New Zealand

By Deivarayan Muthu

How it went last time
It started with drawn series in Sri Lanka, where centuries from Tom Latham and BJ Watling headlined New Zealand's win in a rain-hit fixture at the P Sara Oval. Then, when New Zealand were dispatched 3-0 across the Tasman Sea, questions were asked of Kane Williamson's captaincy and the depth in the side, especially after they were ravaged by injury and illness in the Sydney Test. Upon returning home, New Zealand answered some of those questions, sweeping India, West Indies and Pakistan 2-0 each. This despite the injury-enforced absence of their premier allrounder Colin de Grandhomme in the home summer, and Williamson nursing an elbow injury in addition to taking a paternity break in the interim.

New Zealand became the first side to qualify for the final after Australia's tour of South Africa was postponed over Covid-19 concerns. In the title match, in Southampton, New Zealand toppled India to emerge as the inaugural champions, nearly two years after that heartbreak at Lord's.

Question marks
With tours to India and Pakistan lined up this cycle, New Zealand need to firm up their spin attack. Ajaz Patel has re-emerged as New Zealand's No. 1 spinner, with an impressive performance in the victory over England at Edgbaston (a non-WTC Test), but are the other two fingerspinners, Mitchell Santner and Will Somerville, good enough overseas? Tom Blundell, who is set to fill the BJ Watling-sized hole behind the stumps and in front of it in the middle order, will likely face a tough challenge on these tours too.

Strengths
Trent Boult, Tim Southee, Neil Wagner and Kyle Jamieson form a fearsome fast-bowling quartet that has even drawn comparisons with the West Indies attack of the 1980s. Jamieson's ability to swing the ball both ways from a fiendishly high arm release has set the attack apart from other similarly potent line-ups. There's also enviable depth on the batting front, with Devon Conway and Will Young stepping up on the most recent UK tour.

Emerging talent
Watch out for Wellington's Rachin Ravindra. The 21-year-old has three hundreds and nine fifties in 26 first-class matches and can pitch in with his handy left-arm fingerspin. He's also one of the better batters against spin, having been on regular trips to India in pre-Covid times with the Hutt Hawks Club. Ravindra was part of New Zealand's 20-member squad for the England trip, and it could only be a matter of time before he breaks into the XI.

Who will they play?
Home: Bangladesh, South Africa, Sri Lanka
Away: India, England, Pakistan

India

by Shashank Kishore

How it went last time
It was smooth sailing until the pandemic disruptions caused the points system to be tweaked - the finalists were to be determined by the percentage of points they earned in WTC series played. Having lost 2-0 away to New Zealand in February 2020 - India's only away series loss during the two-year cycle - they needed to beat both Australia (away) and England (home) to qualify. From the depths of 36 all out in Adelaide, India, without Virat Kohli, eked out their reserve power to script history in Australia under Ajinkya Rahane's captaincy. While their path to the WTC final was made straightforward by Australia cancelling their tour of South Africa, India didn't help matters by conceding the first of their four-Test series to England on a slow Chennai pitch. Eventually, through R Ashwin and debutant Axar Patel, and some fizzy turners, India took the series 3-1 - including a two-day finish to the day-night Test in Ahmedabad - to qualify for the grand finale, where, having gone in as favourites, they stumbled in rainy Southampton against deserving winners New Zealand.

Question marks
Few teams have the luxury of fielding two competent outfits at the same time as India do, but they still haven't been able to nail down a solid opening combination, trying out Rohit Sharma, Mayank Agarwal, Prithvi Shaw and Shubman Gill in the previous cycle. Each of these four has been hampered by either form or injury along the way. KL Rahul's role remains poorly defined - is he a back-up opener or middle-order contender? India's next best, Abhimanyu Easwaran and Priyank Panchal, will have gone nearly 18 months with no first-class cricket when India begin their next cycle. Do the selectors earmark back-ups on white-ball form then?

