ICC World Cup 2015 Preview

mccullum

Brendan McCullum will look to lead New Zealand to World Cup glory on home turf

It’s a matter of a few short hours before the 50-over cricket World Cup begins in Australia and New Zealand, with pundits predicting one of the most wide open tournaments in recent memory. Reigning champions India have had a torrid time over the past few months across all formats, being defeated 3-0 by Australia in a four match test series before failing to reach the final of an ODI tri-series against the same opposition – and lowly England.

Among the favourites are Australia themselves, as well as fellow hosts New Zealand and arguably the world’s best side across all three formats, South Africa. England have been tabbed as dark horses by some, although their lack of experience could come back to haunt them as the tournament progresses. Elsewhere, Pakistan are as unpredictable as ever, Sri Lanka appear heavy on batting if a little light on bowling, while the West Indies have sunk to such depths that their progression from the group stages is far but certain. To find out which of the test-playing nations to keep an eye on as the tournament progresses, just scroll on down.

Group A

England

Fun fact for the day: England are actually the number one seeds for the World Cup. Unfortunately for them, since the seeding’s were made they’ve slipped down the rankings at a precipitous rate and sacked Alistair Cook as captain, making for less than ideal preparation. Encouragement was offered in the form of two wins over India in last month’s tri-series, and a strong pace attack led by James Anderson and a rejuvenated Steven Finn should suit the fast tracks likely to be served up down under. The batting is inconsistent, however, with a well-documented weakness against short-pitched bowling resurfacing in recent matches versus their Australian hosts.

Player to Watch

Surprisingly appointed Eoin Morgan’s vice-captain for the tournament, Jos Buttler has long been touted as a future star of English cricket. Now in possession of the gloves in all three formats, Buttler’s keeping is a work in progress but his destructive batting is an asset that England would be wise to utilise higher up the order than his current number seven position. With a brittle top order in front of him it wouldn’t be a shock to see Buttler rescue his teammates with a swashbuckling inning’s during the tournament.

Prediction

Quarter-Finals

Australia

The wickets may be quick in Oz, but the Australian pace attack led by Mitchell Johnson is even quicker. Ably supported by Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood, Johnson is likely to rattle a few rib cages with his thunderbolts and it’ll be interesting to see which batsmen opt to take him on. A lack of a top-tier spinner is one minor flaw in this Aussie outfit, but with the quick bowlers backed up by an incredibly deep batting line-up featuring power at the top (David Warner, Aaron Finch), in the middle-order (Glenn Maxwell, Steve Smith) and an elite finisher in James Faulkner, it would be a brave man who’d bet against the Australians winning their fourth World Cup in five tries.

Player to Watch

It’s looking likely that captain Michael Clarke will return to full fitness in time for the tournament, and with questions over his popularity among teammates surfacing in recent weeks the man dubbed ‘Pup’ will be looking to win over his comrades through sheer volume of runs. Clarke is capable of putting big scores on the board, no doubt about it, but with Steve Smith and George Bailey waiting in the wings as potential replacements for the skipper the heat will definitely be on the classy right hand bat.

Prediction

Semi-Finals

Sri Lanka

Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara, Tillakaratne Dilshan and Angelo Matthews. As batting line-ups go, it doesn’t get much better than that, and as a result the Sri Lankan’s will be a team no one will want to face down under. Unfortunately the bowling attack is far less menacing, with Lasith Malinga carrying a group of underwhelming arms almost single-handedly. Chasing 300 is well within Sri Lanka’s reach; keeping teams under 320 could be their real challenge.

Player to Watch

Although he’s not the most famous of Sri Lanka’s star batsmen, Tillakaratne Dilshan might be the most important as he both opens the batting and contributes his fair share of overs with the ball. His wily off-spin will be a useful tool, but if he can help launch his team off to good starts life will be a far sight easier for the middle order, which is anchored by cricketing legends Jayawardene and Sangakkara.

Prediction

Winners

Bangladesh

The Bangladeshi’s failure to improve since they began playing test matches at the start of the millennium has been well documented, and unfortunately their chances in Australia reflect their lack of progression. Placed in the tougher of the two groups, it would be a huge surprise to see Bangladesh replace even England in the quarter-finals, but a weak bowling attack paired with a brittle batting line-up make it odds on that the Asian side will fail to make the knock-out stages – again.

