In the tournament preview, it was argued that the good side / poor side imbalance of the two seven-team groups would lead to “a strong sense of a month having been wasted”. Well, that’s been the case in terms of which teams failed to qualify: Zimbabwe, Kenya and Canada from Group A, Bangladesh, Ireland and the Netherlands from Group B. So far, so straightforward.
Group A was something of a pointless exercise – literally so for Kenya, who plunged from semi-finalist status eight years ago to played six, lost six this time round. The top part of the group was glorified net practice, mere jostling for position.
Many of the matches were stupidly one-sided: New Zealand twice won by ten wickets (against Kenya and Zimbabwe), Sri Lanka beat Canada by 210 runs. Even the mini Tri-series between the minnows failed to produce any close contests: Zimbabwe beat Canada and Kenya by 175 runs and 161 respectively, Canada beat Kenya by five wickets.
The markedly stronger Group B, however, was a different matter. The predicted qualifiers again made it through, but the group provided almost a tournament’s worth of entertainment in itself – largely due to the efforts of England. Rarely can such a sequence of crazy, umbrella-chewing games have been played in top-level sport – recent Scottish football qualification campaigns had nothing on this. Thus far, almost all the enthralling matches have involved England – winning narrowly, losing spectacularly, or enjoying that rare bird among cricket results, the tie.
As the BBC’s Jonathan Agnew noted after qualification had been secured by the (inevitably tight-squeeze-ish) win against the West Indies, there is no point in Andy Flower, Andrew Strauss and co worrying about the Irish defeat: Kevin O’Brien’s onslaught was a once-in-a-lifetime, force-of-nature innings, against which any team would have wilted.
O’Brien’s name will be added to the list of extraordinary one-off batting assaults – a list stretching from Ted Alletson to Nathan Astle. It didn’t provide much overall information, but it did add hugely to the atmosphere of what already appears to be a happier, more enjoyable – for players and crowds alike – tournament than the 2007 edition in the West Indies.
The Bangladesh defeat, however, was different. Losing straightforwardly to a team that could only muster 58 against the West Indies and 78 against South Africa really shouldn’t happen. As in the close shave against the Dutch, a tired-looking England outfit seemed uncertain in terms of tactics and friable when things start to go wrong.
Despite all the English brinksmanship and crowdpleasing, the match of the tournament thus far was the South Africa–India encounter at Nagpur. Seen by various pundits (the present writer included) as a trial run for the final, this was a remarkable affair. Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar and Gautam Gambir swaggered through the first 39 overs, racking up 267 for 1, at which stage it was simply a question of how far above 350 they could reach. But nine overs, nine wickets and just 29 runs later, South Africa had a target to chase. And chase it they did, with Robin Peterson – rapidly becoming a real star – thumping 4624 when they needed 13 from the final over.
Now, with just eight teams left and an unfussy knockout format, it’s engagingly open. Australia’s defeat by Pakistan in their final group match not only ended a 12-year, 34-match unbeaten run, but also meant that every team had lost at least once. India and South Africa remain the strongest, best-balanced outfits, but the field has bunched.
All four quarter-finals are intriguing. First – today, in Mirpur – comes Pakistan–West Indies, which has the air of two teams vying for a losing semi-final slot. Chris Gayle, on his day, is the most destructive batsman in world cricket, but his day comes only occasionally. Darren Sammy’s team is the flimsiest of the eight, having qualified courtesy of wins against the weaklings.
Pakistan remain, as ever, an enigma, and could yet march through and win the whole thing. Shahid Afridi’s batting mostly misfires these days, but his haul of 17 wickets, the most by any bowler, has helped greatly. Pakistan are a good bits-and-pieces side, and ought to reach the semis.
There they would meet the winner of India–Australia. On paper – and how strange it is to write this – Australia are very much the underdogs. Their batting, even with Michael Hussey now back in the team, stutters more than Colin Firth. The pace attack, Brett Lee excepted, looks uncertain in the radar department. India, by contrast, have a tremendous top order, with Tendulkar seemingly destined to “do a Boycott” and reach a lifetime landmark – his 100th international 100 – on his home ground in the final.
Yuvraj Singh is having a good tournament, while Virat Kohli is a classy strokemaker. But there are doubts. The lower-order hitters, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Yusuf Pathan, haven’t really sparked, the bowling is insipid at times, and that collapse from a position of huge strength against South Africa might come to be seen as telling.
The construction site that is the Australian team could yet grind out a win – or three – with Ricky Ponting hitting form one last time and the team coalescing around him. Tim Nielsen, the Australian coach, described Thursday’s Ahmedabad game as “a mini-grand final”. But it’s hard to see his team progressing, and an India–Pakistan semi looks likely. That would put Old Firm tensions into perspective: no one at Parkhead or Ibrox has access to nuclear weapons, after all.
The third quarter-final, New Zealand versus South Africa, will also be fascinating. The Proteas have the best attack (Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Imran Tahir, with Peterson proving to be a “finisher” with ball as well as bat), and have moved to overall-favourite status. Their batting is in no doubt: AB de Villiers, averaging 106, was born to play in the world cup, and he is supported by a strong cast. In 11 days’ time the “choker” tag could well have been seen off by sheer skill and strength.
That said, New Zealand were dark horses at the start and are an even stronger outside bet now. Losses to Australia and Sri Lanka were offset by solid wins, and their extraordinary late-innings blitz against Pakistan was the undoubted Group A highlight (but probably said more about Afridi’s team than Daniel Vettori’s).
Then there is Sri Lanka–England. It’s to be played in Colombo, and home advantage could prove decisive. If Kumar Sangakkara wins the toss and helps his team rack up 320-plus, that should be enough. But England – the wayward and currently dropped James Anderson aside – have mostly been a handy bowling unit, with Tim Bresnan, James Tredwell and Graeme Swann performing well. Their having been joined by a bloke named Jade seems curious, however.
The batting has just been on the healthy side of curate’s egg status, with the ultra-consistent Jonathan Trott and the patchier-but-classier Strauss nos.2 and 3 behind Sangakkara in the tournament run-scorers list.
England, though, need to get their batting and bowling departments having good days together, not alternating like weather-house figures. Just as significant, however, might be their battle-hardened status after the run of tight games. Writing in the Guardian before the final group matches, former England coach Duncan Fletcher had this to say: “If they qualify England will be a dangerous team to come up against. They can take a lot of confidence from the fact that they are used to playing under the pressure of knowing that they will be knocked out if they lose. Other sides are going to have to readjust to that change of pace, which is a sharp switch to have to make when you have been playing soft games in the group stages. England have quite an advantage because of that.”
That seems a reasonable assessment. Although England might quietly regard pre-tournament expectations as having been met were they to lose in Colombo, just now they are in a remarkably strong psychological position. Whether they have it in them to push on and win the trophy for the first time remains to be seen.