CWC: Proteas just one of SEVEN contenders!
Cape Town - Seven into four definitely won’t go ... you don’t have to be much of a maths boff to work that out.
But, roughly two and a half months from its start, seven is how many teams I fancy will be seriously in the running for the key semi-final spots at the 2019 Cricket World Cup in the UK.
The tournament will be the fairest in many ways that it has been since 1992 (South Africa’s dramatic first), as this is the first since then featuring every team playing each other on a round-robin basis and the top four cracking the semis.
A return to that model, which is hard to fault, also coincides with a situation where the clear majority of the 10 participants arguably have a good shout at the title … unlike the period, for example, when Australia very clearly ruled the global roost and gobbled the World Cup four times in five attempts between 1999 and 2015.
At this point, I am inclined to rule out only three sides from a realistic stab at the honours: Sri Lanka, currently so insipid in the five-match series on our shores and with a terrible recent 50-overs record more broadly, plus Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
That means all of the Australians, hosts England, India, South Africa, New Zealand, Pakistan and West Indies will fight particularly tooth and nail to make the semis cut, potentially creating a thrilling bottleneck toward the round-robin climax.
Here are my snap current thoughts on all seven at this relatively long range, starting with the Proteas:
South Africa (current ODI ranking 4th)
The Proteas aren’t being too highly fancied by either their enthusiasts or local pundits for elusive World Cup glory this year: there are some reasonably obvious chinks to their team armoury, including the still-felt AB de Villiers void, decreased general reliability at the crease and a long tail which hardly helps that department.
Yet how can you possibly under-estimate the potential of a side still possessing such illustrious surnames in white-ball cricket as De Kock, Amla, Du Plessis, Duminy, Miller, Rabada, Steyn and Tahir?
South Africa are also on the brink of sweeping Sri Lanka 5-0, which represents a fifth ODI series triumph (including two away, and one of those in Australia) in a row for them.
They had some degree of a comeuppance recently (see West Indies, below!) but the home side at the World Cup, still heading the ICC global pecking order in this format, will undoubtedly be hard to eclipse.
England had won nine bilateral series of at least two-match duration in a row ahead of their Caribbean difficulties - there was a once-off reverse to Scotland with a very experimental outfit in between - but they will certainly be deemed among the hottest favourites.
They positively ooze versatile, explosive cricketers and bat a long way down their order: being five down for not too many isn’t necessarily an impediment to a major total for them.
Perhaps succumbing to a wee dose of complacency from a commanding position of 2-0 up, India have just ended their home combat with Australia stunned 3-2.
But they had won three series in a row ahead of that hiccup (including in both Australia itself and New Zealand), plus boasted supremacy in the 2018 Asia Cup in the United Arab Emirates.
They boast a bold battery of stroke-players headed by the incomparable Virat Kohli, plenty in the way of spin wizardry and these days a penetrative and skilful seam arsenal as well.
Maybe the latest series outcome will represent a constructive, ominous (to the rest of the planet) wake-up call for them?
New Zealand (3rd)
The Black Caps must be feeling pretty good about general international cricket life at present.
They have won five Test series in succession since their unlucky, weather-influenced home 2016/17 loss to the Proteas, and hit back from a 4-1 home ODI drubbing from India earlier this season to pulverise Bangladesh 3-0.
Kane Williamson heads an experience-laden batting arsenal, and the New Zealanders also boast a seam cupboard tailor-made to prosper in England, especially when conditions are overcast and damp.
I have a gut feel that SA v NZ at Edgbaston on June 19 may be particularly influential to both teams’ progression chances at the CWC ...
Until a few days ago, the once-imperious Aussies hardly seemed primed for a serious push at the World Cup.
They’d unusually surrendered six ODI series on the trot, seemingly indicating deep-rooted residual issues from the Test ball-tampering shenanigans in South Africa last summer.
But even with disgraced Messrs Smith and Warner yet to reinfuse their batting ranks - quite enormously, of course - for CWC 2019, the men from Down Under have made the world sit up and suddenly take fresh notice of them through their Indian heroics.
Australia, the holders, just know how to win darned World Cups (five so far), don’t they?
The fickle Pakistanis will have a chance at the World Cup for the very reason that they are so famously enigmatic; the current crop aren’t especially different in that regard.
Bear in mind that in their most recent series, in South Africa, they stretched it to the last ODI before the Proteas won the decider at Newlands.
While the squad for CWC won’t contain the calibre of legendary names we have seen from them in the past, they have something quite powerful in their favour: knowledge that they won the Champions Trophy “mini-CWC” on English soil as recently as 2017.
West Indies (9th)
OK, some might exclude them from this “contenders” exercise.
Yet while the Caribbean outfit may still nominally lie one berth behind Sri Lanka on the ICC ladder, their most recent showing was a highly credible 2-2 stalemate (they’d also won the immediately prior Test series, against the odds) with the visiting, highly-touted English.
There are some dynamic young stars coming through for the so-long-in-the-doldrums Windies, although their headline figure at the World Cup will be veteran top-order mega-blaster Chris Gayle, fresh off bruising scores of 77, 162, 50 and 135 in the England series.
He had also been part of the furniture when (the team was acknowledged already then to be in sharp decline from an illustrious heyday) West Indies unexpectedly won the ICC Champions Trophy on the very terrain of the looming World Cup, back in 2004.
So it IS possible for them, lingering warts and all, to prevail in major limited-overs events in England ...
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