So a tournament which started with a low key qualifying game between Hong Kong and Zimbabwe at the Vidarbha Cricket Association Stadium in Nagpur, is going to see its final chapter written under the bright lights of Eden Gardens, in Kolkata. No one can deny the fact that England and
India West Indies are deserving finalists, who have played some fearless cricket throughout the competition to get to where they are. While the team from the British Isles looked at ease against an in-form New Zealand in the first semi-final on Wednesday, the Caribbean band of merry-men chased down a daunting target of 193 on Thursday night against India, the home team and one of the pre-tournament favourites. Eden Gardens has a history of producing some great games, and if the semi-finals are anything to go by, we should expect another spectacle at one of the cauldrons of world cricket on Sunday night.
The last time an English team played a world cup final at Eden Gardens, an ill-conceived reverse sweep from their captain started a downfall, which eventually led to a heartbreak against the Australians in 1987. However, Eoin Morgan’s Three Lions are a lot different from the ones we have witnessed in world tournaments, barring the one that actually lifted the World T20 in 2010.
Not many people gave England a chance coming into the tournament, and fewer predicted that they will be one of the finalists at Eden Gardens. Morgan’s team started the tournament in a poor fashion when they had to endure a Chris Gayle onslaught in their opening game at the Wankhede Stadium, and eventually lost despite scoring 182, batting first. Their chances of qualification to the semi-finals looked bleak when South Africa posted a daunting score of 229 at the same venue. However, a Joe Root special, coupled with some listless bowling from the Proteas allowed them to chase down the target with two balls to spare.
The victory over South Africa gave a much needed morale boost to an England side comprising of a bunch of young players, who had no experience of playing in Indian prior to the tournament. A nervy win over Afghanistan followed, and they finally booked their last-four berth with a hard fought win over Sri Lanka in their final Super Ten game.
In the semi-finals New Zealand, pre-tournament favourites, were waiting for them, and half way through the Kiwi innings it seemed that England would be chasing another massive target. However, some uninspired batting from the New Zealanders and some wonderful death bowling helped them to restrict the Kiwis to 153. Their approach to the chase would have been refreshing for any English cricket fan, as openers Jason Roy and Alex Hales took the attack to the opposition, and laid down the foundation of a comfortable win.
Kolkata is the former colonial capital of British India, still laced with streets and monuments named after queens and British generals, but the pitch that awaits them, could be the toughest test for England. Eden Gardens has a reputation of producing slow and low turners, and over the last few years, rarely have they given a wicket that behaves otherwise. While Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali might get the purchase they would love, English batsmen are not exactly fond of the turning ball, and they might be depending on Joe Root to smother the limited but potent West Indian spin attack. England will again look at their death bowlers Chris Jordan and Ben Stokes to keep the West Indian power hitters on check at the death, and not to lose the plot the way Indian bowlers did in the semi-finals.
The ghost of Kolkata 1987 will be mentioned at some point, before or during the game. It remains to be seen whether England manage to bury that ghost with their exciting young team or add more meat to the legend of English captains losing their mojo at the Eden Gardens.
The Caribbean Islands are no longer a super power of cricket. Their One Day and Test record over the years are testament to the fact. However, West Indies have found a new lease of life in T20 cricket, and already have one world title to their name in the format. Their free spirited way of life and cricket, has found a perfect format in the shortest form of the game, and they have taken to it like a duck to water.
West Indies started the tournament with a powerful performance against England, their fellow finalists, as Chris Gayle took apart a young English attack in a remorseless manner to post a six-wicket win, while chasing a score of 182 at the Wankhede. The pre-tournament favourites tag sat nicely on them, as they dismantled Sri Lanka in the next game at Bangalore. South Africa did pose a threat in the next game, but Darren Sammy’s men clinched a close game by three wickets, while chasing a modest target of 123. And while they did take their foot off the peddle against Afghanistan in the final game to allow the Asian minnows to come away with a win, West Indies, with Gayle and other power hitters, looked a potent side coming into the semi-finals.
India were overwhelming favourites to beat West Indies and book a finals berth, and they looked like they were on their way to Kolkata when they posted 192, and took two early wickets, including Gayle inside the power play. However, Johnson Charles and Lendl Simmons had other ideas, as they first consolidated to get the innings moving again, and then took apart the Indian bowling in the middle overs. Simmons made most of his lucky breaks to score a match winning 82, and Andre Russell’s 20-ball 43 polished off the hopes of the home side.
The dominating win over India showed the damage the power hitters of West Indies are capable of inflicting on an opponent, but then again the slow and low nature of the pitch at the Eden Gardens is expected to cause them problems. In terms of their batting Gayle becomes more important in Kolkata, as the middle order power hitters might not get the same kind of help from the conditions as the Wankhede, and the ball is expected to grip there. While the West Indian bowling is considered as their weak link, Samuel Badree could become even more dangerous on a turner, and Russell could also put his Kolkata Knight Riders experience to good use. However, perhaps the onus will be on the West Indian batsmen to put up a big score on the Eden track, and ask England to chase, like a certain Allan Border did 29 years earlier.
The expected low and slow nature of the pitch means whoever wins the toss should elect to bat first. While both the West Indies and England have found success chasing in the competition, conditions are expected to force them to bat first as the Eden Gardens pitch is expected to deteriorate further as the game progresses. Dew is rarely a problem in Kolkata at this point of the year, so chances of conditions getting easier to bat are minimal. Moreover, it’s a World Cup final and conventional wisdom says bat first and put the scoreboard pressure on the opposition.
Looking at both the teams, England start as slight favourites as they look a better all round team than West Indies. Morgan’s team have power hitters, and middle order batsmen who have the ability to consolidate if early wickets go down. Moreover, they have Joe Root, who has already shown in the tournament that he can go on the onslaught when needed, despite his classical technique.
However, never count the West Indies out in the shortest format of the game. If Gayle clicks at the top of the order things could soon go south for England. And even without a special knock from him, they showed in the semi-finals that they have enough ammunition in the tank to hurt a team over 20 overs. However, their bowling needs to join the party to counter a better rounded English team.
Kolkata experienced a tragedy in recently which has already claimed countless lives and could become worse in the coming days, but as they say, the show must go on. The Stadium lights well lit-up; streams of people across Esplanade making way towards one of the greatest stadiums of world cricket, and Eden Gardens will be packed to capacity, just like when England and Australia clashed 29 years earlier. Let’s hope the two teams produce cricket that befits the stage and the occasion.
Match: England vs West Indies Date: Sunday, April 3, 2016 Start Time: 1900 IST (1330 GMT) Venue: Eden gardens, Kolkata
photo courtesy: skysports.com