The World Cup is coming to Bangladesh for the first time. The 2011 tournament is also expected to be the most competitive tournament in over a decade. As many as five teams can claim a reasonable shot at winning the Cup, and traditional minnows such as West Indies and Bangladesh have all had impressive successes in the last few months. I have attempted to preview and predict how the first round will play out. It will indeed be one of the joys of cricket to see how the real tournament unfolds.
This years World Cup, the 10th such tourney, will be hosted in the Subcontinent for the third time. A total of 10 full-member nations of th ICC plus four qualifiers will compete for cricket's highest accolade. The ten Test playing countries are Australia, New Zealand, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, South Africa, Zimbabwe, England and the West Indies. The qualifiers came through competing in the 2009 World Cup Qualifiers (formerly called the ICC Trophy). Afghanistan and Scotland narrowly missed qualifying for the 2011 World Cup when they finished 5th and 6th, respectively, at the 2009 World Cup Qualifiers. As it is, that is a bit unfortunate since Afghanistan have clearly shown that they are probably just as good as Ireland (who finished first) and are well better than Canada, the Netherlands, and Kenya (the other three teams who made the World Cup ahead of the Afghans). But there isn't much to worry, as the Afghans are sure to qualify for the 2015 event.
The teams have been split into two groups of seven, with each team playing the other six in their group in a round-robin format. The top four sides from each group advance into the quarterfinals, etc. Thus, every team has plenty of matches to play.
Group A (Australia, Pakistan, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Canada, Kenya)
1.Â Â Sri Lanka
The 1996 World Cup champions are a team in flux, sort of. Gone are the legendary likes of Jayasuriya and Vaas. That kind of production and skill are impossible to replace, let alone so quickly. But what Sri Lanka has in their favor are familiar conditions (they play 5 of their 6 group games at home), a resolute leader in Kumar Sangakkara, and a culture of utmost professionalism. With the likes of Nuwan Kulasekara and Dilhara Fernando, the Lankans have a competent new ball attack. Rangana Herath might not be a quality spinner, but Ajantha Mendis' game-breaking wizardry can never be ruled out. And we still haven't talked about the genuine world class talents of Tilkaratne Dilshan and Lasith Malinga. All in all, Sri Lanka are a very balanced side, and doubly so when playing at home. I have them finishing atop of Group A, possibly without losing a single match.
ODI record since 2007 World Cup: 49 won, 37 lost
ODI Rank as of Feb 6, 2011: 3rd
2.Â Â Australia
The Aussies lead the way with four World Cup trophies in their chest (1987, 1999, 2003, 2007), including an unprecedented three-in-a-row. They would love to make that four successive championships, however this is the first time in decade they will go in without any guarantees. Their recent form is not at all inspiring, yet they can still thrash anyone on their day. Captain, Ricky Ponting, is the only warrior remaining from the 1999 champion squad. He will be joined by Shane Watson at the top of the order, with the likes of Mike Hussey and Michael Clarke shoring up the middle order. In Mitchell Johnson, Brett Lee, and Shaun Tait, the Australians boast the fastest trio of pacers in the world, and if Tait returns to the 50-over game with the blistering effectiveness of 2007, the Aussies will be more than a handful to even the best teams. I think they'll take the number two spot in the group, although they could realistically be anywhere in the top 3.
ODI record since 2007 World Cup: 65 won, 29 lost
ODI Rank as of Feb 6, 2011: 1st
3.Â Â Pakistan
Turmoil. If there was one word to sum up what Pakistan cricket has been about for the past 5 years, that would be it. Pakistan cricket has endured aÂ lack of security at home, the suspicious death of a head coach, infighting within the team, generalized ineptitude by the brass, fixing allegations, and a terrorist attack against the visiting Sri Lankan team in 2009 to name just some of the things that have gone down in recent memory. Yet Pakistan remains a team which can never be counted out; though they should certainly progress to the quarter finals, they could finish anywhere from 2nd to 4th in the group. While there batsmen might look clueless at Test level, they are more than capable at the limited overs formats. Younis Khan returns to lead a largely inexperienced batting corps boasting such talents as Ahmed Shehzad, Umar Akmal, and Asad Shafiq. The bowling will surely miss suspended pacers Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir, however, the combination of Umar Gul, Shoaib Akhtar, and Abdur Razzaq will be left to lead what will still be a top-class ODI fast bowling attack.
