Southern hemisphere bucks predictions in Indian World Cup
It was the likes of Muttiah Muralitharan and Virender Sehwag who confidently predicted before the World Cup that it would be dominated by Asian teams.
How wrong they were.
Three of the four teams left standing are southern hemisphere nations, with cricket matching rugby — where northern hegemony had been forecast at the World Cup — in giving those who forecast one region’s superiority a punch on the nose.
In fact, with the exception of Afghanistan and hosts India, the 2023 World Cup has been a humbling experience for the rest of the Asian nations. Pakistan, who were ranked the No 1 ODI team a month before the tournament, played in fits and starts; Bangladesh were a shambles even before the tournament, a situation that worsened by the end of it; while Sri Lanka have been suspended by the International Cricket Council.
It’s a far cry from 12 years ago, the last time the World Cup took place in India, when Asia dominated the semifinals and India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka — with only New Zealand from outside the region — made it to the final four.
Now it is India, albeit in the most commanding manner, who are left.
It’s been a procession for the host nation. Their batters are in supreme form, Virat Kohli is chasing records and is taking wickets, KL Rahul looks like a “finisher” and the fast bowling is the best it has ever been as a collective in an Indian team.
Winning all nine round robin matches, most without breaking a sweat, has seen the local populace swept up in a fervour that is beyond what is the crazy norm for the sport and specifically the Indian team in these parts.
It’s up to New Zealand, South Africa and Australia to try to stop this well-managed home fury. Of the three, only Australia had been predicted beforehand to be in the semifinals and that was only because of that country’s pedigree, which encompasses five World Cup titles.
New Zealand, for all of their recent success and consistency as semifinalists in ICC events, were written off as usual, while no-one — other than the players themselves — thought the Proteas would reach the knockout stage.
The big difference for those three countries compared to 2011 is the Indian Premier League (IPL). Back then it was still a new tournament which had only had three editions, one of which took place in South Africa, and for many non-Indian players the rhythm and length of the competition was something they had not come to terms with.
Twelve years later, that has changed. More than understanding conditions, and whether pitches bounce lower, are slower and spin more, it is the rhythm of tournament play in India that is so different to World Cups elsewhere. Being comfortable with that rhythm — the travelling, adjusting to new conditions, hotels, the stringent security and the greater fandom for cricketers here than they have to face when at home — is something the players in the three southern hemisphere teams have managed well at this tournament.
Much of that is down to IPL experience. Six of the Proteas squad, seven members of the New Zealand side and six in the Australian team play regularly in the IPL. Glenn Maxwell, David Warner and Steve Smith have all played more than 100 IPL matches, David Miller in the South African team the same, while Quinton de Kock (96) and Trent Boult (88) have sufficient experience in Indian conditions that nothing they face here will come as a surprise.
That familiarity with India provides comfort, and if one considers that players from Pakistan are banned from participating in the IPL, then a case for an advantage for the southern hemisphere players can even be made.
Of course, from the Indian team’s perspective, they too are less apprehensive about facing players from those countries than previous generations, because they are around them so much during the IPL. The manner in which they have played in the past six weeks, illustrates not only their self-confidence but also a belief that nothing in the opposition ranks need be feared.
Rohit Sharma’s men enter the last week of the World Cup as clear favourites to annex the title on Sunday in Ahmedabad, but the success of Australian, South African and New Zealand players shows conditions in this part of the world no longer harbour as much mystery or hold as many fears as even a decade ago.
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