April 9, 2014

Lessons for 2015

There is much to learn from the World T20 in Bangladesh but expect different skill sets to come into play in next year's 50-over World Cup

New Zealand will always be competitive - especially given that they are one of the hosts for the next World Cup - but they will need one of their marquee players to stand up in a sudden-death game © Getty Images

As the dust settles and the much-talked-about dew continues to fall in Chittagong, there is much to dissect and even more to learn, looking forward to the ODI World Cup in early 2015.

While I am no fan of franchise-based T20 tournaments that pit mercenaries against each other for the singular purpose of entertainment with no higher motive, the World Cup T20 format remains appealing. The fact that no team has won it twice speaks for the value of the concept as a global tournament with an open field; despite T20's reputation as an unpredictable mistress, every team that has won the tournament has deserved to do so. I was initially curious as to whether the nature of T20 would lead to a shock result in its world championship but it must be said that the finalists each time have generally been the two best teams. Perhaps the only exception might have been when Pakistan were knocked out courtesy Mike Hussey's amazing innings in Gros Islet, but even that speaks to Pakistan's unpredictability and Australia's self-belief under pressure.

For the first time in many years, a team managed to execute a simple game plan with unerring accuracy. The prize? A World Cup, no less. Sri Lanka proved that there is no need for complicated plans, even when bowling to the very best finishers in the business. Just bowl yorkers, bowl them accurately, and even players of the calibre of India's formidable middle order are rendered impotent. No need for fancy slower balls and funky field placements. It's just a matter of having the skill to execute it on a big stage. Just ask Nepal's Jitendra Mukhiya - his death bowling was as impressive as that of any full-time professional, proving that it can be done by even amateur cricketers who don't clutter their minds with too many fancy theories.

Even in a shortened format, captaincy is a crucial element. Lasith Malinga (and friends!) almost made the biggest blunder when he positioned himself at midwicket and promptly dropped Virat Kohli. I believe MS Dhoni erred by leaving R Ashwin's spell too late in the final. For India to win, they needed early wickets, not a death bowler. Easy in hindsight, though.

Similarly, Faf du Plessis got it horribly wrong with his choice of opening bowlers when India chased 172 in the semi-final. In a sudden-death game, I've always believed that if you exert early pressure, you control the finish, even if Dale Steyn had bowled out. Darren Sammy miscalculated too when West Indies chased slowly in their semi against Sri Lanka, relying on the late kick that never came because of the rain. With the threat of storms in the air, Sri Lanka played smarter cricket by bowling Malinga early in the game, while Chris Gayle's bizarre innings went in the opposite direction.

It is ironic that England, arguably the poorest (major) team in the competition, were the only conquerors of the eventual champions. It could be argued that Australia had an equally poor tournament, only beating Bangladesh, but their pedigree was not in question, only their execution and selections. It was never going to be easy to win in Bangladesh with two mediocre spinners - and even then, never to play them in tandem. England too were unlikely to challenge in these conditions with just James Tredwell. It all seems so obvious now but I must confess to expecting Australia to go further, based on their batting depth and fielding.

No boundary is too big for the modern cricketer these days but the hitting zones may need to change. It's not as easy to slog- sweep in Australia with the extra bounce

What can we learn from this for the World Cup next year? Very little, I imagine. The pitches will definitely favour the two home teams and South Africa. Exponents of the doosra, like Sunil Narine, Saeed Ajmal and Ashwin, will be effective, but don't expect miracles from Samuel Badree and Amit Mishra on those pitches. West Indies will need to find some quicks to be considered a serious challenge - Krishmar Santokie's cutters won't cut it with the new ball in Australia and New Zealand. They might also need to invest in an opening batsman who is technically correct outside off stump. Dwayne Smith was barely able to hit anything that moved away from him, a serious problem when bowlers target the traditional corridor on fast pitches.

South Africa, so long as Imran Tahir can bowl quick through the air and retain the mystery of his wrong 'un, may prove to be a well-balanced outfit next year. They will need to find a replacement, though, for the likes of Albie Morkel, who is clearly a liability with the ball these days and cannot be carried as a batting allrounder. New Zealand will always be competitive but one wonders if their lack of depth will eventually count against them in a long tournament. Courage and scrapping can only take you so far - eventually you need one of your marquee players to stand up in a sudden-death game, unlike Brendon McCullum and Ross Taylor's limp showing in that final innings against a very clever Rangana Herath.

The size of the outfields in Australia is no longer the disadvantage they used to be for Asian teams. No boundary is too big for the modern cricketer these days but the hitting zones may need to change. It's not as easy to slog sweep in Australia with the extra bounce. Hitting down the ground, pulling and upper-cutting may be the areas that are most productive when looking for boundaries.

Opening batsmen with traditional techniques may have to be found. It won't be easy against the new ball. Players like David Warner, Hashim Amla and even Alastair Cook may set themselves to bat 40 overs. Aaron Finch, devastating in T20 cricket, has had a much poorer time of it in ODIs. I'm not convinced that an ageing Tillakaratne Dilshan and a bottom-handed Kusal Perera will thrive, but if the "old men" of Sri Lanka return for one last swansong, their impeccable techniques will be useful templates for the next generation to follow. For that reason, I'm unconvinced about Pakistan's batting unless they discover new talent that is built on solid foundations. Let's not forget, though, that they won it last time it was held in this part of the world.

India's bowling is my main concern for them in 2015. Their batting pedigree is undoubted but when the ball doesn't swing, they are going to need to find some bowlers who offer more than the admirable Bhuvneshwar Kumar does. England won't find the conditions that daunting but I just can't see where their match-winners are going to come from. Ravi Bopara may become the finished article, Eoin Morgan is dangerous, and perhaps Jos Buttler can finish spectacularly, so don't write them off just yet.

I still think that the team with the best fast bowling attack, coupled with technically correct batsmen who can bat long into the innings and score heavily at the death will dominate next year's World Cup. The Mitchell Johnson factor keeps looming large in the rear-view mirror. A lot can happen in 12 months, of course, but I don't think anything that has happened in Bangladesh these last few weeks will be useful as a predictive tool.

And that's the beauty of cricket. When conditions change, different teams come into the reckoning. Home countries have rarely won World Cups but both hosts will be mightily disappointed if they don't feature in the last four.

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and is a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane

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