Cricket is a funny game they often say. It certainly has been quite funny of late with the International Cricket Council (ICC) cracking down at the last minute on many bowlers with illegal bowling actions, trying to separate wheat from chaff. And then, in order to maintain a fine balance between the bat and the ball – last week, it announced that it will relook at the sizes of the bat as too many runs are being scored these days (the Indian team in Australia may not particularly agree). The ICC is clearly confused and it needs a break, more than the Indian team, before the World Cup begins.
There, however, is no confusion among cricket experts on who will win the World Cup. Many have already tipped South Africa to be the firm favourites for the tournament. The South African team, who have had a lifetime tag of chokers, will certainly welcome their new status in world cricket.
Being called favourites is one thing but to leave the team with no other choice apart from winning a tournament is another. South Africa’s Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula while giving a send-off to the cricketers leaving for Australia, almost warned them ‘not to return home as losers’. To be fair, the minister’s intent was to motivate the team. His words: “To AB and your bunch of winners: you are not playing against cows. You are not playing against donkeys. Don’t undermine any of them. Go and win it for us.” One gets a feeling Mbalula might have offended the animal rights activists with his remark, but not Nasser Hussain who would be happy as now he is not the only one to associate cricketers with donkeys.
South Africa’s road to the World Cup has been quite impressive. Last month, they mauled the West Indies 4-1 which also saw a word-record by captain AB de Villiers who scored a 31-ball century. But the world cup will be a different ball game altogether. De Villiers should be warned that in the World Cup he will face teams like India who will not allow him to score a century in less than 60 balls with their better-than-West Indies bowling. If he manages to do so, then and perhaps only then, the Indian fans will consider him a better batter than Virat Kohli, that too only in One-Day Internationals. Till then, De Villiers can relax and worry about a slightly better opponent, Zimbabwe.
South Africa will surely be expected to walk over its African neighbour on February 15. Any result apart from that might make even the Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe collapse, again, this time at his home in the living room, watching an incredibly ridiculous upset.
South Africa’s next four matches in the group stages are truly scary as they are against probably the most inconsistent teams of our times – world champions India, underrated West Indies, ‘minnows’ Ireland and ‘unpredictable’ Pakistan. If India suddenly regains its form with Virat Kohli firing in all cylinders, Stuart Binny becoming an unlikely hero; if West Indies realise that they actually have talent; if Ireland do their usual thing which they do in a World Cup; if Pakistan plays hopelessly in their previous matches to become unpredictable enough to beat South Africa, we will see the Proteas left with no other choice but to play a customary match against the United Arab Emirates before flying back home, only to be welcomed by their irate sports minister.
The South African team at that stage may not have realised what they would have done to the cricketing world by their early exit- give Ireland a realistic chance to qualify for the quarterfinals. The European giant killers will then have to upset one more team in addition to South Africa – assuming they defeat the UAE and the Zimbabwe for that eventuality to happen.
Assuming no upsets in the group A and following the current form and logic, the Irish team, possibly placed at number 4 in their group, will face Australia in the first quarterfinal match. If the pressure of playing at home gets too big and David Warner is not allowed by the officials to sledge, Ireland, who knows, will be in the semis, most likely facing New Zealand! If the Irish luck continues and the Kiwis extend their semi-final dilemma in this World Cup too, Ireland will create history by entering the final, leading to a million suicides by bookies around the world.
Facing a vulnerable England or Sri Lanka or India or Pakistan at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in the final, Ireland can create a mother of all upsets, forcing the ICC to give them the Test status. What’s worse, Ireland one day may beat India in a five-day match on a pacer-friendly pitch in Dublin, leading much embarrassment to the Indian fans. There you have it – South Africa has more than one reason why they should win this world cup or more importantly why they should beat Ireland.