No quarter to be given in knockout stage

Jaideep Ghosh

India_zimAs the league stage of the ICC World Cup 2015 came to an end with two pretty low-key matches that decided the last two quarter-final slots, it would be fair to say that the wheat had been separated from the chaff.

Over years, the International Cricket Council (ICC) has repeatedly tried to introduce new teams to the mix, and invariably, most exited in the first round. Barring odd instances like the 2003 World Cup, where Kenya made it till the semi-finals.

So this time too, the story was pretty much the same. Like most times, the big names in ODI cricket have once again made it to the knockout rounds.

England would love to say that they are big names too, but they haven’t won any crucial matches in World Cup cricket for close to a decade. So it was only a matter of time that they felt the heat.

Bangladesh, on the other hand, did enough to make it through. Once they had beaten England, the story was clear. Bangladesh deserve being where they are. England equally deserved to be out.

Anyhow, its time to look ahead. At the quarter-finals.

South Africa-Sri Lanka (Sydney, March 18): This promises to be the most intriguing contest in the last-eight stage.

South Africa had come into the World Cup with an aura of invincibility. They were unbeatable in the run-up to the tournament, with skipper AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla is supreme form and the likes of David Miller and Faf du Plessis promising huge things.

Then they had Dale Steyn leading a fearsome bowling attack, with Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel in fine nick.

But when the hostilities began, it was discovered that South Africa were very beatable indeed.

For one, De Villiers seemed to be given the responsibility of winning things for the Proteas, while the rest could just potter around and maybe come good on occasion.

Equally distressingly, Steyn wasn’t really firing and Philander got injured.

They lost to India and then also to Pakistan and the invincibility was shattered. But such was the format of the tournament that all big teams were sure to qualify and they did.

Sri Lanka will have to stop De Villiers and half the battle will be won. Even if they don’t, with the kind of form Kumar Sangakkara is showing, they can expect to chase 320-330 against any attack.

Four consecutive centuries! Sangakkara was determined to sign off his career with a flourish and he is doing so. With him, Tillakaratne Dilshan and Mahela Jayawardene, Sri Lanka have a formidable core of veterans and some fine youngsters like Dinesh Chamdimal.

But the bowling is a little suspect. Lasith Malinga isn’t the force he used to be and that is where Sri Lanka will struggle. But they will still be a stiff challenge for South Africa.

India-Bangladesh (Melbourne, April 19): India have looked consistently the most impressive team, as the bowlers have performed way beyond their anticipated form.

The batting has shown promise. Shikhar Dhawan has found a new lease of life and though Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina have been up and down, there is enough firepower in the line-up.

However, Rohit Sharma is once again back to being the underachiever he tends to be.

India had a good challenge from Zimbabwe in the last league game, where Raina and skipper Dhoni had to dig in and recover. This was good, as it gave them a jolt, which may serve well against Bangladesh.

Our neighbours have played around Mahmudullah’s form, skipper Masharafe Mortaza’s fire and Shakib Al-Hasan’s cool head. They have won crucial games, they gave New Zealand a run for their money and they are always fighters.

So this won’t be a cakewalk for India, though on a normal day, they should prevail.

Australia-Pakistan (Adelaide, March 20): Pakistan are always spectacular, be it in win or defeat.

They can be sensational one day and absolute disasters the next. Pakistan began like they were in a hurry to get back home, but once they had conquered South Africa, they suddenly looked formidable, especially on the bowling front.

Pakistan was superb on the fast bowling front, and with Wahab Riaz, the giant Mohammed Irfan and the support cast coming good, things clicked for them.

But the batting is as erratic as usual, which may well be crucial against Australia.

This match will see the two most in-form bowling combinations. Mitchell Starc is by far the best bowler on show while Mitchell Johnson can’t be dismissed, ever.

But Australia’s batting is way batter than Pakistan’s, in consistency and vigour. David Warner and Glenn Maxwell generate fear, while Michael Clarke is back.

Plus, Australia are almost unbeatable on home soil, so it will need an unbelievable showing from Pakistan to get past them.
Also, this could well be a one-sided contest, with whoever wins taking it all away right from the start.

New Zealand-West Indies (Wellington, March 21): The Kiwis are the other unbeaten team in the tournament, apart from India. With skipper Brendon McCullum leading from the front, they have batted with vigour, while the bowling has seen Trent Boult fire lightning.

They are looking invincible, so the Caribbeans will do very well to get past New Zealand.

Jerome Taylor and skipper Jason Holder have begun to be counted but the batting will miss Chris Gayle, whose injury may well keep him out for what could well be his last World Cup game.

Plus, the feeling within the camp seems to be a little too fractured and disturbed for the West Indies to really be a force. The inimitable Curtly Ambrose is trying to carve out a side, but there are issues.

This one should go to New Zealand.

Big games: Irrespective of who wins, this is the cream of international cricket.

Nothing is better in cricket than a result-oriented five-Test series. What comes next is a knockout World Cup match.

This is where the fun really starts.