Cricket World Cup 2019: Can England walk the talk?
Joe Root and Eoin Morgan bat in the nets at The Oval ahead of the World Cup. © AFP

LONDON: Before 2019, England have hosted the ODI World Cup in 1975, 1979, 1983 and 1999. In four home editions, their best finish was runners-up to West Indies in 1979. This was also their best result one other time – 1992 – when they lost to Pakistan in the first edition of the tournament held in Australia and New Zealand.

For a fifth time then, the World Cup comes home, as it were. That phrase is a double-edged sword – this is the founding nation of cricket, and yet, in eight tournaments, England have never lifted the trophy. In fact, it is tough to recall a time when they were even favourites going into an ODI World Cup. 1975, perhaps?

Things are different this time around, certainly from the 70s. Cricket has met pop culture finally as far as England are concerned. That it took an embarrassing group-stage exit at the hands of Bangladesh in 2015 to wake them up says it all. Eoin Morgan was captain back then, and he is captain now. It takes an honest man to admit mistakes and see to it that they are rectified.

Morgan has been that man for English cricket. Accompanied by Trevor Bayliss, he helped change the way ODIs were played in this country. Until four years ago, Tests – and Ashes wins – were all that mattered. Some former English cricketers would even tell you how they rated winning that ‘urn’ over winning the ultimate prize world cricket had to offer. Not anymore – not in this T20 era.

(ALSO READ: Winning the title would be a massive facelift for England cricket – Eoin Morgan)

White-ball cricket is more relevant today than it ever was, and despite the popularity of T20s, ODIs have stayed important. So much so that English cricketers now travel far and wide to trade their wares in different T20 leagues across the world. That includes names such as Jason Roy, Jonny Bairstow, Jos Buttler, Moeen Ali, Alex Hales (not in the World Cup squad) and Morgan himself. And the experience they have received in those adventurous leagues has only enhanced their desire to achieve a triumph hitherto unknown in these parts of the cricketing universe.

Eoin Morgan World Cup 2019
England captain Eoin Morgan is hopeful of the World Cup drought ending at last. © AFP

“Our transformation has been brilliant. We have sustained it over the last three or four years, and we have to win a trophy to show for it at some point. Winning the World Cup (at home) … I cannot imagine what it would do (for the fans and the game in England),” said an expectant Morgan ahead of the tournament opener at The Oval on Thursday.

The question to ask here is, who can stop England, if anyone at all?

South Africa have the first shot at it. Heading into the first game of this World Cup, there is an odd build-up around them, though. Perhaps this is the first time since 1992 that the Proteas aren’t considered favourites. It is partly to do with their long history of failure and partly to do with their ability to choke under slightest pressure. Most of all, it is because their current squad – led by Faf du Plessis – has too many holes, especially in the batting department. Their bowling could make up for it, but do they have wherewithal to play out of their skin, even when things get tight?

(ALSO READ: There’s a lot more bigger things than winning and losing cricket games – Faf du Plessis)

Perennial favourites India will enter the tournament late on June 5, and then play four games within eleven days. Virat Kohli’s team is used to such hectic scheduling. They are also used to playing without a proper number four batsman by now even as the middle order remains their one weakness. Yet, they are the only side that could feature two wrist spinners on a regular basis, a plus point. If Kohli can produce enough runs to match his world-dominating status, they will be hard to stop.

cricket world cup 2019 fixtures
Virat Kohli’s India play their first World Cup match on June 5 against South Africa. (Image: ICC)

Meanwhile, Australia arrived here as wounded tigers. David Warner and Steve Smith will get a rough welcome wherever they go, and with the Ashes to follow, it could end up being a long summer for the duo. Alternately, fighters as they are, it could spurn the duo to score more runs than they missed out on during their yearlong ban. With five trophies under their belt, and the tag of defending champions, the Aussies are traditional favourites. Nothing is different this time around.

West Indies and New Zealand are the dark horses along with South Africa. There is enough unpredictability between those two sides to sway from one extreme to another, depending on conditions on offer. Add Pakistan to the equation, and it could be a seriously heady mix, ranging from comedy to tragedy. Expect these four teams to fight out for the last semi-final spot.

Sri Lanka and Bangladesh seem to have regressed since 2015. So much so, they will face an uphill task keeping even Afghanistan under check. The latter are known for punching beyond their weight, and with ever-growing experience garnered from T20 leagues across the world, they will surely spring a few surprises. This will be a three-way battle for the wooden spoon.

In the past two years, none of these sides have managed to best England in a straight fight. They are unbeaten in bilateral ODI cricket since January 2017. They did trip up against Pakistan in the 2017 Champions Trophy semi-final in spin-friendly conditions. You would expect them to learn from that experience, and it will take a brave man to bet against Morgan’s men this summer.

Stranger things have happened in cricket, though.