Why the 2019 ICC World Cup Could Have an Unexpected Winner

Are New Zealand the team who could pull off an upset and win this 2019 ICC World Cup?

ICC World Cup 2019
8 min read
Are New Zealand the team who could pull off an upset and win this 2019 ICC World Cup?

This is the first World Cup in 27 years that has just the strongest ten teams in the world playing each other. Every single one of those teams can beat any other on their day; this is completely unprecedented. Due to this format and this kind of competition, the 2019 World Cup is set up to be the toughest cricket tournament in the history of the game so far.

Given the standard of talent in every team, what will separate the team that goes all the way from the others will probably not be ability, but most likely mental strength and the propensity to absorb pressure. The previous piece elaborates on why England and India may falter on that count, especially if they have a bad start in the tournament.

Meanwhile, it is easy to forget that Australia are the defending champions in 2019. After losing seven consecutive ODI bilateral series in the last two years, they finally got it together in India after being 0-2 down, to come back and win 3-2. They followed that up with a 5-0 decimation of Pakistan in the UAE.

But will the unreal form of captain Aaron Finch and Usman Khawaja overcome the law of averages, to continue right through the English summer?

A steely David Warner suggests his comeback could be much like Shane Warne’s in 2004 after his dope ban, and Steve Smith is nothing if not a big match player. But will they fit easily within their team dynamics, without really having played as a team for a while? Can a notoriously injury-prone Mitchell Starc last the tournament? Will their lack of a potent spin attack affect them in the tournament as the summer gets drier?

There are too many doubts, more than there ever have been with any Australian World Cup squad in the last three decades. They do have a relatively easier beginning though – Afghanistan and West Indies first up, but even a scare in either match will be quite a dent, before they face India.

A picture posted by Cricket South Africa’s Twitter handle of the enter South African team in their World Cup jerseys.
A picture posted by Cricket South Africa’s Twitter handle of the enter South African team in their World Cup jerseys.
(Photo: CSA)

In an era where identity politics is rearing an ugly head too often, it is perhaps distasteful to bring up the “choking” word in South Africa’s context, but it is an undeniable part of their cricket history. They have done well in recent bilateral series but arguably against weakened opponents; they haven’t yet set the post-de Villiers era on fire. The pressure of a World Cup against strong motivated sides is likely to be too difficult a test for them with their current team. They have a difficult beginning as well – against England and India, with Bangladesh in between.

Bangladesh, on their day, can beat any team in the world but they have the same mental fragilities in high-pressure moments as South Africa do. It would be too much to expect them to reach the semifinals, but any team would take it easy against them at their peril.

Afghanistan and West Indies are also capable of surprising any side on a good day, but they are unlikely to sustain their highs for too long.

Sri Lanka is perhaps the most weakened team from before in 2019, but they have a few outstanding individuals who could cause a few serious dents as well.

The wishful thinking that is required to imagine any of them going all the way can probably be saved for more meaningful things.

Pakistan did brilliantly, against all odds, to win the Champions Trophy in England in 2017. But that was a short tournament, friendly to bursts of aggression and brilliance; this is the opposite. They have also been down on consistency and form lately. And, in Sarfaraz Ahmed, they don’t quite have a calm and collected leader as their country’s current prime minister who led Pakistan in the 1992 edition.

A Leader’s World Cup

More than any other tournament in the past, because of the format, the 1992 edition arguably required the most leadership among all World Cups to navigate a team all the way. There were some fine captains in play that year – Allan Border, Martin Crowe, Richie Richardson, Kepler Wessels and Graham Gooch, but that the one who won it is still considered the greatest captain in cricket history by many – Imran Khan, is not a coincidence.

Take a look at all the past World Cup-winning captains – Clive Lloyd, Kapil Dev, Allan Border, Imran Khan, Arjuna Ranatunga, Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting, MS Dhoni and Michael Clarke.

Every single one of them is an all-time great player (not just in ODIs), without exception. With the exception of Kapil Dev, every one of them is also among the greatest captains their countries have ever had. But Kapil Dev was inspirational through deed in 1983, not just for the immortal 175 after India were 17-5 against Zimbabwe and for a famous catch in the final, but most significantly for being India’s most consistent player in that tournament, thanks to his bowling (though he is sadly not remembered for that).

Why the 2019 ICC World Cup Could Have an Unexpected Winner
(Caricature: Vasim Maner)   

Now, take a look at a list of the current captains who will be participating in the 2019 World Cup – Virat Kohli, Sarfaraz Ahmed, Aaron Finch, Faf du Plessis, Jason Holder, Eoin Morgan, Kane Williamson, Dimuth Karunaratne, Mashrafe Mortaza and Gulbadin Naib.

Who among them is worthy of having his name added to that list of World Cup-winning captains?

