World Cup is anyone’s oyster

It took Australia fewer than 60 overs to win the 1999 World Cup final — the last time it was held at Lord’s. Thirty-nine to bowl out Pakistan and a ball over 20 to run down their hapless score of 132. Openers Mark Waugh and Adam Gilchrist completed the bulk of the chase, exhibiting zero tolerance to loitering on their advantage.

That ruthlessness would set the tone for the competition’s next two decades — Australia have won four of the last five on offer.

Not in this edition. The champions’ plummet has been well documented since Cameron Bancroft pushed the self-destruct button in front of a gaping Newlands last year.

How they’ll fare is one of the great topics of intrigue this year in a tournament that is not lacking for them. Both from an individual and team perspective, England’s grounds will be littered with subplots. From the last swing of the bat to the fiery emergence of new expectations, there’s plenty to watch out for.

In the case of Australia, all eyes are on the return of Steve Smith and David Warner. The disgraced duo completed their year’s suspension just in time to make the squad for the event’s warm-ups and helped beat the hosts last weekend.

Warner, in particular, is a firebrand who will court attention until his side goes home. Now rocking a fiendish beard, he’ll give two damns about the incessant heckling that will accompany his trips to the crease. His type thrives on controversy. To what extent the international rust affects him remains to be seen but expect his diabolical running to be a motif over the next month.

Even with a firing Smith and Warner, the rest of the pack will be confident of wresting the title away from them. Hungriest of all will be the historic cricketing nations that have yet to win a World Cup — England, South Africa and New Zealand.

The hosts were the favourites coming into this weekend. Scorned first by a flop in 2015 and then by a slip in the 2016 T20 final, in which Ben Stokes was smacked silly by Carlos Brathwaite in the last over, the poms have ruthlessly built up an efficient and uncompromising squad. In Jos Butler, they have a batsman capable of ticking up the scoreboard under any circumstance. With 117 sixes over 108 ODIs, there are few others who can provide a more potent shot to the arm. At the other end of the team sheet, Jofra Archer will be one of the deadliest assets on show, should reality even remotely resemble the hype.

The Proteas’ own primary destroyer, Kagiso Rabada, has long since earned his elite tag. Yet, if the Proteas are to succeed, it will likely be down to captain Faf du Plessis finding the consistency to stabilise the order. We know what Rabada and his cohort are capable of. We also know that Quinton de Kock is capable of matching their violent excitement with his bat. It is Du Plessis, however, that the onus falls on to bring it all together.

Speaking of calm captains, there is none more so than New Zealand’s Kane Williamson. The Black Caps might fancy themselves as dark horses to go all the way. It’s an unlikely feat, but in Williamson they have an on-the-frontline general who can inspire all sorts of confidence. A player with no observable weaknesses, there’s barely a bowler, spin or speed, in the game that hasn’t experienced the bitter taste of his swing. Across all formats too; his ability has seen him rise to number two on the Test rankings.

The man above him is the reason India will enter any tournament as one of the favourites. There’s not much more you can say about Virat Kohli that hasn’t already been said. An average of nearly 60. Over 1 000 ODI fours. Big-game temperament. Kohli will put you on his back and take you where you want to go. Stir that with the equally adept leadership of MS Dhoni and the zest of Jasprit Bumrah’s yorkers and the world’s number two ranked side begins to look an enticing pick for champion.

The rest of the subcontinent warrants at least a cursory eye as well over the following six weeks. Pakistan continues to surprise despite being deprived of home games while Bangladesh is an ever- evolving entity. Sri Lanka probably is the last to get excited about from the region as they disembark from the plane with their least talented squad in years.

A similar sentiment probably arrives with the West Indies. Winners of the first two World Cups ever held, Viv Richards’ descendents now seem to have dropped any pretence that they’re good beyond the short overs format. Still, Chris Gayle’s farewell whacks will undoubtedly be entertaining and emotional.

That’s all we ask of this World Cup. With no bona fide powerhouse swaggering into the opening weekend, the stage is clear for one of the many actors to leave their mark. With the balance of world cricket at a healthy level, a tight and fierce battle for the sport’s top prize is a reasonable ask. No one wants a final that’s over in 60 overs this time around.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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