ODI record since 2007 World Cup: 40 won, 37 lost
ODI Rank as of Feb 6, 2011: 6th
4.Â Â New Zealand
The Black Caps somehow pull far more than their weight in the international sports arena. They often gotten as far as the semi finals, but have never won a World Cup. New Zealand will be the most well prepared non-subcontinent team in this tournament with series in all three host countries in the months leading up to the World Cup. However, they have struggled mightily in those matches. Out of their last eighteen matches, they've won just thrice, and lost thirteen games, including a 4-0 beatdown at the hands of Bangladesh, and 5-0 thrashing against a second-string Indian outfit. Nevertheless, they should fall no further than this. Daniel Vettori epitomizes the side he leads: no flamboyance, little prodigious talent, but plenty of substance and skill. Much will be expected from the troubled-yet-exciting Jesse Ryder, Ross Taylor, and rookie teen Kane Williamson along with the always-explosive Brendon McCullum. The bowling has plenty of experience with Kyle Mills, Daryl Tuffey, Vettori, Jacob Oram, and all rounder Scott Styris. I predict the Kiwis to sneak into the quarter finals, but no further than that.
ODI record since 2007 World Cup: 32 won, 35 lost, 1 tied
ODI Rank as of Feb 6, 2011: 7th
5.Â Â Zimbabwe
There doesn't seem to be too much optimism surrounding this African bunch. Temperament and technique seem to be eluding their batsmen, with the exceptions of Craig Ervine and Regis Chakabva. That a sloppy Bangladesh side was still able to trounce them 3-1 a few weeks ago shows just how much work the Zimbabweans have ahead of them if they want to cause some noise. They will feel that their multi-pronged spin attack (an offie, a leggie, and a left armer), consisting of ex-captain Prosper Utseya, Graeme Cremer, and Ray Price will thrive in the subcontinent. Two of their pacers, Christopher Mpofu and Shingarai Masakadza look to be competent, if unspectacular, but that is enough on the dusty pitches of the subcontinent. The performance of captain Elton Chigumbura is worse than merely worrying, and although Prosper Utseya is doing his best all-rounder work of late, Zimbabwe simply has too many holes in their batting lineup to offer any serious ambitions of going past the initial stage. Zimbabwe are heading in the right direction, and they are without doubt leagues better than they were four years ago, and they might have a shot at beating New Zealand with their spin attack.
ODI record since 2007 World Cup: 22 won, 44 lost
ODI Rank as of Feb 6, 2011: 11th
6.Â Â Canada
There is probably not a whole lot separating Canada from Kenya at the moment, but the men from the Great White North are probably looking forward to the World Cup more as a chance to see where they stand in relation to the world's best than an actual chance to win a championship. They have some players who have dominated at the Associate and World Cricket League Division 1 levels, in Ashish Bagai and Umar Bhatti. At this point, Canada will defintely target a win against Kenya, and possibly one against Zimbabwe too, but its not unlikely that they head home without a win under their belts.
ODI record since 2007 World Cup: 9 won, 18 lost
ODI Rank as of Feb 6, 2011: 14th
7.Â Â Kenya
The Kenyans have had a rough few years and it doesn't seem like things will change anytime soon. They've been comprehensively beaten by a local Gujarat side during a warm up tour to India. If they can't handle an inexperienced Indian state side, what shot do they have against the world's best? That they even qualified for the World Cup is perhaps a surprise since they've managed to lose games to pretty much any team they played. Having said that, they will be pleased to have beaten Afghanistan 2-1 at home recently, although the same margin against unrecognized Uganda in December highlights the inherent problems with the current lineup. Kenya will no doubt be thanking the stars that Steve Tikolo decided to come out of his retirement, in addition to the return of talented youngsters Seren Waters and Tanmay Mishra. On the bowling front, Thomas Odoyo will do an honest job, however there ain't nothing else to write home about. Kenya will definitely keep their sites on the matchup with Canada, but a win is far from guaranteed. Zimbabwe too, look like a team that is now several levels ahead of their fellow Africans, and Kenya should be motivated to try and avoid the probable embarassment of finishing last in the group.