Player to Watch

Shakib Al Hasan has been the one outstanding performer Bangladesh have produced over the past decade, and the all-rounder will once again attempt to carry the team on his back down under with his crafty batting and useful left-arm spin. Hasan is the only Bangladesh player ever to earn an IPL contract so the rest of the world is aware of his talent – it’s just a shame that his country has been unable to support him ably throughout his career.

Prediction

Group Stages

New Zealand

The co-host Kiwis enter the World Cup with high hopes and perhaps their best chance at 50-over glory since they reached the semi-finals on home turf back in 1992. Brendan McCullum’s captaincy has earned rave reviews and the New Zealand skipper is backed up by former captains Ross Taylor and Daniel Vettori, both of whom have flashed world class ability during their careers. Factor in Kane Williamson’s exploits with the bat in recent months and wicket keeper Luke Ronchi’s ability to take games away in the late overs and the Black Caps should be one of the teams to keep an eye on over the next six weeks.

Player to Watch

For all of their weapons with the bat, it’s how New Zealand perform with the ball that could dictate how far they progress. That’s where diminutive southpaw Trent Boult comes in, and his ability to keep runs down in the final 10 overs will be key to the Black Caps hopes in the tournament. Bolt is more accomplished in test cricket than the shorter formats, so he’ll view the next few weeks as an opportunity to really announce himself on the world stage.

Prediction

Semi-Finals

Group B

South Africa

The number one ranked side in the world will finally hope to end their World Cup hoodoo and win a game in the knock out stages, an incredible drought when you consider some of the players produced by the Proteas over the past two decades. They’ll never get a better chance than over the next month and a half, with the world’s best bowler (Dale Steyn) and batsman (AB De Villiers) in their ranks. Hashim Amla isn’t too bad either, and Faf du Plessis has evolved into a top tier batsman in his own right since coming into the side.

Player to Watch

Imran Tahir has been far from consistent as South Africa’s spinner over the past couple of years, but if they’re to walk away victorious down under Tahir will need to play his part. It’s all very well having a pace attack featuring Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel, but without balance that formidable threesome will lose some of its effectiveness. The large boundaries in Australia should benefit spinners and protect them from big hitters, to an extent, giving Tahir the perfect platform to perform and help his fellow South Africans to victory on cricket’s biggest stage.

Prediction

Runners-Up

India

The reigning champions enter the 2015 tournament in terrible form, having failed to win a competitive game on tour in Australia, where they’ve been since November. While the batting line-up has shown signs of life with the likes of Virat Kohli maturing into a world class performer, the bowling department is frightfully thin. Famed for their world class spinners over the years, the Indians are weak even in that department, and on the pace-friendly wickets down under they could be faced with the task of chasing 300 plus regularly.

Player to Watch

Rohit Sharma currently holds the highest list A score in history of 264, but while that score came on home turf his form in unfamiliar climes has been less impressive. With the likes of Kohli and M.S Dhoni expected to perform well no matter the batting surface, Sharma will be under pressure to score heavily at the top of the order and give his team’s bowlers a target with which they can bowl at.

Prediction

Quarter-Finals

Pakistan

As unpredictable as ever, Pakistan enter this tournament with a team poor on paper yet filled with experience. Shahid Afridi is a one day veteran of near twenty years, while Misbah Ul Haq anchors the batting line-up despite being in his late thirties. The loss of Saeed Ajmal is a huge one, but even without the number one ranked bowler in limited overs international cricket the Pakistanis are a team no one will want to face.

Player to Watch

Umar Akmal has an enormous amount of talent and has shown flashes of fulfilling his potential during his international career, but he’s yet to join the world’s elite as a batsman. If Pakistan are to succeed during this tournament Akmal will need to live up to his immense promise and support Misbah’s efforts with the bat – failure to do so will result in a fragile batting line-up falling short of the required output to challenge for the county’s first World Cup title since 1992, when the tournament was also held in Australia and New Zealand.

