It's taken us 42 matches to get right back where we started: the eight best cricket teams in the world are the eight major test-playing nations of the game (with respect to Bangladesh, you're not quite there yet). This is not something we have learned from Cricket World Cup 2011's group stage. In fact, it's something that most cricket fans expected, or indeed were resigned to. Variety of opposition is not one of the great draws of cricket. Here's that quarter-final draw (my picks in bold):
South Africa v New Zealand
India v Australia
England v Sri Lanka
West Indies v Pakistan
However, just because the World Cup has merely reinforced something we already knew doesn't mean it hasn't offered anything of value. CWC 2011 has in fact been the most exciting edition of cricket's showpiece event since the last time it was played on the subcontinent in 1996. There have been upsets, thrilling finishes and great individual performances, but most fascinatingly, there's been an ebb and flow throughout that tournament which has made a lot of variables hard to predict. So, just what have we learned from CWC 2011 so far?
1. Sometimes, 200 is a better score than 300 Since Twenty20 burst on the scene one-day cricket has suffered a glut of massive scores, great for the casual viewer but painfully dull for the enthusiast. However, it's not just the cricket fan who benefits when a team gets bowled out in the first innings for 200 or less. First Pakistan managed to defend 184 against a pumped-up Canada then, even more surprisingly, England kept South Africa at bay having racked up only 171. A poor batting effort seems to bring the best out of a team fielding second, and the atmosphere becomes more like test cricket: tight, tactical and aggressive. More of this, please!
2. South Africa has the most balanced squad Yes, they may have been beaten by England when seemingly assured of victory, but South Africa remain the favourites because they have the best squad balance by a clear distance. They have superstar batsmen in Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers, a rich vein of experience in Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis, terrifying fast bowlers in Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel and wily spinners in Imran Tahir and Johan Botha. It's hard to see them being outplayed again, especially when you add in the all-round talents of players like Faf du Plessis and Robin Peterson, whose cameo won the match against India.
3. MS Dhoni is not an infallible Captain Fantastic I really thought MS Dhoni was the saviour of Indian cricket, the catalyst for their march back to the top. He may yet be, but in this tournament his leadership and control of the team has been poor. That loss to South Africa will live long in the memory: he batted like a tired old man while his teammates imploded, resulting in a total nearly 100 short of what it should have been, and then tossed the ball to Ashish Nehra for the final over – who was dispatched, four-six-four, to lose the game. He was just lucky that another badly juggled batting performance against West Indies did not meet with such ruthless opposition.
4. England are entertainment machines – wait, what? Six matches, six thrillers. England and their fans must be utterly spent after a group phase which comprised of a string of extraordinary efforts and baffling failures, often in the same match. The Ireland game, in which they failed to defend 327, was an absolute classic, and the 338 tie with India is likely to be the game of the World Cup. England, that traditionally dour old foe, are suddenly the most exciting team left in the competition.
5. Associate nations are getting better, but the debate rages on Should associate nations (i.e. non-test-playing nations) be allowed so many places in the World Cup? In CWC2011 four of them were allowed in; next time, it will be only two. If we look at their performances in this edition, the argument for their greater participation could go both ways: Ireland and Netherlands were consistently impressive and competitive, while Canada and Kenya never stood a chance of going through. The wisdom is that Twenty20 cricket is better for developing the game, so 50-over tournaments will be kept for the most skilful teams. Whatever the case, if cricket wants to grow, associate nations need more opportunities to play against the best.
6. “You never know if Pakistan are going to play properly” Ian Chappell's words, not mine, and they reminded me of playground cricket games: one annoying kid would always mess around bowling beamers and throwing the ball miles from the stumps, and everyone else would yell at him, “Play properly!” Which is, of course, exactly like Pakistan. They played some utterly ludicrous cricket, particularly in the final five overs against New Zealand, but still topped Group A. Like 1992, they stand a chance because they are capable of anything.
7.Yuvraj the most consistent performer, who'd've picked it? A year ago, Yuvraj Singh could barely make it into the Indian side. Now, he's their most consistent performer: a well-rounded mixture of bludgeoning and finesse at the batting crease, and an increasingly useful wicket taker with his left-arm off-spin. Sachin may have scored two centuries, and Sehwag may have scored more runs, but Yuvraj has crossed 50 in four out of five innings and outshone them both. It's great to see this charismatic cricketer smiling again.
8. The Decision Review System has reopened the walking debate We all slowly became acquainted with the DRS over the course of the CWC 2011 group stage; normally it came out in favour of the umpire, but sometimes it didn't, proving something that we have known all along: umpires aren't perfect. At the Sri Lanka v New Zealand game, however, things came to a head when Nathan McCullum claimed a catch which was given not out, a decision which stood on video evidence – evidence which, although equivocal, pointed towards a fair catch. Then, even more glaring, Ricky Ponting clubbed a thick edge to the keeper against Pakistan; his head dropped, but he still waited for the review system to send him packing. Should players walk if they know they are out?
9. My beloved Kiwis just aren't all there I'm from New Zealand, so cricket world cups are a tough thing: we always do a bit better than expected, but never well enough to be completely satisfied. It's been the same this time around. Even if it weren't for the massive distraction of a fatal earthquake back home, the team is in a rebuilding phase and probably would have struggled at this tournament anyway. I'm not expecting a miracle against South Africa – but secretly, I know we can beat anyone if our stars align and play to their potential.
10. Australia can lose in World Cups (thank God) 34 matches unbeaten was getting a bit farcical. May they have an equally long losing streak.