ODI record since 2007 World Cup: 11 won, 28 lost
ODI Rank as of Feb 6, 2011: 13th
Group B (India, South Africa, England, West Indies, Bangladesh, Ireland, Netherlands)
1.Â Â India
India have recovered splendidly from the disaster of the 2007 tournament. That debacle forced a change in the composition of the entire team. MS Dhoni has brought life and fight into the captaincy, and the addition of batsman like Suresh Raina, Virat Kohli, Gautam Gambhir, and Murali Vijay means that India can threaten any score on any given day. Of course there is Virender Sehwag, and Sachin Tendulkar - fresh off a world record 200 not out - to make things even more exciting. The only concerns are that a bowling attack of Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra, Munaf Patel, Praveen Kumar, Harbhajan Singh, and some part time spinners will likely take more than its fair share of stick over the course of the the tourney. Nevertheless India are always favorites to win the whole damn thing, and while I'll stop short of that prediction, I think they should win the group, though they'll get some stiff challenges.
ODI record since 2007 World Cup: 69 won, 42 lost
ODI Rank as of Feb 6, 2011: 2nd
2. South Africa
The Proteas will be trying desperately to shake of their "chokers" tag. The stage is set perfectly to that end with the most wide open World Cup in recent memory. South Africa are one of the three or four teams that can realistically hope to take the Cup home, and much will rest on the blade of the bearded Hashim Amla. His form over the past year has been simply transcendant, and he will take a total liking to the subcontinent wickets. The batting looks supremely formidable with Graeme Smith leading from the front and the ever-present Jaques Kallis hulking up the middle order. Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel are without doubt the finest pair of Test quicks on earth, but will they cause the same level of damage with a white ball in hand?Â
ODI record since 2007 World Cup: 48 won, 22 lost
ODI Rank as of Feb 6, 2011: 4th
England will be boosted psychologically by retaining the Ashes (more important than the World Cup in the opinions of some). However, over the past two years, the Brits have actually cared about limited overs matches, and as a result have been winning impressively. They struggled with injuries during a 6-1 loss to Australia, and if they're healthy they could make some serious noise this spring. However, they have almost no time to catch their breath and have been on the road since early November of last year. They are the reigning Twenty20 World Champs, and with Eoin Morgan in the middle, no tight situation seems too nervy. It will be interesting to see what kind of bowling attack England goes with. Their historically Test-savy players have historically not garnered many ODI accolades. My picks would be to go with Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad, and Tim Bresnan to bowl quick alongside the best spinner in the world, Graeme Swann.Â
ODI record since 2007 World Cup: 38 won, 40 lost, 1 tied
ODI Rank as of Feb 6, 2011: 5th
Perhaps I'm just a partial fan with my biased views but it appears as though Bangladesh is finally rising to become a force to reckon with. The inexplicable losses to weaker sides still fester, which is why match-ups with Ireland and the Netherlands - teams who have beaten Bangladesh in their most recent encounters - will be anything but foregone conclusions (good for ticket sales and TV ratings!). That said, Bangladesh might just be going into their first major tournament as more than the proverbial "banana skins" that they've been satisfied with being.
Bangladeshis are well aware, that unlike 2007, a singular victory against a higher seeded team may not be enough to advance to the quarter-final round. There are plenty of group matches, and its rather unlikely for any of the Test nations to finish the tournament winless apart from the minnows. That being said Bangladesh will like their chances in the tougher of the two groups.Â
