At the halfway stage of the cricket world cup, although there have been one or two upsets, the likely semi-finalists remain as predicted in the preview. India and New Zealand are unbeaten, while South Africa and Australia are on course to complete the teams qualifying for the last four.
Rather surprisingly, of these four, it is the South Africans who have been a little disappointing. They have lost quite comprehensively, in both New Zealand and Australia, to two of the Asian countries. However, with a powerful top six, one of the better pace bowling attacks, the spin of Imran Tahir and an outstanding fielding side, they are not a team to be under-estimated. The key for anyone hoping to best them lies in the cheap dismissal of AB de Villiers and Amla. Other than that, what has cost South Africa in the past, apart from their imfamous mentally frailty, has been the absence of intelligence at important moments. They have played six world cups and in the first four of these, squandered golden opportunities with individual and collective stupidity. India has been the surprise package. Badly beaten, by both England and Australia, in the ODI series which preceded the world cup, victory over South Africa has engendered huge confidence. Once rank outsiders, they have to be considered a chance to take back to back trophies, particularly as all their knockout games, should they proceed to the final, will be played on pitches which will suit them far more than the pace and bounce of Brisbane or Perth, or even Auckland, which seems now to have more in it than either Sydney or Melbourne. The fast bowlers suddenly look capable and Ashwin has benefited enormously from the tour of Australia, so that, for the first time, he has become a wicket taking threat away from his home pitches. Dhoni has thrown off his lethargy and with McCallum, is the best captain at the tournament.
Australia, despite the loss to New Zealand in a pulsating match, is in a good position to make a strong push for victory at home. The batting is not quite as consistent as they might like but when they fire, there is an enormous amount of firepower available. Warner, Finch, Watson, Maxwell and Faulkner all offer bowlers a chance but behind them is the steadiness of Clarke and Smith, good fast bowlers and one of the better fielding sides. The key for Australia is a good start and as with New Zealand, the need to keep indispensable players fit and healthy until March 29. New Zealand just keep steaming along. Brimful of confidence, apart from the late wobble against Australia, which they probably needed to keep their feet on the ground, they have bulldozed all opposition aside. Fast bowlers who do more with the ball than those of any other team and the extraordinary, explosive batting of McCallum are the main weapons but they are also fielding aggressively and Daniel Vettori, to my great surprise, is the most successful spinner at the tournament. The weakness lies in the fact that other than McCallum and Williamson, the batting is not of the highest class. New Zealand and Australia have benefited from the likely placing of NZ 1 and Australia 2 in Pool A, as this means that they will play semi-finals in their own country.
As far as the other nations are concerned, Pakistan’s win over South Africa was a noteworthy achievement and demonstrated how dangerous they can be when it all comes together. Unfortunately for them, this does not happen often enough. Sri Lanka has had a fair tournament following their early loss to New Zealand and much now depends on today’s game against Australia. They have scored big totals and are likely opponents for South Africa in the quarter finals but their bowling is vulnerable and the loss of Herath is devastating to their chances. Predictably, the West Indies have been very poor and less predicably, England has been a major disappointment, with both batting and bowling failing to deliver. The associate countries have largely been competitive, in particular, Ireland and they have certainly shown the ICC that the decision to reduce the number of countries at the next world cup is the wrong one. Afghanistan’s narrow victory at their first world cup was an emotive and glorious occasion.
On a more negative note, the ICC’S strange obsession with making things easier and easier for batsmen is incomprehensible. Mediocre batsmen scoring half centuries and even centuries on placid pitches against good bowling attacks does nothing for the game. The best two matches of the tournament have been New Zealand’s win over Australia in a match where the winner scored 152 and Pakistan’s win over South Africa in a game won with a total of 222. This is because these were matches where the balance between bat and ball was even and ensured a fair and enthralling contest.