India would also do well to groom their spinners and a seam-bowling allrounder in Hardik Pandya's absence - he is now being looked at as a white-ball option. Shardul Thakur has shown batting promise aplenty, as he did at the Gabba, but he may not yet qualify as an allrounder. There is Harshal Patel, a domestic veteran now, but few other options in domestic cricket. In the spin department, Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja continue to hold fort, but Kuldeep Yadav has slid further in the reckoning, while Shahbaz Nadeem hasn't inspired the kind of confidence in internationals as he does in first-class cricket. Axar Patel seems ready, but India could look to build bench strength there, too.

Strengths
India's fast-bowling depth is enviable as are their middle-order batting options. A robust India A programme under Rahul Dravid has created a pool of match-ready players waiting to step in at any given opportunity, like they did in Australia. Shaw responded to his axing in Australia by topping the run charts in a record white-ball season for Mumbai. Suryakumar Yadav, at 30, has shown the kind of match-readiness few have in recent memory. Washington Sundar has gone from being a powerplay spinner in T20 to genuine batting allrounder in red-ball cricket. Mohammed Siraj has reaped the benefits of playing in overseas conditions on A tours. And these are just a few examples.

Emerging talent
Gill has been earmarked as a special talent, and the next cycle could determine if he is set for the long haul as a Test opener. Rishabh Pant has transformed his game, going from unfit to undroppable in a span of six months. He has already given a glimpse of his leadership qualities as captain of the Delhi Capitals in this IPL in Shreyas Iyer's absence. With Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Rahane all approaching their mid-thirties, India won't mind having a few candidates to pick from when it comes to the Test captaincy.

Who will they play?
Home: New Zealand, Australia, Sri Lanka
Away: England, South Africa, Bangladesh

Australia

by Andrew McGlashan

How it went last time
After being strongly placed at the beginning of the cycle, with a drawn Ashes series and clean sweeps against Pakistan and New Zealand at home , it all went a bit wrong for Australia. Much has been made of the over-rate penalty imposed after the MCG Test against India, which meant they missed the final, but they still had their fate in their own hands during the final two matches of that series. However, they could not bowl India out on the final day at the SCG and slumped to a historic defeat at the Gabba.

The Ashes in 2019 was Australia's only away series of the cycle; the pandemic forced them to postpone tours to Bangladesh and, more controversially, South Africa earlier this year. They played only four Tests in the year from January 2020 to January 2021 and now are in the middle of another ten-month gap before their next assignment.

Question marks
They largely rest around the batting, although the future of the captaincy will be up for debate after this season's home Ashes. If Australia win, it could be time for Tim Paine to exit on a high; if they lose, he may not be given a choice. Only three front-line Test batters were named in the CA contract list - Smith, David Warner and Marnus Labuschagne - so there are at least two spots up for grabs at the start of the next WTC (Australia resume Test cricket with a non-WTC match against Afghanistan). Selectors and captain have made it clear there needs to be strong competition in the first part of the Sheffield Shield season. With three subcontinent tours in this cycle, they will also need to address the balance of the side, with two spinners likely being needed on some occasions.

Strengths
Australia remain well-resourced in the pace-bowling department, led by Pat Cummins, who was outstanding throughout the first WTC cycle, but it might be time to actually delve into that depth. Because of Australia's rotation policy (or specific selections for certain grounds), Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc formed the attack with Cummins in all 14 WTC Tests, but Starc again finds himself under scrutiny in this format. In James Pattinson, Jhye Richardson and Michael Neser they have three quicks who will push hard for a place. And while there is uncertainty over the batting, in Smith and Labuschagne Australia have two of the best going around.

Emerging talent
Will Pucovski and Cameron Green, who made debuts against India, are shaping up to be key figures in Australia's future. Pucovski should return to the batting line-up if he recovers from shoulder reconstruction, while allrounder Green offers the potential to balance the side, especially useful for the previously mentioned subcontinental challenges. Green can command a spot as a batter alone but Australia will want his bowling to come good this season. Keep an eye on legspinner Mitchell Swepson too.

