We are on the road to Cricket World Cup 2019.
The captains' conference provided ample photo-ops to shutterbugs and headlines to media outlets as the world counts down to the opening act of the ICC World Cup 2019 on Thursday, 30 May. And the teams kicked off the final stretch of their preparations with the 'official' warm-ups to the showpiece event starting a week ahead of showtime on Friday, 24 May.
Of the two games that took place, one played to expectations, and the other...well, how does one dare to expect anything in a game of cricket involving Pakistan? The mercurial Men in Green lost a close affair to Afghanistan at Bristol, even as South Africa overpowered Sri Lanka at Cardiff.
While there's only so much you can read into what is, essentially, a glorified practice session for a final tune-up, the tactics deployed, and performances displayed, could give a sneak-peek into all that's not very obviously known about the 10 participating teams.
Here's a look at what we may have learnt on Day 1 of the World Cup warm-ups.
Afghanistan vs Pakistan
Pakistan's 'striking' problem in the middle
Babar Azam is Pakistan's most consistent batsman of the last four years, and among the more consistent ODI batsmen around the world in the same time period. However, the 24-year-old often finds himself as the (harsh) subject of criticism pertaining to his hitting ability.
Azam's career ODI strike rate is 85.96, and it improved to 99.64 during Pakistan's recent 4-0 defeat to England - but in a series where 350 was scored, and chased down, with ridiculous ease, and ahead of a World Cup where 350 is seemingly going to be the new 300, that raises question marks.
But are those doubts valid?
For his consistency — an average of 51.67, which is the ninth-best since the end of the 2015 World Cup among all batsmen set to feature in this edition — that strike rate is perfectly acceptable.
The problem lies further south in the Pakistan batting order.
The table below depicts the strike rates for the middle-order batting options in the Pakistan squad; a look at these numbers, coming from the batsmen who do the bulk of their batting in the back-half of an innings, tells you the real area that the 1992 champions need to be looking into.
Of this lot, Asif Ali was on a leave of bereavement for the warm-up game after the tragic death of his 19-month-old daughter following a prolonged illness, but most of the rest did no favours to their team: Sohail was out for 1, Hafeez made a stumbling 20-ball 12, Malik was solid-as-ever in a 44 off 59 balls, and Sarfaraz fell for 13 off 10. Despite being 151/3 in 30 overs, Pakistan were bowled out for 262.
Azam, meanwhile, stroked a fluent 112 off 108 balls. If Pakistan want to post the kind of totals that appear to be imperative at this World Cup, they'll need much better from their middle order.
Afghan spin: Nabbing Nabi, missing Mujeeb
Yes, I'm getting into a conversation around Afghanistan's spin attack without any mention of Rashid Khan.
He's their best bowler, and primed to be among the top bowling bets across this World Cup — so what Rashid Khan does or doesn't in a practice game, is only of mathematical importance (to the statistically inclined, he bowled nine overs for just 27 runs, including the wickets of Hafeez and Sarfaraz).
Their success in the competition, though, will hinge on how their arsenal of spinners perform — and the two biggest partners for Rashid had contrasting outings at Bristol, in line with the IPL campaigns they just came out of.
Mohammad Nabi was among the tournament's stingiest operators, conceding just 6.65 an over while returning eight wickets from eight matches; Mujeeb ur Rahman had his first real failure at any level, leaking 10.05 — the fifth-worst among all bowlers to bowl more than 15 overs in IPL 2019 — and managing a mere three wickets in five games.
Against Pakistan's formidable-against-spin batsmen, Nabi came out with bright returns of 3/46 from 10 overs — the three wickets being Fakhar Zaman, Haris Sohail and Malik. Particularly worth noting was his nabbing of the two left-handers within four balls — Zaman played for the spin and paid a price, Sohail tried to counter the straight one and met the same fate to see his stumps disturbed as well.
Mujeeb, on the other hand, bowled six overs that failed to trouble the Pakistani batsmen. The first three, bowled in the powerplay (overs 2, 4 and 6) went for 15, while the second lot of three were bowled in the middle (overs 30, 32 and 34) and saw him concede 24.
Afghanistan, irrespective of what transpires, are set to be the heart-warming story of the 2019 World Cup. To do anything more on their second World Cup appearance, the Afghans will need all three of their spin troika to deliver in unison.
Mettle to the Afghan madness
You have to be conservative to think that the story of Afghanistan cricket is anything less than crazy.
A nation that didn't have a cricket board until 1995; a nation that didn't have any ICC recognition until the turn of the millennium; a nation that still doesn't have any elaborate cricketing infrastructure in its own den — yet, they've managed to percolate the most 'exclusive' cosy club there is in world sport, and become a fully-recognised, and almost fully-empowered, member of the game.
