March 18, 2011

Now it gets interesting

Halfway through the World Cup the teams are in the same position as when they started out. But things will change from here on in

It's time to start bidding the Associates goodbye, and while they haven't set the tournament afire collectively, it is also time to acknowledge their contribution. Club cricketers with spirit, and the odd dollar, they have had their moments. Canada improved as the tournament went along, while the Dutch, sadly, made the reverse journey. Kenya were the most disappointing; this might well be the last time we see them. And there was little doubt that the tough, competitive Irish were the most respected. They deserve a step up and their riches must be protected from predatory neighbours.

Here is a group of 16 that could compete. As a recognition, the ICC must release its Associates squad and here is something to start with. Niall and Kevin O'Brien, George Dockrell, Boyd Rankin, John Mooney, Ed Joyce and William Porterfield (Ireland), Ashish Bagai, Jimmy Hansra, Henry Osinde, Harvir Baidwan and Balaji Rao (Canada), Ryan ten Doeschate and Pieter Seelaar (Netherlands) and Collins Obuya and Tanmay Mishra (Kenya).

Meanwhile, as I type this, it is four days to go for the group stage to end, there are no clear leaders anywhere, and we don't know much more than we did already. Dare I say it's been a predictable World Cup from that point of view? India's bowling has been weak, Sri Lanka have been dependent on the top four batsmen, Australia have been resolute, New Zealand have punched above their weight, England haven't, and Pakistan have blown hot and cold. The fear of chaos has been unfounded. Stadiums have been good, excitement has been high, tickets have been difficult to get, and the DRS has been bizarre.

And so the tournament will begin afresh. Seven games where fortunes will be made and dreams realized, disappointments faced and crestfallen looks exchanged. Teams will have to pull up their socks, camouflage their weaknesses and puff up their strengths. This battle of survival could be as much on ESPN Star Sports as on the Discovery Channel.

Unlike in past World Cups where Australia resembled a mammoth juggernaut, they have looked a touch vulnerable. They are starting slowly, almost feeling the need to preserve rather than attack. Watson and Haddin have been more Boon and Marsh than Hayden and Gilchrist. The fast bowlers are fearsome but erratic, spin is unsubstantial, and Ponting has been short of runs. Otherwise they have been good enough to stay unbeaten in their first five games - a habit only they can practise. Yet alongside South Africa they remain favourites. It says a bit for their strength that they can appear vulnerable and favourites at the same time.

South Africa have got almost everything right, including possessing spinners of all kinds, which is a bit like saying a Tamil Brahmin has a fridge stocked with meat! If AB de Villiers is available consistently, and Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis get among the runs, which they inevitably do, they will be very tough to beat. But like a financial report doesn't indicate the temperament of the chief executive, neither does the strength in numbers and on paper mean much once the knockout stage begins. There too, skills will be critical, but the South Africans know it is always more than that.

Pakistan need a calm opener, a wicketkeeper who can catch, a captain who respects his own batting skills, and Shoaib Akhtar with the new ball alongside the extremely impressive Umar Gul. If Shoaib is back, I believe they have the most effective bowlers for this tournament. I won't be surprised if they are the team others don't want to play in the quarter-final.

With India, the bowling and the fielding continue to be a burden the batting must carry. India need Zaheer Khan to bowl 20 overs, even 25, and Dhoni will want to stretch his overs out as much as possible. I won't be surprised if he goes in with 3-2-2-3 kind of spells for Zaheer, or even 4-3-3. And somehow India need to convert Harbhajan Singh into an attacking bowler again. The batting is as good as it has ever been and there are a few calm heads up that order. Now to get Dhoni to bat longer, to release him from a permanent position in the batting order and use him, as Sourav Ganguly suggests, to bat anytime 25 overs are left. India are under much scrutiny. The captain, his head currently sought everywhere, wants them to play for the country and not the crowds, and there are more expert voices than accents at the moment.

It's been a largely successful World Cup so far and with a bit of luck it will stay that way.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here