With 22 of the 45 qualifying games in the ICC World Cup having been completed, it has to be said that the tournament is yet fully to take off. Indeed, barring a major surprise, the rest of the games look to be there to decide the final order of the top four sides between Australia, England, India and New Zealand. Already, there is a significant gap between them and the rest, and the game between West Indies and Bangladesh today at Taunton will effectively decide which country will be the nearest challenger, should one of the other teams have a major calamity.
Having such a sprawling qualification process, this was always a risk, but the format has rarely seemed as predictable as this. All that said, there has been plenty of wonderful cricket played so far, with some of the fielding being of a stupendous quality. However, it has been the lack of close-fought games that makes the tournament feel flat. England’s 14-run defeat to Pakistan is the narrowest winning margin of the competition, as well as the only ‘surprise’. Other than that, Australia beat West Indies by 15 runs at Nottingham and Bangladesh beat South Africa by 21 runs at The Oval; for chasing sides, New Zealand’s two-wicket win over Bangladesh with 17 balls to spare, also at The Oval, was relatively close. To make matters worse, four games have been lost, to some degree, to the weather which looks likely to continue to have an impact.
There was a hope that what is, arguably, the biggest sporting fixture of the year – the match between India and Pakistan at Old Trafford, which drew a TV audiences measured in the hundreds of millions – would live up to the hype. But India are a formidable outfit, and Pakistan rarely achieve similar levels. There were moments when they competed, but Pakistan fell short of their Duckworth-Lewis target by 89 runs in a rain-affected fixture, and the air of slight anti-climax continued.
England’s tournament began with a comprehensive win over South Africa at The Oval on 30 May. The game got off to the worst possible start when Jonny Bairstow was dismissed first ball by Imran Tahir, but a 106-run second-wicket partnership between Jason Roy (54) and Joe Root (51) soon put them back on track. Eoin Morgan followed up with 57, but it was a 79-ball 89 from Ben Stokes that saw England up to 311 for eight. Jofra Archer quickly showed what he offered, forcing Hashim Amla off the pitch retired hurt and then dismissing Aiden Markram and Faf du Plessis in his first five overs. An 85-run partnership for the third wicket gave South Africa a glimmer of hope before Liam Plunkett struck. After that, the most memorable moment was a truly stunning catch on the boundary from Stokes that left even him wide-eyed in astonishment at his own brilliance. South Africa crumbled away to 207 all out.
England’s Trent Bridge defeat to Pakistan remains one of the surprises of the tournament, and its closest game. A 62-ball 84 from Mohammad Hafeez was the centrepiece of Pakistan’s total of 348 for eight, which meant England would have to set a new World Cup record to chase down their target. For once, their fielding had been below par, and they were a bit sloppier with the ball at the death than we have come to expect. When Stokes was fourth man out with the score on 118 after 21.2 overs, the pressure was really on. But who better to come to the crease at that point than Jos Buttler, to join Root. The latter eventually made his first century against Pakistan, before falling for 107 off 104 balls, and then Buttler was out for 103 off 76, tipping the balance in favour of the bowling side. With Moeen Ali failing to fire, Pakistan edged home as England finished on 334 for nine. It was only the fifth time in all LOI history that a side had lost a run chase despite two players scoring centuries.
After that surprising loss, England went to Cardiff and pummelled the Bangladesh attack. Roy led the way with a blistering innings of 153 in 121 balls, which remains the joint highest score of the competition thus far (Aaron Finch matched him against Sri Lanka at The Oval on Saturday). Having hit three sixes off the first three balls of Mehedi Hasan’s over, he went for another and skied it. Astonishingly, England’s total of 386 for six (their highest in World Cup history) could have been even more. Shakib Al Hasan hit 121 in 119 balls in Bangladesh’s reply, but he needed better support, as Archer and Stokes both took three wickets. They were eventually all out for 280. The only concern from the match was an injury to Buttler, who hurt himself while batting. England have plenty of strength in depth, but he would certainly be high on the list of ‘irreplaceables’.
Because of their slip-up against Pakistan, England’s trip to Southampton to take on West Indies became all the more crucial. Lose here, and suddenly there would be much greater need to win against their key rivals in the latter stages of the round-robin. As West Indies drew close to the 30-over mark, they were 144 for three, and the usual formula is to double the score from that point, so a total of about 300 looked on. Two wickets in successive overs from Root piled the pressure on the West Indies, before Archer and Mark Wood mopped up the tail, finishing with three wickets each. England’s pacemen doing exactly what was asked of them as their opponents fell away to 212 all out.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing though, as both Roy and Morgan picked up injuries in the field, and with Buttler having returned swiftly from his problem, there appeared to be a sudden physical frailty about England. A 95-run opening partnership between Bairstow and Root soon eased any nerves, before the promoted Chris Woakes made 40 in a 104-run pairing with Root, who finally completed his second century of the tournament, finishing on 100 not out. England finished on 213 for two with 16.5 overs to spare.
Next up for England are Afghanistan, on Tuesday at Old Trafford. Their presence at the tournament is a justifiable tribute to the progress the team has made in recent years, but sadly they have struggled to live up to the traditional role of scrappy underdogs thus far. England will be hoping their form doesn’t suddenly improve, and will probably not risk any of the players with injuries. Sri Lanka at Headingley follow on Friday, before England meet the other three favourites in their last three games when the whole tournament will take on a much more serious tone.