A lot of their rise has been put forth more as a fairytale than a labour of toil, but that resilience is as much a part of their tale as romance and it was on full display against Pakistan. It may have only been a practice match, but there wasn't much 'friendly' about the intent with which Shaheen Afridi was charging in to attempt to take down Hazratullah Zazai. But the 21-year-old, in keeping with his remarkable growth spiral of the last 12 months, took on the challenge and hammered it in a manner not too dissimilar from his record-breaking feats of the year gone by.
Zazai's 28-ball 49 — 44 of which came through boundaries, five of which were struck off six deliveries he faced from Afridi — laid down a marker in Afghanistan's run-chase, and, perhaps, one for opposition new-ball attacks to take stock of over the next month-and-a-half.
The more telling contribution came from the man who replaced Zazai at the crease. Hashmatullah Shahidi had made an unbeaten half-century the last time he faced Pakistan too — but his patient 97* had not been enough for the Afghans in their Asia Cup Super Four encounter. This time, the 24-year-old saw his team over the line with an even more patient 74* off 102 balls.
That they crossed the final hurdle in a nervy finish will instill further confidence under the Afghanistan wings. It should also tell the World Cup that there is a fair dollop of gumption too in this story of guts and glory.
Sri Lanka vs South Africa
Who will finish for South Africa?
South Africa's top and middle-order wears a settled and solid-if-not-spectacular look. Quinton de Kock, Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis, JP Duminy and David Miller form the core of the Proteas batting lineup, and will occupy five out of six batting slots in the XI.
But in the post-AB era, who are their bets to close out the innings?
In true South African style, the squad possesses a bunch of fast/medium-fast bowling all-rounders in Andile Phehlukwayo, Dwaine Pretorius and Chris Morris. With all 15 players available to assume roles according to the rulebook for the warm-ups, the trio was handed positions number seven, eight and nine, respectively, against the Sri Lankans — and all three did their cases no harm.
Phehlukwayo scored 35 at just over a run-a-ball, batting between overs 36 and 46; Pretorius was at the crease for the last 8.5 overs, and finished not out on 25 off 23 balls; Morris provided the late impetus with an unbeaten 13-ball 26, taking South Africa to 338/7 after having arrived with the scoreboard reading 286/7 in 45.5 overs.
With five batting places, and at least three (if not four) bowling spots seemingly secure (Imran Tahir, Kagiso Rabada, Dale Steyn/Lungi Ngidi), the Proteas lineup is likely to have room for only one of these three, or two at best if they opt to leave one out of Steyn and Ngidi.
David Miller and JP Duminy's blow-hot-blow-cold tendencies in recent times (both average below 40 and have strike rates under 100 since the 2017 Champions Trophy) could push du Plessis into wanting additional firepower at the death.
It's a role that's been occupied by some legendary performers in South Africa's storied World Cup past — think Lance Klusener in 1999, or AB de Villiers in 2015. Sunday's rubber against West Indies at Bristol is poised to be a three-way audition for the berth.
Where will Sri Lanka finish?
The formbook leading into the World Cup pointed to Sri Lanka being favourites for the wooden spoon. Their only win in nine completed ODIs this year came against Scotland, and they have won a mere 23.25 percent of all matches since the 2017 Champions Trophy (second-worst, for reference, are West Indies at 34.21 percent).
If the Lankans were hoping to find a modicum of answers to a never-ending spate of questions from their meeting with South Africa, they ended the contest at Cardiff with possibly even more doubts over the road ahead.
Their two new-ball bowlers, Suranga Lakmal (9-0-63-2) and Nuwan Pradeep (10-0-77-2), were easily ploughed around for more than seven per over. Two spinners have been drafted into the setup for the first time since 2015 as a last-ditch measure — one of them, Jeevan Mendis, was carted for 45 in five overs; the other, Jeffrey Vandersay, was tonked for 30 in two.
Their most impressive bowler on the day, Isuru Udana (10-0-42-1), suffered a knock on the wrist (although he has been cleared to play their next warm-up game). Dimuth Karunaratne (87 off 92) and Angelo Mathews (64 off 66), captain and ex-captain, are the only real hopes of any consistency with the bat. They lived up to that billing; sadly, the rest of their batting mates lived up to theirs.
A lack of fight, and a general toothlessness, has been Sri Lanka's biggest failing in the constant downward spiral of the last four years. On the evidence of their first real outing in the UK, they're a fair distance from finding it again.