The opening match of the tourney is against India at Dhaka. The Mirpur Sher-e-Bangla National Stadium is looking world class at long last, and Bangladesh have started making this new venue feel like home. Bangladesh have 18 wins and 18 losses overall in Mirpur since they moved there in late 2006, and are 6-14 against top-ranked sides. I think Bangladesh have a 50-50 shot at winning this game, even though the Indians are probably the team to beat. Bangladesh control all the intangibles, and the only thing in India's favor is their obvious strength on paper. It will be important for Bangladesh to bowl first if they win the toss, as India is most vulnerable when setting up a total with the pressures of a championship hanging in the balance. If Tamim Iqbal can bat for 20-25 overs then Bangladesh will always be in the hunt. India will no doubt target him first and foremost, because the other match-winner, Shakib al Hasan bats too low down the order to swing a match all by himself. I don't expect much of a threat from India's pacers, but the spin attack of Harbhajan Singh, Ravichandra Ashwin, and Piyush Chowla will be the prime threat. Singh and Ashwin, being off-spinners, will be especially threatening as Bangladesh has a predominantly left-handed batting lineup. While bowling, Bangladesh must contain Virender Sehwag and the only way to do that is to dismiss him early. Sehwag is especially strong on driving length deliveries and so the Bangladesh openers will do well to keep the cherry on a length, possibly a tad bit shorter and attempt to square him up by moving the ball inwards off the seam. Although he batted in the middle order last World Cup, the legendary Tendulkar has scored the vast majority of his record 17,000 plus career runs as an opener and will most probably open alongside Sehwag. Tendulkar is a master batsman, and getting him early will mean that Bangladesh must take advantage of his tentativeness before he gets set. This will likely push Gautam Ghambir to one-down, and I would love to see Shafiul Islam and Rubel Hossain pepper him with the short ball. Forcing him to cut or pull may cost runs, but will also force the ball into the air creating chances. Shafiul has a knack at moving balls away from left handers and his battle with Gambhir will be crucial.Â
The Indian middle order will be rock solid with rookie Virat Kohli likely to come in at number four, and Suresh Raina, Yuvraj Singh, and MS Dhoni round out the top seven and they can all play paralyzing knocks on any given day. Bangladesh must build pressure and do so early on. Early wickets are essential because as much as the Indians have matured, they still cave into pressure, especially Tendulkar. I think Shakib al Hasan must continue to attack the Indians regardless of the situation and be prepared to chase anything in the neighbor of 300 if batting second. If Bangladesh bowls and fields well, there is no reason why we cannot limit India to around 300 runs.Â
Ireland should be a far simpler request, although underestimating anyone can cost a team dearly in such an important tournament. If Bangladesh sticks to the basics, they should win with ease. There is no need to get a rush of blood and attempt to blast a score of 400 if batting first. I'm not worried about the bowlers as our left arm spin should strangle the life out of the Irish. Young Paul Stirling is perhaps the finest cricketer outside of the Test arena, and his skipper William Porterfield is experienced and capable. Several Irish players play professionally for English counties, and that alone should be reason enough to not be complacent. Nevertheless, I'd be shocked if Ireland pull of this upset, despite the fact that they're now 2-0 against Bangladesh in global tournaments.
The West Indies are the only major side yet to be beaten by Bangladesh in the 50-over format. Bangladesh has swept a weakened Caribbean side 3-0 back in 2009, and has beaten the first string side in the T20 World Cup in 2007, and I think we should win this tough match-up in Dhaka. The West Indies batting relies on the trio of Chris Gayle, Shivanrine Chanderpaul, and Ramnaresh Sarwan. Young Adrian Barath is a bright talent and Brandon Nash cannot be ignored down the order, but its the Windian bowling that is really the source of their woes. Kemar Roach has blinding pace, by apart from that, there isn't much to fear from this bowling attack. Apart from England's Graeme Swann, there isn't another class spinner in Group B, and WI might be caught a bit off guard against Bangladesh's vaunted spin attack. If Bangladesh avoid silly mistakes they really should be able to beat West Indies unless some Caribbeanite plays a blinder of an innings.Â
England are a side that will be tough to predict, although they are as strong as ever. They defended their Ashes title, and done it emphatically - crushing Australia by an innings margin in 3 games in Adelaide, Melbourne, and Sydney. They're also the defending T20 World Champs. Long a laughingstock in the limited overs circuit, the England team has re-invented their ODI outfit to match their traditional strength in Tests. Despite these facts, their injury-hit squad suffered a big defeat to Australia on the eve of the World Cup.
