Let me first clarify what this article is not: it is not about the most exciting or greatest matches in World Cups. The Cricket Monthly covered those very admirably a couple of months ago. It is also not a list of matches containing the greatest individual performances. My last article covered outstanding individual performances in ODIs in depth.
This article looks at matches that turned the tide for the winners in each World Cup; the most important games for those teams in those specific tournaments. Not every impact was direct. It might have been that perhaps the champion's most dangerous opponent was knocked out. Or maybe the match jolted the team into pulling up their collective socks. Some of these matches were early in the tournament and some in the knockout stages. I have spent a lot of time analysing the course of each World Cup to make these picks. I'm sure readers will find as much pleasure in reading about them as in finding out the reasons for their inclusion.
West Indies v Pakistan, Edgbaston
West Indies won by one wicket
This was a crucial match for both teams. With a win here, Pakistan would have been in the race to qualify for the semi-finals, because they went on to make 330 against Sri Lanka in their next game, which boosted scoring rate. If there had been a three-way tie for points, West Indies might have lost out. And even if they made it to the semis, West Indies might have faced the stronger England there instead of New Zealand. Since this match was right in the middle of the tournament, the whole inaugural World Cup might have taken a different turn.
Three contrasting fifties helped Pakistan reach 266, a competitive total. Andy Roberts was the only star bowler in the West Indies attack. In the chase, Sarfraz Nawaz sent back the top three batsmen with 36 on the board, and despite Clive Lloyd's quick-fire fifty, West Indies slipped to 203 for 9. Then Roberts and keeper Deryck Murray came together to build one of the greatest partnerships in World Cup history and, in the course of 15 momentous overs, steered them home.
England v Pakistan, Headingley
England won by 14 runs
Both England and Pakistan had already qualified for the semis, so this match only had significance with regard to group placings - the winner would face New Zealand instead of West Indies in the semi-final.
It was a difficult pitch and the game was played at Test-match pace, with Geoff Boycott scoring 18 runs in 54 balls and Graham Gooch 33 in 90. Somehow England lasted 60 overs to reach 165 for 9. In reply, Pakistan collapsed dramatically from 27 without loss to 34 for 6. Seamers Mike Hendrick and Ian Botham were unplayable. The target was low and Asif Iqbal, batting at No. 7, started a recovery, helped by Imran Khan and Wasim Raja, but they eventually were bowled out for 151, the last two wickets going to Boycott.
India v Zimbabwe, Tunbridge Wells
India won by 31 runs
This is, arguably, the most significant ODI match ever played by India. They slumped to 9 for 4, 17 for 5 and 78 for 7 before recovering to 266 for 8 thanks to the second-greatest ODI innings of all time, a magnificent 175 not out by Kapil Dev. This win started India's march towards their magnificent title triumph a week later. If India had lost to Zimbabwe, they might not have qualified for the knockouts, or they might have met West Indies in the semi-finals.
India v Australia, Chennai
Australia won by one run
The fact that Australia ultimately went on to win this World Cup makes their narrow victory over India in their opening game significant, especially since they lost the next encounter between the two teams in the tournament. Geoff Marsh's pedestrian but invaluable hundred helped Australia post a very good total of 270. India were sitting comfortably at 207 for 2 around the 35th over and an easy win seemed likely when Craig McDermott induced a panic with his four wickets.
England v Pakistan, Adelaide
Pakistan arrived in Adelaide needing a win, having won a match and lost one. That looked unlikely when they were bowled out for 74, their lowest World Cup total to date, and they were lucky that rain washed out the game and gave them a valuable one point. It is difficult to conjecture what would have happened if Pakistan had lost in Adelaide. Since they lost their next two matches, they would have been sitting with one win out of five and might not have qualified for the knockouts.
