February 25, 2014

Could it be New Zealand's World Cup year?

A few predictions and some surmise about the tournament from a year away

With a year to go to the next World Cup, it's timely to assess the state of the teams who will participate. It is from this moment on that teams will need to begin, if they haven't already, to think and plan the small steps to glory.

If hunger comes from starvation, then England, South Africa and New Zealand should be hungrier than the rest, as these three have never won a World Cup out of the top eight major nations. In ten World Cups, England have made three finals, South Africa have made three semi-finals (in six Cups) and New Zealand have made six semi-finals. What chance do they have in the next one? How long can they go on starving for World Cup success?

England have fallen. They got stuck in their old thinking, were distracted from growing organically. Many casualties can be found on every street corner. Their rehabilitation and restoration is due to start, yet, a year out, you sense they have left it all too late. No doubt their focus will be on the next Ashes to follow, yet presently even that seems a bridge too far. Of course England will come again, for they have immense pride and resources, but their indecision is a natural national trait and they must overcome that first.

South Africa are a powerhouse on many fronts. They think big. However, when it comes to World Cups, their thinking under pressure has been suffocated. They seem to feel the weight of a nation - no small burden - and their focus becomes anxious, hesitant, and taut. This affliction of no Cup wins has become a millstone around their neck. Yet, being southern-orientated, they should feel the conditions are to their liking. Jacques Kallis has one last itch to scratch, and AB de Villiers is about the best allrounder in the world, so the temperament can about-face. Therefore, AB will need to lead with new concepts and rumination, leaving outdated beliefs behind.

New Zealand are always fancied to contest in these tournaments. We love the Goliath story. We like being David. And at home we know we can rise up, close enough to look Goliath in the eyeballs. We have endured much pain from six semi-final failures, from recent events where enough was enough. The tide turned with Ross Taylor's renaissance, then others followed, then Brendon McCullum rammed a stake in the ground. This team will be prepared like no other team before it, therefore the likelihood of them breaching a new frontier is plausible. The question is: will they dare to dream the unthinkable?

India will defend with the knowledge that away from home soil they too often think of limits and inadequacies. They won the last Cup, the first nation to do so at home, because they were well led: MS Dhoni at the helm, Tendulkar and Sehwag by his side. They felt good in their own skin, playing a brand of cricket suited to the conditions. With 12 months to go, they will go searching for the combinations. The key ingredient will be Dhoni himself. Somehow he must reinvent his game, his leadership and tactics, to a new world, to a new way, and fast. He should rest for a time prior to the event to consider all this. He is that good that if refreshed and renewed, he could make up that lost ground. Dhoni's thinking is key; lately some of it has bordered on the utterly bizarre.

What of Australia? Up until recently they have been a tragic shadow of themselves. By dropping their guard on Test cricket as a priority, and moving away from their basic instincts, where players expressed themselves without fear, their world caved in under babysitting management. Thankfully the Ashes became a marathon and the initial front-runner, England, hit the wall spectacularly, while Australia drew on their anger. They responded with a sledgehammer. Their gander is up, the strut is back, but you sense the mask of insecurity is only a thought away. Their invincibility is definitely buried for good. They are just another contender. Yes, they have a thriving nursery of vibrant firebrands and aggressive attackers. Yet their underbelly appears pappy and spongy.

At home, however, under belting sun, they will fight and scrap hard. Familiarity will suffice and their depth of cavalry will outflank oncoming challenges. The Aussies will gain early ground, but will they sustain it? Michael Clarke is showing signs of fatigue and, like Dhoni, he will need careful managing and thought. Timing his run will be paramount.

Which leaves the last three of the top-eight-ranked likely quarter-finalists: West Indies, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. What can you say about these enigmatically variegated teams?

We all love the Calypso flair, the potential West Indies possess. We loved the past heroes, Garry Sobers, Viv Richards, Brian Lara and Malcolm Marshall, for they took us to places unknown. We want them to wake up and entertain us again. Frank Worrell and Clive Lloyd grabbed them and shook them and demanded they conform as one, not as many diverse parts. And as one they responded to inspired leadership. Who will do that for them now? Darren Sammy? Not a chance. But Dwayne Bravo just might. It is he who has the reins at present, and rightly so. Will he create like-mindedness? These island crusaders can't be written off. In truth, deep down, they just might rise like Lazarus did.

Sri Lanka and Pakistan look vulnerable. Their leaders are fine men yet are limited tactically. To me Kumar Sangakkara is the only one truly capable of leading his troops intuitively and defining a way forward. Yet his role is destined to be to just bat. A waste, I feel, for I regard him as one of the greatest and most thoughtful cricketers to have played the game, the finest ever from what was once Ceylon. With no mystery to their bowling, Sri Lanka will struggle on energetic pitches. The opening match of the Cup in Christchurch, against New Zealand, will be a tell-all encounter.

Pakistan are clearly a mess, again. With no Imran, Wasim or Miandad to inspire them, they will frustrate many, including the odd opponent. They are fine cricketers, just not a fine team. I have never understood their thinking, ever. Correction, with the exception of Imran in 1992.

With respect to the rest, they are there to spread the word of the great game and to fight for every ball. They will be welcomed by the hosts and they will provide stories of pain and hope. Then they will depart after round-robin and pool-play with dignity, so the Cup can get on to the business end of discovering who is the world champion of one-day cricket once more.

It's a shame that the top eight don't all play each other, and that luck will probably play a part at quarter-final time. An unbeaten team may play the bottom team of another pool, lose a toss, and go down to Duckworth-Lewis, such is the fluky nature of a competition with so many minnows involved. In essence, the quarter-finals will reflect the exact nature of the Champions Trophy knockout - which, by the way, is somehow back in vogue once more. I prefer the knockout phase to start at semi-final time, a fair reflection of the top four teams having survived a severe examination.

So a year out, where is the thinking? Who is removing the old thoughts and replacing them with new, enlivening ones? Who is pretending and who is suffocating slowly? Who will time their run, as most winners have done so coolly and cleverly before? Who will do what India did so unexpectedly in 1983? Or Sri Lanka in 1996? Or come back from the dead, as Pakistan did in 1992, or Australia in 1999? Will playing at home be the key, as it was finally for India in 2011? It's a fascinating call.

And so I reckon, recent events and happenings considered, that Australia and New Zealand will contest in each semi-final and West Indies and South Africa will oppose them. They are my four based on my thinking about their thinking, of now, of the time ahead. It's a thinking based on how home-town comfort has become king lately. I'm thinking a southern hemisphere victory.

A year to ponder.

Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s and early '90s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand