Friday, 13 February 2015

Here comes the World Cup

Friday, 13 February 2015
The World Cup is finally upon us! The first matches come tonight/today/tomorrow (delete as appropriate), the first games of a six-week long competition, concluding on 29th March. For all the ICC's attempts after the last tournament to 'slim down' the 2015 edition, the format has stayed the same as in 2011: fourteen teams - the ten full members and four associates. It's the last time out for this format before the new, 'streamlined' format for 2019: ten teams only, giving less chance for associate teams on the big stage. Personally, and like many others, I'm not a fan of such a change: even if the tournament is rather long, and associates don't have a great chance of winning the whole thing, why would you not want the sport's flagship tournament to help expand the game further and give a chance to some more teams? And associates have provided some fantastic moments in recent tournaments - the performances of Ireland, winning against teams like England and Pakistan, come straight to mind - as well as some of the great stories, like Afghanistan's first appearance at the Cup now in 2015. I'm no cricket administrator, but it just seems a shame to me.

But on to the present, and it's a tournament that looks close to call. South Africa to me look like the best team, particularly after that stunning century of AB De Villiers just a few weeks ago, but memories of previous tournaments would tell you otherwise. I'm not saying they'll choke again, but you never know what will happen to them once they're in the knockout stages. It's always something that you have to watch. The co-hosts, Australia and New Zealand, look to be the other immediate front runners for the tournament. New Zealand's knockout record may be largely similar to that of South Africa's, but they seem to have got away with it by having the underdog label at previous tournaments. Now though, they've found form at a good time and, with a good line up and a home advantage, should be well in the mix at the end.

Then there are the teams that you just don't know what to expect to happen. Pakistan always look like they could do anything; England always get my hopes up with one brilliant match, a few tense finishes, and then a middle order collapse for a total under 200; Sri Lanka and India certainly have the talent but not necessarily the form or the conditions. If they can get some form together, they should all be in with a chance. Drama looks to have doomed West Indies again and it didn't look good for them in the warm ups - a terrible batting display against England and a very close victory over Scotland - but even so, Chris Gayle always has the potential to destroy a team on any given day.

I don't want to get my hopes up too much over England, for they always have such a great potential to disappoint. But I have noticed a new sense of optimism in the past few weeks, even in the media. They didn't perform terribly in the tri-series beforehand, though they did have a pretty horrible defeat in the final. But they are improving. The batting lineup has been settled which is always a boost, the batsmen now having their roles and not the constant pressure that comes with being in and out of the team - though Bopara will be under a lot of pressure to get some runs in the opening group stages with Ballance waiting in the wings. Their strength though looks like the new ball bowling, something that should be helped by the conditions, and especially what they'll find in New Zealand. Two new balls is a bonus in this respect, meaning there should be swing for longer. They should be able to make it past the group stages at least, then who knows what could happen in the knockout rounds. Or they could be knocked out in their last group match against Afghanistan, they're that kind of team. I'll stay optimistic.

Really, we are just entering a prelude. There are 42 matches before the knockouts begin, a month of cricket ahead, which - whilst by no means unimportant - makes it easy to see why casual observers and even cricket fans would see the whole thing as rather bloated. It's a constant battle for the best format that will go on for a long time. And in any case it's going to be tough to watch as much as I want to anyway, the battle against timezones being the eternal struggle of any cricket fan. But I'll do my best. I'll stay in it for the long haul, because there should be an interesting tournament along the way.

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