Pat Cummins and Jos Buttler
Australia captain Pat Cummins (left) and England skipper Jos Buttler. Their teams are battling to keep alive their chances of qualifying for the semifinals of the ICC Cricket World Cup. Image Credit: ANI & Reuters

Traditional rivals England and Australia are fighting to stay alive in the Cricket World Cup. With two defeats each, the Ashes foes cannot afford another loss. What makes the plot thicker is that these teams are yet to meet each other. That will be on November 4.

After the Ahmedabad clash, only one of the two teams will be left standing. Each team will need at least seven wins out of nine matches to gain a berth in the semifinals. New Zealand sneaked into the semis four years back with six victories, but several matches were washed out, and teams shared points. That’s unlikely to happen this time, although the Dharamsala game on Tuesday was delayed by rain.

At the end of 15 of the 48 league games, only India and New Zealand have won all their three matches. The two are in pole position as they can afford two losses in the games ahead. That’s not the case with England and Australia.

How New Zealand avenged defeat to England

England came to the 2023 World Cup as double world champions, having won the 2019 event at home, followed by the 2022 Twenty20 World Cup in Australia. In fact, Jos Buttler’s side were heavily fancied to retain the crown. All that changed in the inaugural game.

New Zealand, unfortunate to lose the 2019 final on a boundary countback, gained sweet revenge by thrusting a heavy defeat on the champions. Although they bounced back with a win over Bangladesh, England’s campaign was upended by Afghanistan, who claimed only their second World Cup win in history.

With two losses, can England qualify for the four-team knockout? Yes, if they win all the rest of their games. That would mean beating favourites India, Ashes rivals Australia and another heavyweight Pakistan along the way. That’s not impossible, but not easy. More so given India’s red-hot form and Pakistan’s superiority in the subcontinent.

England are still a good team, but their team selection hasn’t been great. With some stalwarts failing to deliver, Buttler is left scrambling for a winning combination. The England skipper calls Chris Woakes a class bowler, but he’s half the bowler without help from the pitch or the conditions.

Sam Curran is a pale shadow of the allrounder who won the Player of the T20 World Cup in 2019. The most expensive overseas player in the Indian Premier League, Curran has been unable to translate his experience into wickets and runs. He sure is at risk of being dropped.

What’s baffling is the sight of Moeen Ali warming the benches. True, leg-spinner Adil Rashid is a wicket-taker, and Liam Livingstone’s blend of offbreaks and legbreaks has helped keep the scoring down. But Ali’s knack for taking crucial wickets will be handy; that’s the best way to staunch the scoring. And he can rattle up quick runs in any position: ask Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who leads the Chennai Super Kings in the IPL.

Australia too struggled with their combination. To make matters worse, leggie Adam Zampa’s form and fitness were a worry, and the Aussies looked lackadaisical on the field. With Zampa among the wickets against Bangladesh, Australia seemed to have turned the corner. Have they? Bigger battles lie ahead.

Having lost to India and South Africa, Pat Cummins’ team are yet to face England, New Zealand and Pakistan. So their path isn’t easy either. England can’t afford a loss and Pakistan wouldn’t want one either to prevent the net run rate from coming into play. New Zealand have been dominant and the sight of trans-Tasman foes can only be an additional spur.

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Australia will believe that they can still make the semis. And they will go hell-for-leather in all the matches. You can be sure of that. Which is why you can never write off the Baggy Greens.

England have the better team, a balanced team. Some minor tweaks can make them more formidable, but their body language hasn’t been great. Perhaps a couple of wins and Ben Stokes’ inclusion could change that.

If Australia and England have to make the last four, South Africa and Pakistan must slip up. The Proteas suffered a loss against the lowly Netherlands, but Pakistan are dangerous despite the loss to India. I expect only one team to go through. It could be Australia.