Prediction

Quarter-Finals

West Indies

Is there a more dysfunctional team in world cricket? Even Pakistan, famed for their volatility, are more settled than the Windies, whose players and board have been at loggerheads for what seems like a decade. Bowler Jason Holder was installed as the team’s captain just a few weeks ago, and it rather feels like Holder has been thrown to the lions as a sacrificial lamb with the rest of the team in complete disarray.

Player to Watch

Who else but Chris Gayle? Gayle may not be in the richest vein of form, yet he’s still a batsman bowlers the world over fear, with his easy power a threat to clear even the biggest boundary. For the West Indies to have any chance against the other test playing nations they’ll need Gayle to be firing on all cylinders – but even that might not be enough with the rest of the team full of holes and lacking both experience and talent.

Prediction

Quarter-Finals

Who do you think will win the 2015 ICC World Cup? Leave a comment or tweet @fredjstanley

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Super Bowl XLIX Preview: New England Patriots v Seattle Seahawks

Tom Brady is seeking a fourth Super Bowl ring, while Russell Wilson is hoping to win his second NFL title

After a gruelling season and dramatic series of play-off games, Super Bowl Sunday is here as the NFC and AFC champion Seahawks and Patriots do battle for the right to hoist the Lombardi trophy aloft in Phoenix, Arizona. A win for Seattle would see them repeat as champions, making them the first team to do so since… The New England Patriots, in 2003/4. Those Patriots teams built on their surprising victory in 2001 and although Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have been back to the big game twice in recent years they have yet to win another Super Bowl since they were found guilty of spying on opposing teams sidelines, making tonight the perfect opportunity for both men to cement their legacy as greats of the NFL. To find out which match-ups to keep an eye on as both teams chase history, just keep reading.

When New England has the ball…
Early on in the season Seattle struggled to contain opposing teams tight ends, and as a result many analysts have put two and two together and predicted a big game for New England’s Rob Gronkowski. However while Gronkowski is an elite talent and match-up nightmare Seattle will be able to call on the services of punishing safety Kam Chancellor as they bid to keep ‘Gronk’ under wraps. Chancellor was injured for the early part of 2014 and that goes a long way towards explaining their poor numbers versus tight ends in the campaign’s early going.

It’ll also be interesting to see how New England attacks, or more likely doesn’t attack, Seahawks corner Richard Sherman. Sherman is used to opposing teams completely ignoring him and shutting off that side of the field, but with no standout threat on the outside at wide receiver it’ll be interesting to see who Sherman covers as the game unfolds.
Edge: Seattle 

When Seattle has the ball…
In the NFC Championship game Russell Wilson refused to run the ball himself with regularity until the game was on the line in the fourth quarter, but it’s unlikely that he’ll remain in the pocket for so long this evening. With opposing defenses keying in on Marshawn Lynch Wilson is often able to pull the ball and run himself, so New England will have to be wary of the Seahawks two-headed running attack.

Similarly to New England, the Seahawks posses no standout receiver on the outside. Jermaine Kearse hauled in the winning score two weeks ago against Green Bay but along with Doug Baldwin Kearse is an average at best NFL receiver. If Seattle are to move the ball on the Patriots they will most likely have to do so on the ground, as since last year’s Super Bowl victory they have lost both Golden Tate and Percy Harvin through free agency and trade, respectively.
Edge: New England

Special Teams
Stephen Gostkowsi has been a reliable kicker for New England ever since he was brought in to replace Adam Vinatieri, although he has yet to be on the winning side in a Super Bowl. Seahawks kicker Steven Hauschka has also earned himself a reputation as one of the premier points scorers in the NFL, and most would agree that he has a stronger leg than Gostkowski.

Both teams have good coverage units, although Seattle’s is probably marginally better, although neither possesses much of a threat in the return game. Seattle have particularly felt the loss of Harvin in that department. Edge: Even

Weather
The game is being held at the University of Phoenix stadium, and the weather is set fair for the game and the field is reported to be in excellent condition.

Prediction
New England 14, Seattle 24

Who do you think will win Super Bowl XLIX? Leave a comment or tweet @fredjstanley