Iceland heads to Russia as the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup, but the land of fire and ice has always loved the beautiful game.
Islamabad: Pakistan coach Mickey Arthur says it’s time to move on from captain Sarfraz Ahmed’s four-match ban for a racial taunt and concentrate on finalizing the team for the Cricket World Cup.
Sarfraz was reaffirmed on Tuesday as captain to the end of the World Cup in July, despite the Pakistan Cricket Board saying its policy was to name the captain on a series-to-series basis.
Pakistan media have questioned the Sarfraz decision, including whether it was a political riposte at the ICC for banning Sarfraz. Private broadcaster Geo News wondered whether the PCB did a U-turn or succumbed to pressure from unnamed quarters.
On the national team’s return on Friday from the tour of South Africa, Arthur said PCB chairman Ehsan Mani talked with him and chief selector Inzamam-ul-Haq before reappointing Sarfraz as captain.
“We’ve made that decision because we are very comfortable with Sarfraz leading this team forward,” Arthur said in Lahore. “There’s clarity, there’s no more speculation.”
Sarfraz was banned for racially taunting South Africa allrounder Andile Phehlukwayo in an ODI last month in Durban. He returned home and missed the last two one-day internationals and the entire three-match Twenty20 series.
“What he did was wrong and it was worked through,” Arthur said. “Saffy took it on the chin, he apologized, he moved forward, everything was handled properly.”
Arthur believed Sarfraz’s main job is wicketkeeping, and he was not worried about his captain’s dip in batting form.
“He (Sarfraz) has dropped eight balls in four and a half months, so he is not out of form in his core job,” Arthur said. “I’m not, and I want to reiterate, not worried about Sarfraz Ahmed’s (batting) form.”
Pakistan lost the Test, ODI, and T20 series in South Africa.
While Arthur acknowledged Pakistan needed to improve a lot in Test matches, he was disappointed to lose the ODIs 3-2 and the T20s 2-1.
“We thought we were as good as South Africa in those conditions,” he said.
Arthur criticized the Test pitches as none of the games went to the fifth day. But Arthur said Pakistan was not the only team which has struggled in South Africa.
“I don’t think there’s any coincidence that no Asian team has won a Test series in South Africa,” he said. “So we know we’ve got a lot of work to do with our Test side.”
He picked out Babar Azam for praise, for becoming the batting mainstay in white-ball cricket.
“South Africa is the toughest place to bat … to see Babar Azam’s development across all formats on this tour was simply amazing and I think was something to be proud,” he said.
The South African-born Arthur said he had a pool of about 20 players from which the final 15 will be picked for the Cricket World Cup in England and Wales.
“We’re probably ahead of lot of other teams … we have condensed our pool and now have to finalize it after the Australia tour (in March), so we are pretty much on track.”
It is has been five years since India last toured New Zealand for an ODI series. Given the rigorous modern-day schedules, it is difficult to digest the fact that it has been such an eternity since the two teams clashed in the Land of the Long White Cloud.
The five-match series might be a rare event on the calendar, but it is a crucial series for both teams. The five matches are India’s last assignment abroad before the World Cup in May. The Black Caps have another three-match series against Bangladesh but will be desperate to test themselves against the team ranked 2 in the world.
For India, the series win in Australia was significant given the absence of Jasprit Bumrah and Hardik Pandya. But there is still the big question over the No 4 spot and time is running out for the team management. As many as eleven batsmen have batted at the No 4 spot since the 2015 World Cup. Out of those, Yuvraj Singh, Ajinkya Rahane and Manish Pandey are out of the picture.
Ambati Rayudu boasts of a healthy average of 48.8 at No 4 from his six innings, but four of those innings have come against West Indies and on home soil. Rayudu struggled in both the matches in Australia and there is still a question mark about his ability against quality opposition on foreign tracks. It might be too early to ditch the Rayudu-at-four experiment and he should get at least two games to prove his value.
The other logical option and one that vice-captain Rohit Sharma insisted on during the recent Australia series was to have MS Dhoni at No 4. The wicketkeeper-batsman has batted there 12 times in the last four years and averages 76.84. However, Virat Kohli stated at the conclusion of the third match in Australia that he believed Dhoni’s ideal spot was No 5. Dhoni himself declared he was happy to bat at any position. Dinesh Karthik averages 52.80 at that spot, but he has been designated the finishing role and is locked in at No 6.
Ideally, a No 4 should be able to handle the new ball in case the two top order batsmen are dismissed early. He should also have the capabilities to accelerate the innings through the middle phases. But such has been the solidity of the top three that in the past 12 months, the No 4 has only batted before the 10th over on just three instances.
Apart from the No 4 dilemma, the Men in Blue look quite settled. The absence of Pandya will once again lead to the few combination predicaments and may result in few opportunities for Vijay Shankar, especially if India decide to play both wrist spinners.
The short dimensions of the New Zealand grounds will test Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav, as will the nature of the surfaces. Generally, the pitches in New Zealand get better for batting as the match progresses and the 3 pm local start time means dew could be a big factor during the last 10 overs of the game. It means the toss could have a huge bearing. In the past two years, teams that have won the toss and elected to bowl in the day/night matches have managed to win 80% of the matches.
