Having won the first battle for survival, England have at least ensured that their future is in their own hands. They have also thus mightily queered the pitch for Pakistan and Bangladesh, both of whom now need not just to win but also hope for other results to go their way. That, in a nutshell, is the import after the Sunday skirmish at Edgbaston which ended the Indian cricket team’s status as the only unbeaten team at the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019.
As the final week of the league phase gets going, only one team is guaranteed of its place in the last four. Bearing no resemblance to the ragged, frazzled outfit that couldn’t buy a win until the middle of March, Australia have rediscovered the zing on a stage they have ruled with such imposing authority for the last two decades.
Champions in four of the last five editions, they have regained the aura of past, stacking up one commanding victory after another after suffering an early setback against India. With 14 points in their kitty, all that remains for Australia now is to see if they can finish on top of the league pile when they take on a chastened South Africa in the final round-robin fixture, on July 6.
Also Read | “Cricket World Cup? Here In England? Are You Sure?”
England’s bounce-back victory on Sunday has put Sri Lanka out of contention. In theory, Sri Lanka can finish on 10 points if they manage to overcome the West Indies and India, but England have five wins to the Islanders’ four. In the event the teams are tied in fourth position, England will go through on the first criterion should two or more teams end up with the same number of points – greater number of victories.
Essentially, that leaves India, New Zealand, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the hosts scrapping for the three remaining last-four berths. India’s 31-run loss to England has generated much angst in several quarters, not least across the border in Pakistan where there is a growing if unsubstantiated feeling that Virat Kohli’s men didn’t try hard enough, that they weren’t too fussed if they were conquered because that would make life difficult for the 1992 champions.
That’s untrue of course, and especially considering India themselves are yet to formalise their semi-final appearance. It’s also easy to forget when one is washed away in a maelstrom of emotions that India would be doing themselves no favours by losing to a team they could so easily be facing in the semi-final at the same venue in 10 days’ time.
India Almost There
India have a foot and a bit in the knockouts. With 11 points and a handsome net run-rate on which they kept one eye during the England loss, it is almost impossible to see them exit at the first stage.
Their hopes of topping the table have received a hit because even if they win their next two games, they will still end up behind Australia if the latter get past South Africa. But that won’t be such a major concern because when one gets to knockouts, there are no such things as easy opponents. Finishing first or fourth is hardly a game-changer, because from there on, ultimate glory is just two good days away.
New Zealand Slow Down
For all their early running, New Zealand seem to have lost a little bit of steam towards the climactic phase of the first stage. Successive defeats at the hands of Pakistan and Australia have pricked the bubble significantly, and last edition’s finalists have a formidable final-match foe in a resurgent England.
Also Read | ICC World Cup: Beauty and Charm of an Underdog Victory
Should New Zealand arrest their two-match losing streak at Chester-le-Street on Wednesday, they will be assured of a fourth straight semi-final appearance; should they lose, they can still go through on net run rate, though it is unlikely then that they will take too much confidence into the knockouts following three setbacks on the bounce.
England must win to go through without extraneous assistance. Defeat won’t be the end of the road but they will then need big favours from India and Bangladesh. First up, they will egg India on to defeat Bangladesh on Tuesday, then hope, ironically, for Bangladesh, in turn, to pull the rug from under Pakistan’s feet so that both the Asian nations finish on no more than nine points.
Bangladesh’s qualification prospects hang on slender threads. The first non-negotiable is that New Zealand must defeat England. The second is that they must outwit India and Pakistan. That will take them to 11 points, and a potential three-way tie with India and New Zealand. That’s just one half of the story. They also need to win both matches handsomely, because their net run rate (-0.133) is currently vastly inferior to India (+0.854) and New Zealand (+0.572). If they are beaten by India on Tuesday, they will definitely be out of contention; then the only point of interest will be whether they play spoilsports to Pakistan’s prospects.
A typically robust and emotionally charged late surge has put Pakistan within touching distance of making the semis. Looking out for the count not so long back, Sarfaraz Ahmed’s men have characteristically cocked a snook at their critics with three wins in a row and occupy fifth place with nine points. If they don’t beat Bangladesh, they will crash out. Even if they beat Bangladesh, they will still find it hard to go through if England win their last game, because then at best, they will be tied with India (should they be beaten in their two games left) and New Zealand on 11 points but their run rate currently is a very poor -0.792. If England lose, a simple win will see them home and dry. Their streak thus far has borne an eerie, spooky resemblance to the campaign in 1992 when they came from the dead to go all the way. Their emotional fans will be praying that history repeats itself.
Monday’s Sri Lanka-West Indies fixture in Durham might only be of academic importance, but almost every match thereafter – with the exception of Afghanistan-West Indies -- will affect the tournament in some way or the other. Each day will begin with hope and optimism for millions, and end in delight for some and despair for others. It should make for a cracking last five days of the league stage, with only Australia currently in a position to look down on the goings-on with a smug smile on their face.
(Kaushik is a veteran cricket writer who has reported on over 100 Tests. He co-authored VVS Laxman's autobiography '281 and Beyond')
Read more sports stories from Newsclick