Although England swept the 3-match series there early last year, Bangladesh will counter with the fact that Eoin Morgan's match-winning century should never had happened except for a blown LBW call at Chittagong. However, Bangladesh did clinch their maiden win against the Poms at Bristol a few months later in a see-saw engagement that will go down as one for the ages. Hence its not presumptous at all to guess that is an interesting battle. It will feature two of the best spin bowlers in the world in Graeme Swann and Bangladesh captain Shakib. It will be a classic battle between Kevin Pietersen's chronic struggles against left arm spin, and Bangladesh's never-ending army of left arm spinners. Overall, I put my money on England to come through victorious here, but it should go without saying that Bangladesh can beat any team in the world if they come together as a unit.Â
The game against Netherlands, on paper Bangladesh's easiest assignment, offers yet another potential "banana-skin" for the hosts to slip on. Having already been beaten in their only official encounter, Bangladesh will definitely feel some extra pressure and this will delight the Dutchmen. Just as the Ireland game, this is one which Bangladesh shouldn't lose, and although guarantees can never be made, any mishaps will be brutally received by the local public. Think tar and feathers.Â
I fully expect Bangladesh to overwhelm the Dutch, but the players to watch out for are pretty obvious. Ryan ten Doeschate is an all-rounder of true class, and the Dutch also have a solid batsman of Polish origin (whose last name I couldn't spell with all the time in the world) in EricÂ Szwarczynski.Â
Bangladesh close out the group stage back in Dhaka with a game against perennial contenders, South Africa. South Africa will be battle-hardened after a grueling series at home against India, and with the likes of Hashim Amla tearing into bowling attacks, Bangladesh will have their hands full. They will be motivated by their massive 67-run victory against South Africa at Georgetown, Guyana four years ago. The key battle will be between Bangladesh opener Tamim Iqbal and South Africa's twin speedsters, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel. South Africa will likely have plans in place to try and thwart any heroics from Mohammad Ashraful, who has three fifty-plus scores against them, including a match-winning return of 87. While the South African bowlers aren't as threatening in one-dayers as they are in Tests, a bowler like Steyn can never be fully accounted for. His pace, control, aggression and movement has proved to be a headache to the greatest batsmen, and should he get a chance to bowl with any sort of assistance in the pitch or air, he could be lethal. While their batting is first-rate, with Graeme Smith, Jaques Kallis, AB de Villiers, and JP Duminy; South Africa are probably the biggest chokers in clutch situations. If South Africa goes into this game needing to win or needing a certain score to progress, they will most likely crumble under the pressure.
To conclude, I think Bangladesh has every chance, and is even expected by all fans and most critics alike, to win enough games to advance to the quarters. From there onwards, as Shakib has said "anything can happen," and if the stars align, and Bangladesh meets any team from Group A for a QF clash in Dhaka, well then, anythingÂ canÂ happen.
ODI record since 2007 World Cup: 28 won, 52 lost
ODI Rank as of Feb 6, 2011: 8th
5. Â West Indies
The West Indians have been through a lot and have fallen far from the juggernauts they were through most of the 1960s-80s, a period in which they won the first two World Cups and made the first three Finals. They will be lead by a man under pressure, Darren Sammy, who many believe does not deserve his place in the side. As always opening batsman Chris Gayle will look to get them off to a flying start, and with the likes of Adrian Barath and Shivanarine Chanderpaul, the Windies must always be counted as dark horses. All eyes will be on the return of Guyana's star, Ramnaresh Sarwan. The bowling will be an area of concern as none of their frontline men have much experience of bowling in the subcontinent. However, my pick is that Kemar Roach will not only lead the wickets column for the Windies, but he might send a few batsman to the emergency room as well.
ODI record since 2007 World Cup: 22 won, 42 lost
ODI Rank as of Feb 6, 2011: 9th
6. Â Ireland
Ireland have long ruled supreme over all the minor cricket playing nations, a position held previously by Kenya. Recently however, Afghanistan has been pushing at the Irish and making numerous cases for their war-torn land. The Irish will certainly wish for their luck to drive home the point that they should be considered for Test status. They have solid players, many of whom play for English county sides, and thus are the only professional team outside the top 10 nations. The captain William Porterfield provides both youth and experience, and with talented batters like 20-year-old Paul Stirling, the Irish cannot be counted out of making an upset. Ed Joyce returns to the side, after playing for England, and if that isn't enough to convince one of his abilities, keep in mind he's scored over 10,000 runs in First Class cricket. The bowling will led by the 6 foot, 7 inch seamer, Boyd Rankin who will be remembered for causing many problems against Bangladesh and Pakistan with the sharp rise his height provides him. All in all, the Irish are a team which is not terribly far behind the lower ranked Test countries like Bangladesh, West Indies, or New Zealand, and they might very well be on a par with Zimbabwe, if not ahead.Â
ODI record since 2007 World Cup: 24 won, 15 lost
ODI Rank as of Feb 6, 2011: 10th
7. Â Netherlands
The Netherlands have a few players of class, most notably theirÂ Essex allrounder, Ryan ten Doeschate. They will be inspired by two important victories of the very recent past: their upset over England in the 2009 World T20 tournament and their felling of Bangladesh in Glasgow the very next summer. It will still be tough for the Dutch to win a game and they are the only team that has never played an international in subcontinent conditions before. This should count against them. Nonetheless, they could upset the Irish and any other team not paying them due attention.
ODI record since 2007 World Cup: 15 won, 12 lost
ODI Rank as of Feb 6, 2011: 12th