Who will they play?
Home: England, West Indies, South Africa
Away: Pakistan, Sri Lanka, India

England

By Andrew Miller

How it went last time
Really, it went about as well as England could realistically have hoped, given how little focus there had been on their red-ball team in the preceding four years of 50-over World Cup build-up. They scalped a share of their home Ashes against Australia, thanks in vast measure to the heroics of Ben Stokes at Headingley, then battled back gamely in South Africa to win 3-1. Two more series wins, over West Indies and Pakistan, in the lockdown summer of 2020 were followed by the most remarkable run of the lot - a trio of Test wins in Sri Lanka and India, all of them overseen by Joe Root at his unflappable best.

At 1-0 up with three to play in India, England seemed to have a puncher's chance of leapfrogging the hosts to claim a berth in that inaugural WTC final. Instead, Axar Patel and R Ashwin made mincemeat of their techniques on a series of spinning tracks. But to judge by how the final eventually panned out, England wouldn't have laid a glove on the rightful winners, New Zealand, who they played in home-and-away two-Test series in this same cycle, outside of the WTC, to be emphatically outplayed in both campaigns.

Question marks
The obvious issues of workload and bubble fatigue are hardly unique to England, but their itinerary is especially absurd in the coming months, with back-to-back five-Test series against India at home and Australia away making for an arduous opening gambit to their qualification cycle. Throw in the complication of the T20 World Cup and there are plenty of reasons to wonder if England can remain sufficiently focused on the longest format for long enough.

And all that is before you consider the biggest single issue facing England right now - the alarming fallibility of a batting order that was picked apart by New Zealand and now has next to no red-ball opportunities to regroup before the India series begins.

Then there's the question of the captaincy. Root is England's only genuine option for the short to medium term, but he's been in the role for four years already and Ashes tours tend to mark the end of England Test cycles, rather than mid-points.

Strengths
All things considered (and injury being foremost among those considerations), England have an enviable depth and variety of fast-bowling options right now - and they will need those resources, given the intensity of what is to come. James Anderson remains peerless as he approaches his 40th year, and Stuart Broad is equally unwilling to bow to the advance of time, but there's a pack of contenders queuing up to make their case. Mark Wood and Jofra Archer (now back in action for Sussex) will have pivotal roles to play in the Ashes in particular, where 90mph bowlers are key to any series hopes. Oh, and did anyone mention the reigning England Men's Player of the Year, Chris Woakes? Or the scourge of India in 2018, Sam Curran? It's quite the stable taking shape.

Emerging talent
It wasn't so long ago that England were all in a lather about the glut of upcoming stars, so there's no reason to believe that the likes of Zak Crawley, Ollie Pope, Sam Curran, Dom Bess and Dan Lawrence - all of whom were still 23 at the start of the season - won't grow together to form the backbone of the Test team in the coming years. After his white-ball breakthroughs, Saqib Mahmood, just 24, has ample room to develop his talents across formats. Ollie Robinson, his historic tweets saga seemingly behind him, has a big opportunity to make his mark this summer. Nevertheless, it's been a chastening few months, hardly helped by the strictures of lockdown, and it might be expecting too much for each and every one of those talents to come to fruition in the next WTC cycle.

Who will they play?
Home: India, New Zealand, South Africa
Away: Australia, Pakistan, West Indies

South Africa

by Firdose Moonda

How it went last time
Anecdotal evidence suggests this cycle went as badly as South Africa could possibly have imagined. It coincided with the most turbulent administrative period in Cricket South Africa's history, which saw them go through three acting CEOs, three Test captains and an entirely new board. On paper, it doesn't look so bad, as South Africa finished mid-table, but fifth place flatters them.

They were badly beaten in India (3-0) in October 2019, losing two of three Tests by an innings. Two months later, Thabang Moroe was suspended as CEO of the board and a new leadership was put in place - Graeme Smith was appointed director of cricket and Mark Boucher head coach. Boucher had less than two weeks to prepare the team for their home series against England. South Africa won the Boxing Day Test but lost the series 3-1 and had to wait a year to play in the longest format again. They beat a weakened Sri Lanka 2-0 at home, lost 2-0 away to Pakistan and then had a much anticipated three-match home series against Australia postponed, because the tourists were concerned about the Covid-19 situation in South Africa. The cycle closed out with South Africa beating West Indies 2-0 in the Caribbean in a series of no consequence, coinciding as it did with the WTC final.

