JUST two months into 2015 and we have already reached our first major tournament of the calendar year.
Tonight the Cricket World Cup gets under way as co-hosts New Zealand take on Sri Lanka in Christchurch before a few hours later, Australia take on England at the MCG. Excitement has been building gently over the last few weeks and now fans are ready to explode with excitement as the competition takes off. Whether this excitement will last the whole month and a half it takes to complete the tournament, which is still too long in my opinion, is a different matter.
As per usual, much of the talk ahead of the opening matches is based around predictions for winners of the cup. Who will be lifting the famous trophy aloft on March 29?
For me, there are only three teams who I see as genuine contenders for victory. They are the trio of countries who a lot of pundits are saying will dominate the tournament, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and if I was to put money on anyone, it would be the latter who I would bet on.
It will not be the first time South Africa have entered a cricket tournament as one of the favourites. In fact, they are always a serious contender for the main title in any competition they play.
But, for one reason or another, they have underachieved with just one Champion’s Trophy success and topping the test rankings a couple of times. Since having the ban imposed on them by the sporting world due to their Apartheid regime lifted, the Proteas have made it to three semi finals in the World Cup, but have never made it past this stage. In 1992, they were unfortunate in their run chase against England when rain came and led them to needed 21 off one ball in the pre-Duckworth/Lewis days. Then in 1999 they messed up a run chase against Australia in comical fashion and eight years later they were skittled out by the same opponents for 149.
These episodes in modern cricketing history have led to the South African’s being labelled as chokers. Talented players have always filled up their scorecards, but a golden generation of players have gone without major success. Shaun Pollock, Allan Donald, Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis and Lance Klusener will all go down as gifted nearly men.
As pointed out by one of the names above, Donald, in a recent interview, the side will not shake off the chokers tag until they win the World Cup. It is very similar to Spain going from football’s great bottlers to supreme champions between 2008 and 2012.
Now is the time though they can do it. They go into this competition with a fantastic squad in all areas. In the batting department, they have masterful strokers of the ball in Hashim Amla and their skipper AB de Villiers. As beautiful as the pair look at the crease, they can also be destructive, as de Villiers proved with his record breaking 31 ball century against the West Indies last month.
Alongside these two, who are the real leaders of the side, South Africa have other batsmen who can do a fine job too. Faf du Plessis, JP Duminy and David Miller are all players who would certainly get into most if not all teams in the World Cup. Quinton de Kock is another name who is in the same ilk as these guys who can find the boundary for fun. Looking at it, the batting line-up has plenty of firepower.
Then there is the bowling attack. Not many are better than Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander in the seam bowling game. Steyn and Morkel offer express pace while Philander is the steadier man who will keep hitting the right areas of the pitch. Throw in Wayne Parnell for a bit more speed and a left arm action along with the spin of Imran Tahir and just like in the batting, it is a dangerous looking attack.
Fielding has always been a strong point of every South African team’s game and being in Australia and New Zealand, the conditions are not too different from their homeland. Scoring runs off them will be hard and setting what would be an unreachable total for them will be doubly tough.
What helps them even more is their group is slightly easier. The main threats in the West Indies, India and Pakistan are all very beatable for them and it will assist them in easing into the latter stages of the tournament and find their form.
Australia are just as strong at the moment. They totally decimated England and India in the recent Tri-Series and they have home advantage, which is always a big plus. On top of this, they are on form and have plenty of weapons, especially in their bowling. The modern trend in cricket is to have as many fast left armers as possible and in Mitchell Johnson, Mitchell Starc and James Faulkner, they have some excellent choices. If all three of them play, the angles they get bowling to right handers will be difficult to score effectively off and the fields, whether led by Michael Clarke, Steve Smith or even George Bailey, will be inch perfect. Motivation will be high for them too being at home and after the tragic death of Philip Hughes, they will certainly be looking to do something special in his memory.
There are not many chinks in their armour, but in my opinion, they are not quite the side South Africa are. Other than David Warner and Aaron Finch, they do not have quite the same destructive batting qualities which are so important nowadays and their spin bowling has never really recovered from the retirement of Shane Warne. These are small deficiencies in their game, but this could prove to be a World Cup where any slight weakness could have a massive affect.
As for New Zealand, they have the dark horse tag for this tournament and rightly so. Including their World Cup warm up game, they have lost just two out of the ten ODIs they have played in 2015 so far. Stretch back even further and the form shows just five defeats in 18. They have a good side and home advantage, but ultimately they are still probably behind Australia and South Africa in the pecking order. That said, they could pull it off on their day with players like Brendon McCullum, Kane Williamson, Luke Ronchi, Daniel Vettori, Trent Boult and Tim Southee to call on.
As for the rest, one of the three big teams from the sub-continent will also progress to the semi finals as well. India have the best squad but are not firing at the moment. Pakistan are as ever inconsistent but could blast their way in should they settle well. Sri Lanka though are who I’d go with for the fourth semi final spot. A good team with plenty of experience in Kumar Sangakarra, Lasith Malinga, Mahela Jayawardene and Tillakaratne Dilshan, they can beat anyone on their day.
Finally, can England pull of a shock? No. They are far too inconsistent, especially with the bat. Currently they seem unable to decide whether to attack or defend and this will not do against the other top teams. A quarter final spot seems almost certain, but not much more can be hoped for with their form.
Whatever happens over the next six weeks, things are going to be exciting and I believe it will be the South Africans who will be the most entertaining.
Credit all authors of images used in both article and as cover image : George Thorpe