The Indian team, powered by its battery of pace bowlers, seems to be on a roll in England. They are favourites to win the ICC Champions Trophy, a second time running. If anything can prevent them from winning, it is their batsmen’s weakness against the seaming ball and of course, a thing of their own making — bickering in the team.
In the couple of practice games so far, the team’s top order has struggled to measure up to balls that have swung in the air and seamed off the soft, grassy tracks. They have been found wanting, in terms of technique, especially when the skies are overcast. This weakness could probably be exploited by the likes of Mohammad Amir, Wahab Riaz, Kagiso Rabada, Morne Morkel and others, at the league stage.
News filtering out of the Indian dressing room also suggests that all is not well between the head coach, Anil Kumble and skipper Virat Kohli. It is also apparent that some of the senior players in the squad are not happy with the spin legend’s overbearing ways. This internal strife can only affect the team’s morale and performance. It is therefore hoped that the entire team will play as a unit in the Champions Trophy and sort out their differences later on.
Team India has been pitted against arch-rivals Pakistan on 4 June, in their opening game, at Edgbaston, Birmingham. The Indians couldn’t have asked for a better opener. Nothing unites Indians better than patriotic issues and whether one likes it or not, both India and Pakistan are going to play for national pride. Politically, the two nations being at loggerheads is going to further intensify the contest.
Despite the Indian skipper brushing it off as just another match, this is bound to be a high-pressure game. Unlike in the World Cup, the team from across the border has won against India on a couple of occasions in the past, in the Champions Trophy. Despite not being at full strength, and ranked No 8 in ODIs, the Pakis will surely try to derail India’s juggernaut.
Of course, Kohli’s team is better on paper and has gained confidence from recent outings. Therefore, picking up points from the Pakistan encounter shouldn’t be a major problem for the Indians if they can keep pressure from getting to them.
India then takes on Sri Lanka on 8 June at The Oval, London. A team that is ‘in transition’ according to both, Sanath Jayasuriya and Kumar Sangakkara, the Angelo Mathews led team shouldn’t bother the buoyant Indians overmuch. On form, this match should ensure India’s entry into the semi-finals.
The most awaited encounter in Group B will be that between the top-ranked ODI team, South Africa and holders, India at The Oval again. Eager to get the ‘choker’ tag off their backs, the Proteas will hope that skipper AB DeVilliers, Quniton de Kock, the in-form Hashim Amla and Chris Morris – in the lower order – fire at the right time. Of course, Rabada, Morkel and leggie, Imran Tahir could cause a few dents in the Indian batting line-up.
Again, on form and keeping in mind South Africa’s penchant for crumbling under pressure, India should sail into the semi-finals with a clean slate. But this match at the Oval will be worth watching, for the talent on display; and perhaps a nail-biting finish.
Group A consists of hosts England, Australia, New Zealand and Bangladesh. The last named, who some pundits believe are the ‘dark horses’ in this event, shall have to play out of their skins to win a couple of matches to qualify for the knockouts.
Bangladesh’s shock bowler, Mustafizur Rahman looks almost innocuous on English tracks which assist seam bowling rather than cutters. Pace bowlers Taskin Ahmed and Rubel Hossain too do not seem to relish the conditions in Ol’ Blighty, and therefore Mashrafe Mortaza, and his band of spinners, will have to do something extraordinary for the Bangladeshis to make any impression.
England will be the team to beat in Group A, this Champions Trophy. Australia, ranked No 2 in ODIs and New Zealand, ranked No 4, may have garnered more points overall but then beating England in England is always an onerous task.
The home team is packed with exceptionally talented batsmen in skipper Eoin Morgan, Ben Stokes, Alex Hales, Jason Roy and Jos Buttler. They have all displayed good form in recent matches. England also has a brilliant new ball attack in Liam Plunkett, Chris Woakes and Mark Wood, with Stokes to back them. Add the spin of Adil Rashid and all-rounder Moeen Ali to the attack and you have the perfect recipe for an ODI win in England.
Steve Smith’s Australia will bank heavily on David Warner to give them a good start. Moises Henriques, Chris Lynn and Glenn Maxwell would have the freedom to launch into big hits, as is their wont, if the top order bats well. In Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood, the Australians have a lethal pace attack. However, the gladiators from Down Under play both England and New Zealand at Edgbaston, which is said to be drier than other English tracks and hence the spin of Travis Head and Adam Zampa may come into play in both games.
The New Zealanders too have a balanced side. They will rely on skipper Kane Williamson, Martin Guptill and Ross Taylor to put up the runs on the board. Tim Southee, Trent Boult, Adam Milne, Mitchell McClenaghan and Corey Anderson together make up as good a pace attack as any. Mitchell Santner and James Neesham as spinners could also provide the vital breakthroughs.
Predicting the top two positions in Group A would be hazardous. Based on team strengths and playing conditions, however, to say that England and Australia would qualify for the semi-finals, wouldn’t be way off the mark.
Cricket prophesies seldom come right. Therefore, at the risk of sounding stupid and being hooted at, the semi-final line up should look something like this:
1st Semi-final at Cardiff on 14 June: England vs South Africa
2nd Semi-final at Edgbaston on 15 June: India vs. Australia
The finals, in all probability, will be played between hosts England and holders India.
Astrologers, basing their prophecies on the birth-charts of both Kohli and Kumble, predict that India will win the ICC Champions Trophy in 2017. Bookies feel differently. Their odds-on favourite is England, followed by Australia, South Africa and India in that order.
Let’s hope for a brilliant English summer, with all eight teams giving off their best. Let’s also hope that rain doesn’t play spoilsport. And as one Yorkshire supporter said in a ‘Roses’ match of yore: “God, if you are on Lancashire’s side, they’ll win. If You are on our side, we will win. But if you keep the hell out of this contest, we’ll give Lancashire an honest hiding!”
Let’s hope God is on the Indian side!
The author is a sportswriter, caricaturist, former fast bowler, cricket and football coach and a mental toughness trainer.