Precedent suggests he has to be not only an all-time great player but also notable for his leadership. Kohli and Willamson are the only two all-greats on this list – this is not even subjective. While du Plessis’ ODI batting record is very impressive and Morgan’s very good, no one can argue they belong in that league. And as captain, despite the impressive moments du Plessis, Ahmed, Mortaza and Holder have had, it is clearly Eoin Morgan who stands heads-and-shoulders above everyone for the sheer impact he has had on his team.

But given their teams, there really are just three captains here who are in this race – Kohli, Williamson and Morgan, and only the first two, if all-time-great status has to be accounted for too.

Kohli’s greatness as a player is indisputable, though given a batsman’s failure rate (however great he may be), he is not likely to have the kind of impact Kapil Dev had in 1983 as an all-rounder. More significantly, the mental balance any captain wanting to win a tournament in this format needs to possess is not exactly reflected in Kohli’s inability to control mouthing an expletive during at least one charged moment in any match, even when he knows the cameras are on him.

Can Virat Kohli lead India to a fourth World Cup title this summer in the United Kingdom?
Can Virat Kohli lead India to a fourth World Cup title this summer in the United Kingdom?
(Photo: AP)

If England win, Morgan would be the most unique World Cup-winning captain till date for reasons explained just above, even though he would thoroughly have earned his stature and the legacy he would have sealed for himself and his team. But that would require an enormous break from history.

That now leaves just one man standing. Kane Williamson’s stature as a player need not be recounted. And as a captain, he has already shown his mettle for his country, in all formats.

New Zealand’s recent Test run (the best in its history; they are ranked No. 2 in Tests today) owed as much to him as a player as to his calm yet dynamic captaincy. In the shortest format as well, both in World T20 in 2016 and in IPL 2018 (when he filled the banned David Warner’s massive shoes), he gave enough indication of being a proactive and inspirational captain, who lifts his own game and his team’s during the big moments. In his first World Cup as captain, he is the man to watch, if history is to be trusted, and the notion of a jinx to be ignored.

A depleted New Zealand XI was beaten 1-2 by Australia XI this May in both teams’ World Cup warm-up games.
A depleted New Zealand XI was beaten 1-2 by Australia XI this May in both teams’ World Cup warm-up games.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

Is New Zealand History’s Favourite in 2019?

New Zealand were ranked No. 3 in the ICC ODI rankings till very recently (South Africa has just overtaken them by a whisker); they did produce a certain consistency to get that spot.

Even though their recent bilateral results have not been great (especially in the 1-4 series against India) and their last foray in England in the Champions Trophy in 2017 didn’t go well (just two matches though), as their players shrug off injury and form, they have an enviable team.

For even slightly swinging conditions, their pace attack is second to none; for flat pitches, they have the highest number of all-rounders (including arguably the world’s best spinner all-rounder Mitchell Santner). They bat deeper than most teams and field better too on most days. The lack of a big star, even with Williamson and Ross Taylor in their midst, also frees up a team like this, to play without pressure. And there is very little pressure from home anyway, as cricket is not exactly the most popular sport there.

This freedom is perhaps responsible for unlikely Kiwi heroes emerging during World Cups – whether it be Grant Elliot in 2015, Roger Twose in 1999, Lee Germon and Chris Harris in 1996, Andrew Jones, Dipak Patel and Mark Greatbatch in 1992 and a young John Wright in 1979.

This time, they have the luck of the draw as well – their first three matches are against Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan – they have the space to ease their way into the tournament more than any other team.

If they generate a winning momentum early on, like England did in 1992 (that took them all the way to the final), New Zealand may well be hard to stop.

There are so many variables in any tournament, let alone in one as long as this. How the toss goes, when chasing is a distinct advantage on a flat deck, rain changing the circumstances whether with D/L or not, dew in day-night matches (there are seven of those in this tournament), the timing of a bad decision that even DRS cannot influence, the vagaries of form and luck – and yet the one thing that will always be in play in this tournament will be the mental strength of the teams, more than ever before.

New Zealand teams have always shown that mental strength – very few would be aware that New Zealand has made the semifinals of the World Cup as often (seven times) as only one other team has, three-time winner Australia.

Not many remember that New Zealand were the runner-ups last time either; it’s a matter of going just one better this time. And they have the 1999 World Cup (the last time the tournament was played in England) to make up for, where they at least should’ve finished runners-up, if not won (it wasn’t a coincidence that they won the mini-World Cup the very next year in Kenya).

Sporting history has a way of settling scores in unexpected ways. Will New Zealand be paid its dues this time?

(Jaideep Varma is the founder of Impact Index, which for a while was the most written-about alternative stats system in cricket. He is also a writer-filmmaker.)

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