Sri Lanka v India, semi-final, Calcutta
Sri Lanka won by default
After India beat Pakistan in the quarter-final in Bangalore, they were favourites to win the title. In the semi-final at Eden Gardens, Sri Lanka batted first and fell to 35 for 3 - their top three batsmen collectively scoring only two runs in the innings. The No. 4, Aravinda de Silva, attacked Anil Kumble and Venkatesh Prasad and eventually Sri Lanka reached 251, which was hardly a demanding target for the star-studded Indian line-up. Sachin Tendulkar played magnificently and India were comfortable at 98 for 1 when Jayasuriya, who had failed with the bat, struck with the ball. He triggered a collapse by dismissing Tendulkar and Sanjay Manjrekar. India lost seven wickets for 22 runs and needed another 132 to win with two wickets in hand. At that point the Calcutta spectators decided to show their displeasure by throwing bottles on the field and setting fire to the seating in the stands. The match was called off amid mayhem and Sri Lanka were declared deserving winners. They went on to win the World Cup four days later.
Australia v South Africa, Headingley
Australia won by five wickets
If Australia hadn't won this Super Six game against South Africa, then, following the tied semi-final at Edgbaston, it would have been South Africa going into the final. A beautifully paced hundred from Herschelle Gibbs and supporting acts by Daryll Cullinan, Jonty Rhodes and Lance Klusener took South Africa to a potentially match-winning 271. Australia lost three quick wickets after which Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting added a match-winning 126 together. Waugh played one of the greatest World Cup innings, remaining unbeaten on 120 to take Australia into the semis with two balls to spare.
Australia v Sri Lanka, semi-final, Port Elizabeth
Australia won by 48 runs (D-L method)
Australia were unbeaten in the 2003 World Cup, and in the group stage, except for a close match against England, they won each game quite comfortably. However, this was not a high-scoring World Cup and the bowlers had their days under the African sun. In the semi-final, despite a composed 91 from Andrew Symonds, Australia only managed a sub-par 212 for 7. But Sri Lanka struggled against Australia's top-quality pace attack and were reduced to 76 for 7. Kumar Sangakkara and Chaminda Vaas' 47-run stand only delayed the inevitable. Rain came down in torrents to end the one-sided contest and give Australia an easy D-L win.
Bangladesh v South Africa, Providence
Bangladesh won by 67 runs
After their heartbreaks in 1999 and 2003, South Africa came into the 2007 World Cup as strong contenders for the title. They had lost only one match - to Australia - when they met Bangladesh, still considered "minnows", in the Super Eights. Mohammad Ashraful's magnificent 87 off 83 balls took Bangladesh to 251 for 8, which should have been easy enough for South Africa's strong batting line-up. However, the Bangladesh spinners restricted the free-scoring South African batsmen and earned a 67-run win. The result changed the dynamic of the tournament significantly - South Africa now had to meet a rampaging Australia in the semi-final instead of in the final as had been expected.
India v Pakistan, semi-final, Mohali
India won by 29 runs
I have selected this match as a tide-turning one for India because, in many ways, it was a more difficult match than the final for them. Tendulkar played, arguably, the worst innings of his career but also perhaps his most valuable one. He scratched around for nearly three hours and was dropped no fewer than four times during his 115-ball 85, which took India to a competitive 260 for 9. There was no big innings from Pakistan, and though nearly all the top-order batsmen got starts, their highest score was 56 (by Misbah-ul-Haq) and their biggest partnership was 44 (between openers Kamran Akmal and Mohammad Hafeez). They fell 29 runs short. The five Indian bowlers took two wickets each. It was a scrappy match but a big win for India.
New Zealand v Australia, Auckland
New Zealand won by one wicket
In a World Cup Australia dominated and won, I have picked a match they lost. The reason is simple: this defeat stung them hard. After this game, Australia did not put a foot wrong and won six successive matches in commanding fashion to seal their fifth title.
