It all boils down to the best four teams in the world.
After all the permutation and combinations, the many mental mathematics and the fantasy ‘dream’ runs by all the pretenders, it was finally the four teams topping the ICC ODI rankings that will be playing off the ICC World Cup 2015 semi-finals, beginning on Tuesday.
There were a lot of stories about how the Associate nations were fighting hard, how Bangladesh was looking at a semi-final, how Sri Lanka and the West Indies could create flutters and how Pakistan would be a resurgent force.
All those conjectures were sorted out in no uncertain terms in a series of surprisingly one-sided affairs, leaving the elite on a different level, ready to fight it off for the top honours.
Semi-final 1 – New Zealand v South Africa (Auckland, March 24): The first piece of distinction about this match is the fact that this match will throw up a new finalist.
Neither New Zealand, nor South Africa has ever seen the title round of this tournament. In fact, this is the first time ever that South Africa won a knockout match, a monkey that had been on their back from the time they returned to international cricket.
New Zealand, on their part, is eternal semi-finalists. They have the last-four stage seven times, but never beyond. It could be a mental thing. It could well also be that they weren’t good enough.
They are more than ready this time. Unbeatable at home, the Kiwis have shown colours never seen before.
One of them is raw aggression. Not since the days of Lance Cairns has any New Zealand batsman been as aggressive as skipper Brendon McCullum. While it was Martin Guptill’s destiny to score the country’s first-ever ODI double-century, it is McCullum’s brand of aggression – be it as opening batsman, fielder, or as captain, leading a fiery bowling attack, has the side seen such in-your-face tactics.
McCullum knows only one way – attack. As was seen in the quarter-final against the West Indies, he took to hammering the Windies batsmen from the top. Though the skipper went early, the patterns were continued by Guptill, who kept hitting.
The same was seen while bowling. The New Zealand bowling spearhead, left-armer Trent Boult, went on to bowl his ten overs in one straight spell of quality stuff, picking up four wickets, which essentially ended the contest. Tim Southee and Corey Anderson added dimensions to the attack.
The fielding was highlighted by an unbelievable catch taken by Daniel Vettori, not the most athletic of the Kiwi fielders. But it went on to display how badly the New Zealanders want this one.
South Africa’s AB de Villiers wants it equally badly. He has taken serious umbrage to the tag of ‘chokers’ and wants to end that sordid chapter, once and for all.
South Africa look as good as any side to win this one. The only team to cross the 400-mark, twice, during this World Cup, the Proteas are hungry.
The batting revolves around De Villiers, Hashim Amla, the rejuvenated Quinton de Kock and Faf du Plessis, with the likes of JP Duminy, David Miller and the rest adding their bit.
The bowling of Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel will be as aggressive as anything New Zealand can throw at them.
It’s the spin that will be intriguing, with Vettori facing off against the inimitable Imran Tahir.
But all said, New Zealand will still hold the edge. For one, their batting has consistently been steadier, with Kane Williamson adding to their quality. That may well decide things in their favour.
Semi-final 2 – Australia v India (Sydney, March 26): This is the one that matters for us.
We in India always think two matches ahead, and this time is nothing new. Right from the time India made it to the quarter-finals, all supporters were thinking of the semi-finals. Once the quarter-final was thrashed out, all were focussing at the final.
There is a small matter of a semi-final before that, and a small matter of conquering a rampant Australia.
The past year hasn’t been great for India, in terms of success Down Under. We lost almost everything against the Aussies, be it in whites or coloured clothes. So to assume that the Australians will open the gates to a final for India would be downright foolish.
The Australians have everything needed to win this. In the batting, they begin at the top and keep going down the order. Beginning with David Warner and Aaron Finch, followed by Michael Clarke, a now-back Shane Watson, the deadly Glenn Maxwell and the finisher in James Faulkner, is this a batting to die for or what?
Then in comes Mitchell Starc, with Mitchell Johnson, Josh Hazlewood and Faulkner to add to the batsmen’s troubles, with Maxwell’s innocuous slow stuff adding intrigue.
Then there is the fielding to add garnishing.
But that said, India are always the team to beat, more so over the last month.
India has found many saviours in the batting. Suddenly, Rohit Sharma has mercifully found runs, and in a manner that he specialises in – big numbers. Virat Kohli is too good to be out of action for too long while Shikhar Dhawan and Ajinkya Rahane are promising always.
It is in Suresh Raina that India has rediscovered solidity in the middle-order, taking pressure off Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Raina scores runs that win games for India.
The bowling has been a revelation. Before the World Cup began, everyone was sure that India would lose it in the field, but with 70 wickets in seven encounters, the bowling has outdone itself, something that is a bonus.
Sydney will be interesting for spinners. It has, among all the Australian pitches, always been the one that provides promise for slow bowlers, so this one too will be under the microscope, irrespective of the drop-down pitches.
So Ravichandran Ashwin’s presence form will be crucial. His ten overs, and how the Australian batters take on him, could be decisive, especially if the hosts bat second.
But they all will be tested – Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, Mohit Sharma and all.
Beating Australia would be something indeed. If they can conquer the Aussies, India will win the trophy. But it is a massive ‘if’.