The 49 matches involving 14 nations and preposterously spread over six weeks make the Cricket World Cup the most pointlessly truncated showpiece event in world sport. Yet despite the best efforts of the ICC and television broadcasters to elongate a process that guarantees the success of nations that provide the grandest viewing figures, the cricket itself will be of a high enough quality to dissuade the cynicism. Eventually.
The format from the drearily long 2011 tournament on the sub-continent has been retained for this year’s antipodean adventure; 14 teams will take part in the initial stages, divided into two groups of seven; the seven teams play each other once before the top four teams from each group qualify for the quarter-finals. The format ensures that each team gets to play a minimum of six matches even if they exit in the group stage.
South Africa 3/1
New Zealand 5/1
(All odds from Intertops.eu are accurate as of today and subject to change)
The process guarantees that the major nations will all play each other, and with qualification a near certainty if they avoid humiliation against the associate and affiliate member nations – this year comprising Ireland, Afghanistan, Scotland and the United Arab Emirates – meaning the competition may well prove a damp squib until the knockout stage begins on March 18.
While the format may work against the action and drama that World Cups bring across the sporting world, the fixtures that the group stage provides will at least bring a spectacle of world-class cricket. The tournament kicks off this coming Saturday – Valentine’s Day – where no love will be lost (apologies) between tournament favourites Australia, and England, who face each other just hours after the opening game between New Zealand and Sri Lanka.
The group stage is awash with potential classic encounters: the grudge match between Pakistan and India, the big-hitting of South Africa against the Indians and the carnage of world cricket’s arch mavericks West Indies and Pakistan.
Expect this to be the highest scoring World Cup in history; the pitches in Australia, and New Zealand to a lesser extent, tend to help batsmen, and with the trend of 50 over scores regularly in excess of 300, even 350, there will be runs galore.
As is always the case in these major tournaments, thoughts tend to extend to the players that will light up the stage. AB de Villiers, fresh from his record-breaking and astounding 149 off 44 balls against the West Indies last month cements his position as the number one batsman in ODI cricket. Elsewhere there is the nonchalant brilliance of Chris Gayle, who will surely produce something spectacular with the bat, the evergreen Sri Lankan stalwarts Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene in their swansong tournament, and India’s superstar batsman Virat Kohli.
Heroic batting performances often take the plaudits and dominate the highlights reel, but there will be no shortage of high quality bowling on show either, especially with the juxtaposing nature of the pitches in Australia and New Zealand. The hard and bouncy surfaces in the former will suit the fast bowlers that look to hit the deck; look no further than Mitchell Johnson, Morne Morkel or Mohammad Irfan here. While the swing and seam-friendly conditions in New Zealand will assist the fast bowlers looking to add subtle variations to their deliveries, expect the likes of Dale Steyn, James Anderson and Lasith Malinga to excel in these conditions.
The destination of the Cricket World Cup trophy is between three teams; Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. The holders, India (9/1 with AllYouBet.ag) , are on the back of a harrowing tour Down Under and have a record away from home that even Queens Park Rangers would be ashamed of. West Indies are in freefall both on and off the pitch while Pakistan lack the star quality. For South Africa, perhaps the nation packed with most quality in all three departments – batting, bowling and fielding – history is against them as they look to finally end their hoodoo of never winning a knock-out match in World Cup history.
New Zealand, so long the perennial dark horses, are now genuine contenders. Home advantage helps, but their form has been irresistible in the one day game and they now possess a litany of match winners, rather than simply leaning on the mercurial efforts of skipper Brendon McCullum.
For Eoin Morgan and England (also 9/1) a quarter-final finish would be a minimum requirement, and a semi-final berth a major overachievement. Despite the obvious improvement since Alastair Cook was stripped of the captaincy and removed from the side, they still struggle to post regular scores in excess of 300 – now par for the course in ODI cricket. The big-hitting of Moeen Ali, James Taylor and Jos Buttler will be key to their success, but so too the form of Joe Root at number four, so often the glue that holds the batting order together.
Whatever the qualms surrounding the format and the never-ending feel of the group stage, this World Cup is packed full of world-class cricketers at the height of their game. The ingredients are there for this to be a classic that the ICC needs after the disappointing fares of 2007 and 2011, even though you might be asleep for most of it.
JAMES DUTTON is a freelance journalist who has written for The Mirror, The Guardian and The Times. James helps to run The False Nine football website, contributes to The Anfield Wrap and is a columnist for uMAXit Football. Follow him on Twitter.