For all three teams, their recent form has been disappointing at best. Sri Lanka and Pakistan both were beaten in bilateral series by the impressive New Zealand whilst West Indies were humbled by South Africa. Pakistan have, however, won both warm up matches, including a victory over England and so probably can take the most momentum into the tournament. West Indies were hammered by England and almost contrived to lose to Scotland, while Sri Lanka lost to both South Africa, and more notably Zimbabwe.
Pakistan’s line up contains experienced, big match players from one to eleven. Younus Khan, Misbah-ul-Haq and Shahid Afridi have played an incredible 807 ODIs between them and as such are never phased by any situation their side finds themselves in. The rest of the side is packed with dependable performers, with Ahmed Shazad and Yasir Shah two more potential match winners.
Sri Lanka’s strength also comes from the extraordinary of their top order. Kumar Sangakarra, Mahela Jayawardene and Tillakaratne Dilshan are three modern greats of the format, all of whom can be relied on to score regularly and heavily. This is probably the last hurrah for all three, and will want to impress one last time.
West Indies really are this tournament’s unpredictable side. They are stacked with players with potential to win games, mainly through power hitting. Gayle and Smith at the top are explosive whilst Andre Russell and Darren Sammy at seven and eight are two of the game’s longest hitters.
Bowling. For all three of them. None can rely on their attacks to consistently take wickets or build pressure. The West Indies also have huge problems with their batting. If their openers fail, which they often do, then the middle order is not good enough to launch any kind of recovery. Pakistan’s fielding also repeatedly lets them down.
Shahid Afridi has been Pakistan’s key performer more or less since he made his debut in 1996 as a 16 year-old. Whilst he may have made his name with unprecedentedly big-hitting, it is now his unfathomably fast leg-spinners that pose the biggest threat to the opposition. With Afridi, however, his power exists beyond what he can do with the bat or ball, it is that so often quoted X Factor. The ability to pull his team out of any situation and win games. Almost no one in the tournament can match him when the chips are down.
For Sri Lanka, Kumar Sangakarra is a true modern giant of the game. He has been a bedrock of his nation’s batting consistently and successfully throughout his career. He exudes calm and reliability, whilst sonnets should be written about his cover drive. He is one man who has also enjoyed success outside of the subcontinent, which will be invaluable in the Antipodes.
West Indies are stocked full of match-winners, but their key player is rapidly becoming Andre Russell. He is the definition of a modern multi-faceted cricketer: bowls fast, hits it hard and is sensational in the field. His energy and positivity are crucial to this beleaguered side and is becoming a genuine threat with the ball. He will enjoy the pace and bounce provided Australian pitches.
Pakistan opening batsman Ahmed Shezad has played 58 games but is yet to fully establish himself at the top table of international cricket. He already has six hundreds in that fledgling career, and this world stage is a great chance for him to progress further. He is brutal through the legside, especially against spin, and if he has overcome his issues with the short ball, he has the potential to score heavily in this tournament.
Sri Lanka are a side that seem to be constantly playing ODI cricket, so to pick a breakout star for them is difficult. The conditions that the Sri Lankan side will be met with, however, does mean that hard-hitting seam bowling all-rounder Thisara Perera will need to take a more prominent role. He has been given a lot of chances so far and is yet to fully convince, but he does have the potential with both bat and ball to win games.
The West Indies are in the unusual position that their breakout star is their new captain, Jason Holder. The 23 year-old fast bowling all-rounder has taken a huge responsibility on after just 26 games and is still finding his feet as a bowler at this top level, let alone a leader. He bowls with good pace and bounce, which should work well at this tournament, and the highlight of career thus far was an extraordinary spell of 4-13 against Pakistan in 2013. He will need to perform similar to those standards repeatedly if his side is going to progress.
Game to watch
Pakistan vs India, February 15th. The two fiercest rivals in world cricket, sorry England and Australia, open their tournaments against each other at the Adelaide Oval. The well-publicised political issues between these two nations mean that match-ups remains scarce and therefore, special.
Sri Lanka vs New Zealand, February 14th. The curtain-raiser to the entire tournament at the Hagley Oval in Christchurch may be one that could bring up some ennui, given that the two sides have just completed a seven match series. But given the venue, in a city still recovering from the natural disaster of 2011, and given the feverish excitement and anticipation for this tournament, that overkill will be as far from people’s thoughts as possible. Sri Lanka may not look like they pose too much of a threat, but the chance to spoil everyone’s party is one they will relish.
West Indies vs Ireland, February 16th. The Windies begin their tournament against perennial giant-killers Ireland at the Saxton Oval in Nelson. To call this game a potential upset would be an understatement, given all the turmoil the West Indies have undergone, and the Irish will seriously fancy their chances of putting another nail in the Caribbean coffin.
Pakistan are usually the most difficult side to predict in any tournament, however coming into this edition they seem remarkably stable. They will progress from the group, and depending on their result in the big clash with India, will probably face England in the quarter-finals. Maybe this is my heart talking, but that is where I see tournament ending.
Sri Lanka will have to be wary of clashes with Afghanistan, Scotland and Bangladesh, but should overcome all three. They will then be met by South Africa in the quarter-final, where their push will probably end. If they can progress further, it would be a suitable fairy-tale ending for Sangakarra, Jayawardene and Dilshan.
I fear for the West Indies. They seem to be the established team ripest for an upset, and both Ireland and Zimbabwe have the quality to provide that. The length of the group stages too also mean that the chance for off-field issues to derail them, and an exit at this point would not be surprising, perhaps after losing to a strengthening Zimbabwe.