June 7, Edgbaston, Birmingham
South Africa (ICC No. 1) v Pakistan (ICC No. 8)
South Africa win the toss, bat first, and manage just 219 for 8, with AB de Villiers, perhaps the best batsman in the world, out for a first-ball duck. Pakistan reach 119 for 3 in 27 overs, 19 ahead of the DLS par score, when rain comes down. Maybe it was still 50-50, or 55-45 in favour of Pakistan at that stage. But they were the winners. End of story.
June 8, The Oval, London
India (ICC No. 3) v Sri Lanka (ICC No. 7)
India are asked to bat, and though Virat Kohli, perhaps the best batsman in the world, is out for a duck, India still score 321 for 6. Big enough. Big enough? Not according to Danushka Gunathilaka, Kusal Mendis, Kusal Perera, Angelo Mathews and Asela Gunaratne. So much so, that all those runs are knocked off with eight balls to spare.
June 9, Sophia Gardens, Cardiff
New Zealand (ICC No. 5) v Bangladesh (ICC No. 6)
It goes well for New Zealand after they opt to bat, and they reach a solid if unspectacular 265 for 8. It should have been more, if that middle-order had shown a little more spine. Still, not a bad score, and it looks even better when Tim Southee, mainly, and Adam Milne have Bangladesh down at 33 for 4. No problem, say Shakib Al Hasan and Mahmudullah, and over the next 35-odd overs, knock the stuffing out of New Zealand, shred by shred.
Three days, three results not many would have predicted. If anyone did, I’d like to meet her guardian angel, or at least smoke what she was smoking.
Let’s look at two things Kane Williamson said in the lead-up to the Champions Trophy then. 1. “Naturally, I suppose, the western sides have played huge amounts of cricket in these conditions” – to mean the non-Asian countries might have a bit of an edge. 2. “It’s such an interesting tournament … on any given day, particularly in one-day cricket, things can happen that might be out of your control and go one way or the other.”
On that second point: No, that’s more Twenty20 cricket, where there are no favourites, anything can happen depending on who has a good day and who has a bad day. Yes, it stands true for ODI cricket when compared to Test cricket, but leave out the weather and, maybe, fitness issues, and not too much is ‘out of your control’. For example, poor batting. Just my thoughts – no one has to agree.
More importantly, I don’t like the sound of that first bit – not because I am a Brown Rules chauvinist, but because I wonder if Williamson’s opinion, and the question that led to it, was based too much on those rankings.
Leave out India, and the other three Asian teams were really bringing up the rear; to most people, Sri Lanka are a non-entity at the moment, Pakistan are too up (not much) and down (more often), and Bangladesh – well, the useless little fellows who didn’t even belong had robbed the tournament of all its glamour by keeping West Indies out. I’m not saying that’s what Williamson meant, but that’s what the general feeling was – and who could blame them? We all know how that panned out, and one of Pakistan and Sri Lanka will be in the semifinals too, making it three Asian sides along with England, by far the best of the pack on evidence.
How did things turn out this way, though? Have Australia, the world champions, become poor suddenly? What about New Zealand, the 2015 World Cup finalists? South Africa – hell, again, just at the thought of the last league game being a ‘virtual quarterfinal’?
One of the losing teams in that list of three up at the top is India, but they have looked impressively dominant in the other games.
The answers are blowing in the wind somewhere; one hopes that those big ‘western’ teams can spot them and get to the heart of why they are leaving for home so early.
In the meantime, let’s look at some writings in the sand.
Firstly, in these English conditions, where the ball doesn’t seem to do much despite the overcast conditions, even with the best swingers in the game in operation, there isn’t much to separate the top orders of the eight teams. Sure, men like Williamson, Kohli, Joe Root, Steven Smith, de Villiers (usually) and others will do well more often than the others, but, overall, the gap won’t be too big.
You can argue with that, but I am far more convinced about the other thing – the secondly – in this: Sri Lanka and Pakistan might still be transitioning, and their wins might have been flashes in the pan (I’d love for that to not be true), but Bangladesh, mainly, and Afghanistan, just a notch below, are coming up far too quickly to be ignored.
What we saw between Shakib and Mahmudullah in that chase against New Zealand was not just remarkable, it was what you’d expect from the big boys, not the lesser teams.
At the time of writing this, Tamim Iqbal sits at No. 3 in the run-scorers’ list, only behind Shikhar Dhawan and Williamson – that sort of thing is not for a player from a small team to achieve. Similarly, when Shakib and Mahmudullah got together, the scoreboard read 33 for 4. Not the kind of position smaller teams script upsets from. Go back and think of the big upsets in ODI cricket over the past many years; they would all have been at the end of big teams’ batting collapses. Most of them at any rate – England’s shellacking at the hands of Kevin O’Brien a major exception. Smaller teams don’t believe that much, they don’t think they can take on Southee-Boult-Milne-Santner-Neesham and get to 268 for 5 for a five-wicket win with 16 balls in hand from 33 for 4. Top teams think that way. They keep talking about it: Back your skills, self-belief, confidence … you know what, Shakib and Mahmudullah did exactly that the other day. They have won enough – oh, only in Mirpur! – in the recent past with their assortment of skills to gain in self-belief, and that’s given them the confidence to now take on the established order on equal terms.
Far away from all that top-flight action, Javed Ahmadi scored 81 in 102 balls against Shannon Gabriel, Miguel Cummins, Alzarri Joseph, Jason Holder and Ashley Nurse the other day, and soon after he was done, Rashid Khan returned 8.4-1-18-7. No, West Indies aren’t a big team. Not in ODIs. But, again, 7 for 18 is a big, big effort against a team that many felt till the other day should have been at the Champions Trophy in place of Bangladesh.
These are changing times. If the action shifts to Australia or New Zealand, the story might well be different, and Asian teams will go back to struggling – to an extent at least. But these small fellows are rocking the boat all right. That’s something to note. And note with admiration – if the success of the smaller, up-and-coming teams is not cause for joy and celebration, what is? Status quo?