Question marks
Batting collapses became the worrying norm for South Africa in the last cycle, thanks largely to problems in the middle order. They moved Quinton de Kock up and down the line-up, experimenting with him at No. 4 initially, though it's clear his best performances come at No. 7. They also need to settle on a spot for vice-captain Temba Bavuma and find a replacement for Faf du Plessis at No. 4. With Rassie van der Dussen installed at No. 3, Keegan Petersen and Kyle Verreynne have the opportunity to establish themselves in the line-up and stabilise South Africa.

Strengths
A pace attack made up of Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi and Anrich Nortje, with left-armer Beuran Hendricks, the fast-medium Lizaad Williams, young quicks Lutho Sipamla and Marco Jansen, and allrounder Wiaan Mulder in reserve, suggests South Africa's seam cupboard is as full as it has ever been. Add Keshav Maharaj, their most successful spinner since readmission into the mix and they also have variation in their bowling. What's even better is that their schedule in the next cycle favours their attack. At home they will play teams used to slower pitches, and away they are likely to play on green tops on which their fast bowlers should be quite a handful.

Emerging talent
South Africa have been looking for a batting allrounder since Jacques Kallis retired at the end of 2013. Mulder is the latest proposed candidate, though, unlike Kallis, he bats in the middle to lower order. Mulder has six Test caps to his name, five in the most recent cycle of the WTC, and while he has had limited opportunity to show his run-scoring ability, his reputation is promising. He is also a handy bowling option and an excellent slip fielder, like Kallis, and could be the two-in-one player South Africa need to give their XI an X-factor.

Who will they play?
Home: India, Bangladesh, West Indies
Away: New Zealand, England, Australia

Pakistan

by Danyal Rasool

How it went last time
If you glanced through Pakistan's results, there's little inkling they were playing anything more than the stock bilateral series. They hoovered up points in home series, triumphant against Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and South Africa, winning four of five matches in addition to a rain-affected draw. It was staid, predictable cricket for the most part, but there were highs: Naseem Shah's hat-trick in a packed stadium in Rawalpindi just before Covid-19 shut everything down, and Hasan Ali's sizzling comeback against South Africa led Pakistan to a pair of come-from-behind wins.

On the other side of the coin, travel sickness remains a familiar theme for this young side led by Babar Azam. They lost all four Tests either side of the Tasman Sea fairly comprehensively, with David Warner's record 335, the second-highest Test score by an Australian, coming at Pakistan's expense in Adelaide. The series in England - weather affected as it was - represented Pakistan's best showing away by far. They were unfortunate to lose the only Test that produced a result, at Old Trafford; the thrilling three-wicket defeat kept them winless on the road, and denied them any realistic chance of qualification for the WTC final.

Question marks
Aside from their away form, the top order remains a concern. Pakistan have struggled to find suitable candidates for openers, especially against the moving, bouncing ball, ever since Shan Masood dropped out of form and contention. With Yasir Shah less of a dominant force in red-ball cricket, partly due to Pakistan having relocated back home from the UAE, there is uncertainty and inexperience in the spin department, which Pakistan have leaned on heavily over the past decade to bowl sides out. The absence of a genuine bowling allrounder tends to leave the XI looking unbalanced at times, but Faheem Ashraf has plugged that gap, at least in the short term. The alarming slide in fielding standards since the fielding coach Steve Rixon departed is also a concern, with slip catches particularly affected.

Strengths
The middle order is rather impressive, especially since the inclusion of Mohammad Rizwan and Fawad Alam, two players who have translated domestic success into international proficiency. Rizwan's wicketkeeping skills are a major upgrade on his predecessor, and the 29-year-old is also a reliable vice-captain to Azam, who, of course, is the prince of Pakistan cricket at the moment, boasting the second highest batting average (66.67) in the last cycle (behind only Marnus Labuschagne, among players with a minimum of ten Tests). The spectacular return of Hasan Ali, who has taken 26 wickets at 13.88 in his last four Tests, should give Pakistan confidence for the cycle ahead.

