Asians flop as England win epic

The 2019 Cricket World Cup saw many great performances but, writes Ashis Ray, the host nation produced the ultimate star turn

One-day cricket was introduced at the level of English first-class counties in 1963 to stem dwindling revenues at three-day championship matches, with attendances in England having fallen from two million in 1950 to 700,000 in 1962. The instant popularity of the shorter format paved the way for the International Cricket Conference to launch a Cricket World Cup, which was unveiled in 1975.

Yet it was not until the quadrennial event’s latest incarnation that the inventors of the game, England, won the trophy. Indeed, they made amends for past losses in the most extraordinary manner at the home of cricket, Lord’s Cricket Ground, overcoming New Zealand by a solitary run after the match – unprecedented in a Cricket World Cup –was forced into the sudden death of a super over. Ironically, England’s New Zealand-born Ben Stokes was key to heaving them over the line. He was fittingly declared man-of-the-match.

International competitions can easily fizzle out if fancied hosts are eliminated early. Thus, the march of bookmakers’ favourites England to the mantle fired and fuelled indigenous interest. A semi-final against their age-old rivals Australia energised English supporters, as did the home side’s thumping win in this game. But nothing could match their delirium as the hosts – led by an Irishman Eoin Morgan, coached by an Australian Trevor Bayliss, and with 24-year-old Barbados-born Jofra Archer entrusted to bowl the decisive super over – laid their hands on the World Cup 44 years after its inception.

Five of the ten sides who qualified for the 2019 Cricket World Cup were from South Asia. But only one of them, India, reached the semi-finals. And the Indians, representing a population of 1.3 billion, lost in the last four to New Zealand, a nation of less than 5 million people, with an investment in cricket one-thousandth that of India’s. Given these statistics, it is perhaps time for some sober reflection from the Board of Control for Cricket in India.

Amazingly, in the knockout contest against the Black Caps, India, in conditions clearly favouring quicker bowlers, dropped pacer Mohammed Shami and played leg-spinner Yuzvendra Chahal, who predictably proved to be expensive. And why Dinesh Karthik was persistently retained at Kedar Jadhav’s expense remains a mystery. Karthik averaged 30.63 with a strike rate of 73.76, whereas Jadhav’s corresponding figures were 43.24 (quite exceptional for one-day internationals) and 100.80. Statistically, the preference just didn’t stack up. Last but not least, holding back the pedigreed Mahendra Dhoni till number seven in the batting order, instead of sending him at four or five, was another costly error.

That said, India brushed aside South Africa in their opening engagement and got the better of a rejuvenated Australia to clearly set out their stall. There was, admittedly, a narrow escape against minnows Afghanistan, but Pakistan and Sri Lanka were put in their places and even Bangladesh’s resistance was overcome with resilience.

The craze for cricket in South Asia since India won the World Cup in 1983 is such that even Afghanistan, a non-Commonwealth country, has embraced it. Indeed, what British military offensives could never accomplish, their soft power has achieved: Afghans have surrendered to cricket.

But the fact that none of India’s neighbours entered the knockout stage is testimony to a continuing decline in the potency of Pakistan, champions in 1992 under Imran Khan, now the nation’s prime minister, and Sri Lanka, winners in 1996. Pakistan’s production of talent as if on an assembly line has long ceased, perhaps because of an unhelpful climate in which a section of violent extremists consider cricket to be un-Islamic. Their late surge in the league stage was in vain as New Zealand pipped them to the post on a better net run rate. As for the Sri Lankans, the cavernous void created by the retirement of all-time greats such as Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Muttiah Muralitharan has been impossible to fill.

A silver lining for the subcontinent, however, was the singular all-round brilliance of Bangladesh’s Shakib Al Hasan. With two centuries, five fifties and a score of 40 plus in his eight appearances batting at number three, he emerged as the most consistent batsman of the competition, not to mention his eleven wickets with left-arm spin. Indeed, he indisputably reinforced his status as the best all-rounder in world cricket. He was, though, overlooked for the man-of-the-tournament prize, which was awarded to New Zealander Kane Williamson, who was the fourth highest run-getter of the championship, captained his team astutely and exuded sportsmanship.

As for the most thunderous batting display, this emanated from India’s Rohit Sharma, who by hammering five hundreds established a new record for three figure innings in a World Cup, lowering Sangakkara’s attainment of four such knocks in 2015.

India performed with remarkable professionalism up to the semi-finals. But their team selection was rarely the ‘horses-for-courses’ policy coach Ravi Shastri had promised. Three specialist seamers in an XI are generally advisable in English conditions, especially in the first half of the summer. But the Indians harboured a premeditated plan of utilising two wrist spinners, thinking they would bamboozle opponents. This was a questionable strategy on surfaces with limited turn and bounce.

English pitches are normally not as hard as their counterparts in the southern hemisphere; and they are not known to spin much until warmer weather and the wear and tear of a long season conspire with slow bowlers in August and September. England exposed the fallacy of the Indian ploy by plundering 160 runs off Chahal and chinaman-and-google exponent Kuldeep Yadav’s twenty overs at Edgbaston, Birmingham, traditionally and even in this tourney more helpful to seamers than spinners. The selection of Ravindra Jadeja for the last two matches proved English wickets are more responsive to finger spin.

The standout bowling exhibition came from Mitchell Starc, who repeated his feat of four years ago by capturing the highest number of wickets in the tournament, and the sensational Indian speedster Jasprit Bumrah. Both unleashed toe-crushing yorkers in the closing overs, which paid rich dividends. They were economical and threatening with the new ball and their mid-innings spells as well. In short, a perfect package for ODIs. But it needs to be mentioned that Archer, a brilliant selection by England, with his deceptive pace, and the Kiwi Lockie Ferguson, with his extra velocity and vertical take-off, also caught the eye, as did, to a slightly lesser extent, the young Pakistani left-arm quick Shaheen Afridi. Otherwise, left-handed Australian wicket-keeper-batsman Alex Carey was a distinct find.

Modern cricket is essentially underwritten by sponsorship and television revenues. Consequently, traffic through turnstiles has become less imperative to its wellbeing. At the same time, to a connoisseur there’s nothing more heart-warming than the sight of packed stadiums. In this respect, the fifth World Cup in England was particularly pleasing. The ICC and the England & Wales Cricket Board have South Asians and people of South Asian origin to thank, for theirs was the biggest contribution to the coffers. Indeed, in England’s meeting with India at Edgbaston, a sea of blue Team India shirts dominated the stands. It could well have been Baroda and not Birmingham.

Ashis Ray is author of Cricket World Cup: The Indian Challenge, available online and at bookstores

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