With the ICC World Cup finally upon us, it is perhaps a worthwhile exercise to take stock of preparedness and make the point that CWC 2019 is looking to be the closest and the most open World Cup ever. My effort will be to take stock of the contenders in two ways, both quantitative and qualitative. How each team has fared quantitatively over the last one year in 50-overs cricket and also how each side stacks up qualitatively as preparedness reached the home stretch.

While England and India lead the pack with win percentages of close to 72 in the last 14 months, teams like Australia have started to get better as the showpiece approaches. More importantly, England is the only team to have not lost an ODI series in 2018-19. Statistically speaking, England and India are the two teams who look runaway favourites going into the world cup. Qualitatively, however, the story is a little different with a couple of other teams sneaking their way into our list of contenders.

It comes as no surprise that Australia had a poor ODI record in 2018-19. With Smith and Warner suspended and the Australians opting to preserve Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazelwood and Pat Cummins for Test cricket, Australia’s quantitative record in 50-overs cricket in 2018-19 was poor. It does not, however, mean that Australia will be easy fodder in the 2019 World Cup.

Aussie factor

“With Smith and Warner back and with Starc and Cummins leading the bowling attack, it will be a very different Australia in England”, says Sourav Ganguly. “I would say it is England, India, Australia and Pakistan at this point,” the former Indian captain picked up his semi-finalists before going on to add: “Don’t yet rule out the West Indies.”

With Smith and Warner back in their ranks, Australia does seem to have most bases covered. Marcus Stoinis is a much better white ball player in the last one year and Glen Maxwell continues to be an enigma capable of turning in match winning performances every now and then. With a degree of consistency, Australia is capable of turning a few heads in England. The injury to Jhy Richardson has somewhat dented the bowling attack but with Starc and Cummins fit to lead the attack, one expects Australia to do reasonably well in English conditions.

The best team and the one with the most potent allrounders going into the tournament is England. With Ben Stokes, Chris Woakes, Mo’en Ali and Willey, England look the most complete side. In Jonny Bairstow and Jason Roy, England has serious firepower at the top and with the best contemporary wicketkeeper batsman in Jos Butler to close things out at the end of an innings. Oh yes, with Joe Root and Eoin Morgan in the middle, England looks set to mount their best ever challenge for the silverware in 2019.

Virat Kohli’s India too is really well prepared. While the Indian top three are arguably the best in the world, they also have a potent bowling attack going into the tournament. “Each of the Indian bowlers has the ability to take wickets and that’s what makes this team so effective. The moment you see a captain trying to make up for a few overs, you know there is a problem”, says Ganguly, before going on to suggest, “Even Kedar (Jadhav) picks up wickets in almost every game. This is because there is relentless pressure from the other end. As long as Virat and his boys can keep picking wickets, they will be in with a major chance. The other thing about this Indian side is that they play both pace and spin well and with a bowling attack that has Kuldeep and Chahal, they can easily defend a decent total. If they get the middle order right, there is no reason why they can’t win the world cup”, concludes Ganguly.

The team least spoken about in the build-up discourse is Pakistan. Suffice to say, however, they are as good as any other team with some serious in-form batsmen and bowlers. With Babar Azam starting to match Virat Kohli in consistency, Pakistan is the dark horse that we need to keep an eye on. However, the one batsman who has to fire if Pakistan is to do well is Fakhar Zaman. It was Zaman’s 100 that won them the Champions Trophy in 2017 and Zaman has once again started to show glimpses of stellar form leading into the World Cup. His century against England on May 11 in pursuit of the humungous target of 373 is both a tribute to his potential and temperament.

Pressure point

The point I wish to make here is that it’s not always the best teams that win the World Cup. Belgium and Spain may have had the best teams on paper ahead of Fifa World Cup 2018 but neither of them went on to win the tournament. In big tournaments, it is also about the ability to soak in pressure. This is where India and Australia stand a yard above the rest. While Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli have always loved the big stage and have very good records in ICC tournaments, Australia has been the most dominant World Cup team.

The one caveat, which can impact the hierarchy of favourites, is the issue of players’ fitness. While most teams had asked players to assemble at home by May 5, allowing them a period of rest leading into the Cup, Indian players played IPL till May 12. Can each of the bowlers remain in peak fitness as the team starts its campaign in England may well determine India’s fate at CWC 2019.

Middle overs

Finally, with scores of 350 being chased down in 50 over cricket and that too fairly consistently, the team that bowls the middle overs best will go on to win the cup. Time, then, for umpires to call play!