Emerging talent
This is the area Pakistan likes to think it specialises in, but nurturing players to maturity has proved a tough task. Fast bowlers Mohammad Musa and Naseem Shah - both 21 or younger - made appearances in Test cricket in the last cycle before falling away, while 19-year-old wicketkeeper-batsman Rohail Nazir seems to always be knocking at the door without gaining entry.

Who will they play?
Home: Australia, New Zealand, England
Away: West Indies, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh

Sri Lanka

by Andrew Fidel Fernando

How it went last time
Sri Lanka won their first match of the inaugural WTC cycle, orchestrating an outstanding fourth-innings chase against New Zealand in Galle. But that's really as good as it got for them. New Zealand won the next match, in Colombo, and Sri Lanka didn't win another Test until the last match of the cycle, against Bangladesh in Pallekele. By that stage, they had of course long been out of contention for a top-two spot.

In between these wins there were some half-decent showings, such as the series they drew 0-0 in the Caribbean, but also some haunting, almost inexplicable, lows, such as the 2-0 defeat at the hands of England, in Galle - the batting almost comically incompetent in two of those innings. There were also losses on the road to Pakistan (1-0) and South Africa (2-0).

Question marks
What isn't a question mark in Sri Lanka's cricket at present? Primarily, the worry is the batting, because although the top order is experienced, only one batter, Angelo Mathews, has an average higher than 40. Dimuth Karunaratne has been consistent as well - his 978 runs as an opener in the first WTC cycle, at an average of 57.52, is the second highest for a batter at the top of the order, after Rohit Sharma's 1094. But it is Karunaratne and Mathews, plus Suranga Lakmal and Dinesh Chandimal, who have been most irked by the recent fallout over annual contracts. It will take some diplomacy to get them back in the fold. This is a serious challenge to the board, which often lacks tact.

There is also the long-standing problem of injuries to fast bowlers. Although with Lakmal - he was Sri Lanka's most reliable bowler this cycle, averaging 25.55 and maintaining an economy rate of 25.46 - Dushmantha Chameera, Lahiru Kumara, Kasun Rajitha, Vishwa Fernando and Asitha Fernando there is a half-decent, relatively youthful, fast-bowling group there, bowlers have often broken down in the middle of Test matches, as on the South Africa tour.

In the next cycle, Sri Lanka will play both finalists from the last WTC away from home. They have never won a Test in India, and last won in New Zealand back in 2006.

Strengths
As ever, the spin attack seems in the healthiest shape, with left-arm spinner Lasith Embuldeniya having emerged as a potential match-winner. Praveen Jayawickrama was also impressive in the one Test he has played so far - his 11 for 178 were the best figures for a Sri Lanka debutant, and the tenth best for a debutant in Test history. Ramesh Mendis' offspin has also been good in home conditions, and Dhananjaya de Silva has seemed capable of holding down an end with his darts, even if he has not been a wicket-taker. There are caveats to this too, however. All of these bowlers are inexperienced at Test level, and with the veteran Dilruwan Perera now not really in contention for a place, there is a chance this greenness could be exposed, especially overseas.

Emerging talent
If Sri Lanka's domestic system can claim to have produced a Test-ready batter, it is 23-year-old Pathum Nissanka. He has consistently racked up first-class runs, and averages 64.45 across 65 innings. He also hit a century against West Indies in Antigua, in his first Test, and for now, appears to be one of the more technically sound batters in Sri Lanka's top order.

Who will they play?
Home: Australia, Pakistan, West Indies
Away: Bangladesh, India, New Zealand

West Indies

by Firdose Moonda

How it went last time
West Indies will be disappointed to have finished second from the bottom and to have won only one of the six series they played in, even if it was a win to remember. They beat Bangladesh 2-0 away with a second-string side after several first-choice players opted out of the tour because of bio-bubble fatigue. That series introduced the world to Kyle Mayers, who scored an unbeaten double-hundred in a successful chase of 395 in Chattogram - the highest in Asia - but West Indies could not close out their other series.