This was a low-scoring match punctuated by two terrific fast-bowling performances - by Trent Boult and Mitchell Starc. Brad Haddin dragged Australia up from 106 for 9 to 151. In reply, Brendon McCullum kicked off the chase with a 24-ball 50 and New Zealand's score was 78 for 1 in less than eight overs. Then Starc got into the act and reduced New Zealand to 99 for 4. From there, they slipped to 146 for 9 before Kane WIlliamson kept his cool and finished the game with a stunning straight six off Pat Cummins.
A look at the current World Cup
I will now look at the strengths of the teams playing in the 2019 World Cup.
It will be very difficult for a team to qualify for the semis with four wins but it will also take extraordinarily bad luck not to qualify with six wins. This is not a 9-8-7-6 wins type of tournament, where one team goes through unbeaten, the next team loses one match, and so on. Even the fancied teams are likely to lose matches. Therefore, five wins will be needed to have any chance of qualification. At five wins, it is almost certain that the net run rate will also come into play.
With over 20% of the matches washed out and more rain to come, it is clear that the preliminary phase has become a lottery. For these "points shared" matches, whether the point was "gained" or "lost" will only be known later. Still, it's difficult to see India, England and Australia, despite their initial hiccups, not qualifying for the knockout stages. Only a string of upsets could prevent one of these three teams from making it. The contenders for the fourth place in the semis are, in order of their chances, New Zealand, West Indies and Pakistan. With regret, I have to take South Africa off this list. They have left themselves too much to do, and not all of it in their own hands. From the semis onwards, it's just a matter of the team having two great days winning the World Cup.
I have created a table of team strengths based on the actual XIs fielded by teams in the World Cup so far. (This is updated till the England-West Indies match on June 14.)
First, a brief note on the Team Strength indices for batting and bowling. The batting index is a composite of batting average and strike rates for the top seven batsmen. The bowling index is a composite of bowling strike rate and bowling accuracy for the top five bowlers. Both are calibrated in such a way that a value of 50.0 represents the pinnacle. The very few values above 50 are capped at 50.0. The table below lists the strongest XIs fielded by each team in the tournament so far, in terms of team index (overall strength), batting index and bowling index.
India fielded one of the strongest teams ever, in their first match, against South Africa, and their team against Australia was even stronger than that, because these are career-to-date values. They have no weakness and only the slight issue with the middle order pegs their batting down a little.
Australia also have a very strong team and this is reflected in their comfortable second position.
England's batting is legendary by now. They are clocking more than 50 but are levelled off at that point for the purposes of this exercise. However, their bowling is nowhere near the level of the other teams. Jofra Archer is still an unknown entity.
On paper, South Africa are quite strong With Dale Steyn and a full complement of bowlers, their bowling could have touched an all-time high mark. New Zealand have no weaknesses and are quite close to South Africa.
Surprisingly Pakistan's batting is very strong and they bat deep. However, their bowling is not that great.
Now we come to the lower half. Bangladesh's numbers support the assertion that their team is strong and balanced.
Surprisingly, even after introducing a tweak to the ratings parameters for the quality of batting that their bowlers have bowled against, Afghanistan have a very good bowling line-up. Rashid Khan (bowling average of 15.63 - adjusted to around 20), Mujeeb Ur Rahman (20.50 - adjusted to around 25) and Hamid Hassan (21.09 - adjusted to around 26) lead the way. This top-drawer bowling line-up makes up for the weaknesses in their batting.
It is a real surprise to see West Indies so far down the table. Their batting is above average - they clock in at well above 40, however, their bowling is ordinary - very high averages, barring Oshane Thomas, who has taken very few wickets. But these numbers do not tell the true story. West Indies could destroy any team on their day, which is the day their bowling works.
Sri Lanka are below par in this tournament. The absence of attacking batsmen and quality spinners is hurting them. It is no surprise that they are at the bottom of the list.
And finally, shall we all agree that Mohammad Nabi's over against Sri Lanka was, arguably, the greatest over in the World Cup history?
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