By Chetan Narula in Wellington:
Rain has always been a troublesome affair when it comes to cricket, but it takes a cyclone washing away a World Cup match to stop tournament favourites Australia in their tracks. Thanks to the points shared in Brisbane, where the co-hosts sat alongside Bangladesh sipping hot tea while staring at the rain, Pool A’s plot kicked into high gear this past weekend.
40,000 people packed into Eden Park in Auckland on Saturday for the battle of the hosts. Is it possible for half the number of those at last Sunday’s game to make the same amount of noise as the full MCG crowd? Yes, for that is what David Warner inspired in them. After an initial pasting, when Tim Southee bowled Aaron Finch, you could have been forgiven for believing that India were still playing South Africa in front of 87,000-plus screaming fans.
It took Daniel Vettori to reveal a weakness in this Australian team: he forced them to slow down, which made them lash out dangerously. Their batting was bound to fail at some point in time, as it did on Saturday. Yes, Trent Boult did run through their line-up, but look closely and you will find some shots that should not have been played, against neither pace nor spin, in their situation. Did the pressure, or the raucous Kiwi crowd, get to them?
If it did, the batsmen were not the only ones affected. Mitchell Johnson cut a sorry figure with the ball in hand. This is the world’s most fearsome fast bowler; England shudder at the mere sight of him standing at the top of his run-up. Egged-on by the crowd, Brendon McCullum made him look like a debutant struggling to cope with the pressures of international cricket.
Even so, if there was any team in this tournament that could defend a 150-odd total against the marauding Kiwi batting line-up, it was this Australian attack. Mitchell Starc showed why, nearly winning it for Australia. The match ended with the proper result, victory for the Black Caps, but did it run closer than it should have? Perhaps not, for the one-wicket margin proved that these two teams are equally matched, both in bowling prowess and batting frailty. And they are still the best out there in this competition.
New Zealand are now atop the group table with eight points and have qualified for the quarter-finals, the first team to do so in the 2015 ODI World Cup. Unless they lose to either Afghanistan (in Napier on March 8) or Bangladesh (in Hamilton on March 13), they are assured to play the fourth-placed team from Pool B in Wellington on March 21.
Australia too will enjoy home advantage, on qualifying, at Adelaide on March 20. There is no doubt that they will; what remains to be seen is at what place in the pool they will get through. They have won only one match out of three, thanks to the Kiwis and the cyclone at the Gabba, and now face Afghanistan (in Perth on March 4), Sri Lanka (in Sydney on March 8) and Scotland (in Hobart on March 14). Any more weather interventions, particularly in the Lanka game, will see them finishing no higher than third in Pool A.
This is because Sri Lanka now sit pretty on six points from four games, having beaten Afghanistan, Bangladesh and England, the last one a comprehensive nine-wicket win in Wellington on Sunday. They are yet to play Scotland (in Hobart on March 11) and Australia. If they win these games and get four points, they will move ahead as the second-placed team in the group. The loser of the clash in Sydney will play the second-placed team in Pool B, in all likelihood South Africa.
Where does this leave England and Bangladesh? Let us start with the latter. As always, they have been given a chance. The difference is that Mother Nature provided them with this glorious opportunity to reach the quarter-finals instead of the ICC. But do they understand the value of the one-point granted in that washed-off match? That golden, solitary point, against Australia!
They looked rusty in the win against Afghanistan, almost choking in their innings before waking up and finishing the game. Against Sri Lanka, the true Bangladesh showed up. They dismissed Lahiru Thirimanne only on the fifth attempt. It is a wonder the opener didn’t go on to score a double hundred. It can be assumed safely that they will not upset New Zealand in their last pool game. Whatever is needed to qualify has to be done in the next two matches - Scotland (in Nelson on March 5), and then England (in Adelaide on March 9).
If they do beat the Scots – who are desperate to bounce back from the loss against Afghanistan – their England clash will become a virtual knock-out with the quarter-final spot on the line. And they ought to fancy their chances, despite shoddy cricket all-round, for at this moment in time, the current English side is a very confused lot. On a day when Joe Root’s century finally gave them a semblance of a good total, their bowling went on holiday.
Wrong selections and an illogical batting order ensure that this English line-up is unable to play ODI cricket the way it should. When that happens they look for answers elsewhere, ignoring the blindingly obvious. This, in turn, creates even more trouble for them, confusing their batsmen, their captain and everyone supporting or even just watching them.
It is simply astonishing that a team under so much scrutiny from fans and media alike – perhaps second only to the Indian team – cannot suitably react to the wave of criticism against its decision to demote James Taylor to number six. He is a batsman fit to bat at number three, for he can drop anchor as well as attack when set later, qualities needed at this spot.
Maybe the team management knows better. Yet in the wake of Gary Ballance’s repeated failures, they persisted with him in a near must-win game against Lanka. For this rigidity alone, which is quickly becoming synonymous with English cricket, they deserved to lose and will lose again, if they do not realise what is at stake.