West Indies beat England in the opening Test of their three-match series in July 2020 in a match that marked the return of international cricket since the Covid-19-enforced lockdowns around the world, but they lost the next two matches. They also lost at home to India at the start of the cycle and to South Africa at the end of it. In between they drew a series against Sri Lanka by showing some batting fortitude in the first match but their bowlers could not produce a win in the second.

Question marks
West Indies scored more than 300 only five times in 26 innings in the last WTC cycle and only four batters scored hundreds during the tournament, none of them getting more than one. Two batters, Mayers and Nkrumah Bonner, averaged over 40 but both played in fewer than half of the total matches. West Indies need more consistency from their current line-up and have to find new batters who can feature in big partnerships. For those purposes, they should also consider hiring a batting coach. And now that Jason Holder has been relieved of the captaincy to focus on his all-round game, there will high expectations of him.

Strengths
West Indies' bowling is a blend of experience and youth, and they seem to have the personnel for a variety of conditions. The evergreen Kemar Roach continues to lead the fast-bowling pack, with Holder, Shannon Gabriel and Alzarri Joseph among the front-line quicks. They also have several spinners to call on, including Rahkeem Cornwall, Roston Chase and a slew of part-timers. West Indies will hope their fast bowlers can take them higher up the WTC points table this time round, considering they will get to bowl in friendly conditions in Australia and South Africa, and face the likes of Pakistan and Bangladesh at home.

Emerging talent
Jayden Seales made his debut against South Africa with only one first-class cap to his name but played like someone with much more experience. After coming to prominence at the 2020 Under-19 World Cup, he was consistent with the red ball, returning for several spells, maintaining good pace and disciplined lines and lengths. His action has been compared to Kagiso Rabada's and the hope is that, if properly managed, he could form part of a West Indian revival.

Who will they play?
Home: Pakistan, Bangladesh, England
Away: Australia, South Africa, Sri Lanka

Bangladesh

by Mohammad Isam

How it went last time
Every opponent put Bangladesh to the sword in the first WTC cycle. India and Pakistan knocked them off easily before the pandemic, and West Indies and Sri Lanka outsmarted and outplayed them this year. Captain Mominul Haque's major strategy seemed to be to hand the ball to the spinners and hope they do the job, regardless of the conditions. It became harder without Shakib Al Hasan, who played only one of Bangladesh's seven WTC Tests.

Bangladesh couldn't play five of their scheduled 12 Tests during this cycle because of the pandemic. Their second Test against Pakistan, in April last year, was called off, and Australia and New Zealand postponed tours to the country. But those matches may not ultimately have made much difference to Bangladesh's overall standing in the points table.

Question marks
Two weeks before the start of Bangladesh's Test series in India, the board named their new Test captain, Haque, on the same evening that the ICC banned Shakib for a year for failing to report bookie approaches. Through the seven WTC Tests Bangladesh played, Haque missed the support of his senior players - Tamim Iqbal wasn't available against India, Mushfiqur Rahim against Pakistan, and Shakib was banned, injured or unavailable for virtually the whole cycle. The selectors also didn't show much faith in any of the other batters or fast bowlers. The most disappointing aspect was losing to an under-strength West Indies at home, which exposed the spin-only plan in familiar conditions.

Strengths
Bangladesh's combination of experienced cricketers and talented youngsters has always been their strength. If this is managed well in the next cycle, there may be better results. Haque's batting has certainly improved as a captain, though his decision-making needs work. It was also heartening to see Taskin Ahmed's comeback in Sri Lanka, where his fitness, skills and hunger looked much improved.

Emerging talent
Twenty-two-year-old Najmul Hossain Shanto could still emerge as a regular at No 3. For that, he will have to sort out his technical issue against deliveries going away from the off stump, particularly early in his innings. However, he has shown a hunger for big innings, as evidenced by his 163 against Sri Lanka, Bangladesh's highest score during the first WTC cycle.

Who will they play?
Home: Pakistan, Sri Lanka, India
Away: New Zealand, South Africa, West Indies