The Kiwis have an outstanding record against India at home, winning 21 and losing just 10. India have a win/loss ratio of 0.560 in New Zealand which is the lowest winning percentage on foreign soil. The hosts have only lost one out of their last five series. Only South Africa and England have managed to topple them at home.
Ross Taylor has been the in-form player for the Black Caps in the past two years, averaging 72.61 with five hundred and 13 fifties. Add to that, the brilliance of Kane Williamson, the consistent Martin Guptill, and the robust Colin Munro and the hosts have a top four that will cause plenty of headaches for the Indian bowling.
Munro’s strike-rate of 115.63 is the highest for any opening batsmen in world cricket over the past two years. He has the tendency to give New Zealand a blazing start on which the likes of Taylor and Williamson thrive on. One member that will look forward to playing India is Tom Latham. The wicketkeeper-batsman had an outstanding series in India in 2017 and his ability to overcome the Indian spinners through the middle overs will be vital to his team’s chances.
Like India, the Kiwis are a relatively settled unit heading into the World Cup. The return of Mitch Santner provides another spin bowling option and his prowess with the willow in the lower-order gives the hosts depth in their batting. One area that the Black Caps are trying to rectify is the death-over bowling. Trent Boult is one option, but Tim Southee has struggled in recent times and the Blackcaps are in search to find an alternative option. Lockie Ferguson is one choice, the other being Doug Bracewell.
With the World Cup approaching, the five-match series presents both teams the opportunity to finetune their strategies and find the right team balance.
Sixth bilateral series defeat in succession. Four wins in the past 21 matches. It is not a record Australia would desire with the World Cup only four months away. Good news is that there are still two series — one against India and one against Pakistan before the regaining champions head to England to defend their crown. Justin Langer stated before the ODI series against India that he had a good idea of the kind of personnel he needs in his setup, but the defeat to India has opened new crevasses.
Australia’s problems start at the top of the batting order. Aaron Finch is experiencing a wretched run and the technical glitch in his batting will give Langer sleepless nights. Finch is a shoo-in to captain Australia at the World Cup, but the last thing the defending champions would want is to see the skipper struggling to keep his spot in the playing XI. Good news for Finch is that he can stay away from the spotlight for the next month and formulate a method to overcome his issue against the incoming ball.
Another worry for the Australians is finding an able partner for Finch at the top. At this stage, it is assumed David Warner will be reinstated into the opening slot for the World Cup, but Langer needs to find alternative options. The experiment of Alex Carey as an opener proved to be a failure. The wicket-keeper batsmen registered scores of 25, 18 and 5 in the three matches against India. It was a perplexing decision to bat Carey at the top, given that he did reasonably well at No 5 in the series against South Africa in November, scoring 42, 47 and 43. Perhaps Carey’s indifferent form will warrant Langer to once again shift him down to the middle order. Carey is an exceptional sweeper of the ball and the 10 matches in the sub-continent will present the left-hander an opportunity gain valuable experience during the middle overs.
One of the areas Australia showed signs of improvement against India was in through the middle stages. While Yuzvendra Chahal spun a web around the middle order in Melbourne, the likes of Shaun Marsh and Peter Handscomb showed plenty of promise on how to rotate the strike and accumulate runs against spin bowling between overs 15-40. It was only six months ago, that Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid choked the Australians into submission in a five-nil whitewash, but against India, there were signs of Australia heading in the right direction.
With Steve Smith expected to slip straight into the middle order, it also begs the question as to what is the ideal batting position for Usman Khawaja? Does he even get considered for the World Cup or the tours of India and the UAE? It is likely that Khawaja will partner Finch and if he shines, then be the reserve opener at the World Cup.
Marcus Stoinis and Glenn Maxwell solidify the batting at No 6 and No 7 respectively. There has been a lot of discussion about Maxwell’s demotion to No 7, but it is worth noting that in his last nine innings between No 4 and No 6, he has never managed to bat beyond 40th over. It is difficult to see Langer elevating Maxwell anytime soon.
On the bowling front, there are two major issues for the ‘Men in Yellow’. First is to find a spin bowler that can take wickets after the first power-play. Australia won the World Cup in 2015 without playing a frontline spinner, but times have changed and the conditions in England will be vastly different. The two logical choices are Nathan Lyon and Adam Zampa. Lyon was toothless against the Indians in the one-dayers and Zampa, who has taken 43 wickets for Australia since the 2015 World Cup, should be given a long reign in the lead-up to the mega event later this summer. But in context of the rest of spinners in the world, Zampa was ranked 15th. It further highlights Australia’s inability to take wickets via the mode of spin bowling.
On the fast bowling front, the form of Jhye Richarson has been a highlight, but the experiment to bring back Peter Siddle proved to be a failure. Moving forward, Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins should permanent in the playing XI, but the recurrence of the back injury to Josh Hazelwood might have put his World Cup spot in jeopardy.
The return of Starc would also ensure that Australia has a legitimate death bowling option. Marcus Stoinis was delegated the responsibilities during the India series and it’s fair to say that Australia need an alternative. In the 66 matches Australia have played since the last World Cup, Starc has only played in 34 matches. Thus, Australia need their premier quick bowler to play as many matches in the lead-up to World Cup.
Overall, there are still more questions than answers. Luckily, there are still 10 more matches to sort out the deficiencies that still exist in the ODI team.