India, has a strong batting line-up. On their day, captain M. S. Dhoni and Virat Kohli can tear any attack to shreds.-PTI

The format of the tournament dictates that after a month-long round robin phase, four teams from each group advance to the quarterfinals. It gives the big sides considerable room for error and practically ensures that the tournament proper begins only from the middle of March. By Shreedutta Chidananda.

Perhaps there is greater joy in the anticipation of a major sporting event than in the eventual beholding of it. In a year leading up to the World Cup, all one-day cricket assumes some significance; teams scramble to arrive at the perfect formula for success, while fans debate endlessly over squad selection. Even hastily-organised series, otherwise deemed irrelevant, carry some meaning, both for their protagonists and their audience.

Thus India’s monsoon trip to Bangladesh, despite bearing the strong quality of a tour for the reserves, must be seen as more than a mere footnote. Stuart Binny’s six for four in Mirpur — the best bowling figures by an Indian in ODIs — may have come against a doddering opponent on a moist pitch, but it wasn’t for nothing. Of the 15 who travelled over for the three-match series in June, only two — R. Vinay Kumar and Cheteshwar Pujara — do not figure in the 30-man long-list for the World Cup.

It is a sign of the comfortably settled nature of India’s squad, indicating that the foundation is in place with only the smaller details to be ironed out. It is what makes India one of the favourites for the World Cup. It thus came as no great surprise when the squad was announced earlier this month that only three of the eleven who played the 2011 final found a place. There was to be no dramatic comeback for Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Yuvraj Singh, Zaheer Khan, or Harbhajan Singh. It had been a year since Yuvraj played an ODI, nearly two since Gambhir and Sehwag did, and over three since Harbhajan did. If generations are measured in four-year World Cup cycles, then India has made a clean break with the previous one.

However, to a relatively inexperienced squad, conditions in Australia and New Zealand will offer a daunting challenge. India’s opening combination is still in flux, its bowlers are largely unproven overseas, and the ‘death’ overs remain an area of concern.

India has been grouped alongside Pakistan, South Africa, West Indies, Zimbabwe, Ireland and UAE in Group B. The format of the tournament dictates that after a month-long round robin phase, four teams from each group advance to the quarterfinals. It gives the big sides considerable room for error and practically ensures that the tournament proper begins only from the middle of March.

Like at the 2013 ICC Champions Trophy and the 2014 World T20, India’s engagements will begin with a match against Pakistan, in Adelaide. After a 3-0 ODI series defeat to Australia, what seemed like a chastening winter in the desert for Pakistan swiftly turned into a month of warm success. Younis Khan, immeasurably saddened by his omission from the one-day side (“Don’t select me, not even in Tests. I sacrifice my future”), hammered 468 runs from four innings in the Tests as Australia was routed, and walked into the provisional World Cup side.

The Test and ODI encounters with New Zealand have been more evenly contested, but the mood in the camp will be good. Saeed Ajmal’s bowling action is yet to be cleared, though. That will be the only major worry, but there are alternatives in Yasir Shah and Zulfiqar Babar. At any rate, there is a reliable fast-bowling group to fall back on.

South Africa looked in reasonably good shape until a visit to Australia in November ended in a 4-1 flogging. The Proteas were exposed as being overly reliant on Hashim Amla, A.B. de Villiers, Faf du Plessis, and Dale Steyn. Australia routinely rattled up huge totals, scoring freely in the death overs while South Africa’s batsmen faltered in the same area. The ongoing home series with West Indies, itself in some disarray after the players’ pay dispute, will offer a chance to fine-tune things.

It would, however, still be wise to place South Africa among the leading contenders. Amla, de Villiers and du Plessis have 10 hundreds and 12 fifties among them this calendar year and there is no reason to believe they will all fail.

The overwhelming favourite, and not just because it has the advantage of playing at home, is Australia.

A top six of Aaron Finch, David Warner, Shane Watson, Steven Smith, Glenn Maxwell, and George Bailey should make any bunch of bowlers deeply anxious. Should Michael Clarke be fit to play, he will likely feature at Bailey’s expense, lending greater strength to the spine of the team.

Also in Group A are Sri Lanka, England, co-host New Zealand, Afghanistan, and Scotland. After the World T20 triumph, Sri Lanka crossed an invisible but apparent barrier that impeded success at major tournaments. Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, who were borne on their colleagues’ shoulders at the Sher-e-Bangla Stadium in April, will retire from ODIs at the end of the World Cup. Jayawardene has already retired from Tests and T20s while Sangakkara has said he will play on in whites for some more time.

At the time of writing, Sangakkara is the heaviest scorer in ODIs in 2014, aggregating 1256 runs, while Jayawardene is sixth on that list with 846. The understated captain Angelo Mathews has had an excellent year with the bat (1244 runs), and it would be fitting if he could deliver the World Cup to bid his two seniors farewell.

England looks set to struggle yet again. Jos Buttler, Joe Root and Moeen Ali have shown that they are capable of some enterprise, but the hope they offer is minute.

New Zealand may not have done anything this year to suggest it is a serious challenger for the title, but it made the last four in 2007 and 2011 when it had been given little chance.

Should passage to the knock-outs be achieved (which is straightforward), a quarterfinal match at home is assured. There on in, nothing is predictable.