Greatest weapons, biggest flaws: World Cup teams broken down
IN less than three months, one-day cricket's 10 best teams will convene in England and duke it out for the sport's greatest trophy - the World Cup.
And while the hosts head into it as marginal favourites over a remarkably consistent Indian outfit, right now it is still anyone's prize to win. No team is perfect, and no team lacks the weapons to have a say on where the trophy ends up.
With time quickly running out for each side to nail down a game plan, we analyse every country's greatest strength and most glaring concern.
THE STRENGTH: Explosive batsmen in a deep order
Having won 10 of their past 12 bilateral series, England is the world's best one-day international team and has the ICC ranking to prove it. There is no doubt the hosts will be the team to beat at the World Cup.
Embarrassed at the 2015 World Cup, where a conservative approach saw them bundled out in the group stage. England is now the most attacking team in the world with the bat. No side has passed 300 more times in ODI cricket since the World Cup than England - Eoin Morgan's men have managed it 34 times, 14 more than second-best India - and South Africa is the only other team to have posted a 400+ total. England has done that four times.
Alongside having batsmen gifted with the ability to go hell for leather from ball one - Jonny Bairstow, Jason Roy, Jos Buttler and Morgan all average more than 40 with strike rates above 100 over the past 12 months - they also have a batting order deep enough to give those players license to attack. No.11 Mark Wood is the only out-and-out bowler regularly playing for England, with the rest of the attack more than capable with the bat.
THE CONCERN: Bad game always around the corner
Adopting an all-out attacking approach with the bat has made England the team to beat. A lack of flexibility may be what costs them, with enough collapses in recent times to make it a concern.
A game after hammering 6-418 against the West Indies, they were bundled out for 113, failing to change their approach on a tougher pitch. They were on the brink of being bowled out at 9-132 against a struggling Sri Lanka in October.
Weighing a bowler's merits as a batsman has also cost the team on occasion too, with Scotland pulling off one of the great upsets last year by piling on 371 runs in a six-run thriller.
The question England has to answer is whether it can adapt its game to suit the conditions, particularly as the pitches and fields get drier, and reverse swing and spin become bigger factors.
It's an issue the England think tank are aware of too.
"It is quite difficult to curb what has been your natural reaction for the last couple of weeks. The honest answer is we need to get better at it," Morgan told Sky Sports after England were skittled by the Windies.
"When we come up against different conditions it never is that easy for any side but you need to adapt on the day and find a way of scoring runs, occupying the crease and managing your innings better than we did.
"You have to rock up on any given day and be in a good enough head space to adapt to conditions."
THE STRENGTH: All-star attack
This Indian team features three of the all-time great 50-over batsmen - Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, MS Dhoni - and one under-appreciated because of the calibre of players around him in Shikhar Dhawan. But if the Indians go all the way in England it will be because their attack is in the conversation for best in the game.
Kohli has three of the top five ODI bowlers in the world at his disposal, according to the ICC's rankings. The star of the show, and No.1 bowler on the rankings, is of course Jasprit Bumrah (82 wickets at 21.07) but the ace up Kohli's sleeve is the duel act of Kuldeep Yadav (82 wickets at 20.60) and Yuzvendra Chahal (71 wickets at 23.83), who sit fourth and fifth on the rankings. The spin twins have given India unrivalled cut through in the middle overs.
With Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami competing to partner Bumrah with the new ball, and seam bowling all-rounder Hardik Pandya likely to carry the fifth bowler's load, India's attack will cause plenty of trouble.
THE CONCERN: Over reliance on the top three
The big three of Sharma, Dhawan and Kohli has been the platform on which India has built its near constant success in ODI cricket since the last World Cup. It's an over-dependence on this top three that could also cost the Indians in England, just as it did in the Champions Trophy, where Kohli's side was bundled out for 158 after the top three contributed a grand sum of 26 runs.
Given Ambati Rayudu and Dhoni - the likely candidates to bat No.4 and 5 - average 48.34 and 50.84 respectively, this critique may seem harsh. However, neither Rayudu nor Dhoni are particularly quick run-scorers any more, with the onus on one of Sharma, Dhawan or Kohli to cash in with quick runs in the second half of the innings after laying a foundation in the first.
Having made the final of the 2017 Champions Trophy, the Indians will be confident they have it in them to tackle English conditions. Nevertheless, if the ball is moving off the straight the onus on the top three to set up the innings will only increase.
THE STRENGTH: Under the radar batting superstars
Under rated and underappreciated - two phrases that could be used to describe New Zealand's men's cricket team. The Black Caps sits second on the Test rankings and third on the ODI ladder.
Those same phrases could also be used to describe Ross Taylor, who should be embedded firmly in the debate for best ODI batsman in the world right now. The former captain has put together quite the ODI career (8026 runs at 48.34), and is seemingly getting better with age.
Since having surgery on a growth on his left eye in late 2016, Taylor has gone from strength to strength with the bat and over the past 12 months has averaged 104.44 in ODI cricket with a strike rate of 93.62.
Add in Kane Williamson (5554 runs at 45.90, 11 centuries) and Martin Guptill (6440 runs at 43.51, 16 centuries) and you're looking at one of the strongest top fours in the game.
THE CONCERN: Problems at the top
In terms of averages, in the past 12 months New Zealand has the third worst opening combination in the world in ODI cricket. The two nations below them are Zimbabwe (17.82) and the Netherlands (2.50), the latter of which has only played twice.
Across the 16 matches New Zealand has played in that time, on average the first wicket has garnered the country 21.43 runs - world leaders England by comparison have an opening stand worth 63.75 on average.
The Black Caps can take some encouragement from the fact Guptill looked to be back to his best against Bangladesh (264 runs at 132.00). They'll be hoping that was an indication of his form rather than reflective of an attack that has typically struggled outside of Asia.
Given that patience has seemingly run out with Colin Munro, who has averaged 18.53 over the past 12 months, much will depend on how Henry Nicholls takes to life at the top of the order
THE STRENGTH: Mouth-watering attack
With four series wins in a row, the South Africans are building nicely to the World Cup. That success has been built on the back of their bowlers, who have only conceded more than 250 runs on four occasions across their past 17 matches, and only once allowed a team past 300.
With Dale Steyn back in the picture, alongside Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi, leg-spinner Imran Tahir and the increasingly impressive Andile Phehlukwayo, South Africa has an attack that is as frugal as it is dangerous.
Collectively South Africa's bowlers have averaged 27.59 (second among World Cup teams) and struck every 32.2 balls (first) across the past 12 months.
THE CONCERN: One giant gone, another missing
With AB de Villiers retired, South Africa's batting order - the middle order in particular - does not look nearly as threatening as it once did. Worryingly for the Proteas, alongside losing de Villiers to retirement, they may have lost Hashim Amla to form.
With an average of 49.74, Amla was once one of the first names on the team sheet but he has been left out of the squad for the ODI series against Sri Lanka after a lean 12 months.
Time is running out for Amla to make a case for a recall, but the Proteas will surely be wary of going into the World Cup without their two most experience and proven ODI batsman of the past decade.
The good news for South Africa is that captain Faf du Plessis looks primed for a bumper tournament. The skipper scored an unbeaten 112 in his most recent innings, and has averaged 72.62 in ODIs across the past 12 months. Wicketkeeper-batsman Quinton de Kock also seems to have found his best again, notching back-to-back 80+ scores in his most recent two innings after a lean 2018.
THE STRENGTH: A world-class top three
They may only sit fifth on the ICC rankings, but there is plenty to like about a Pakistan team that has unearthed a few gems in the past two years.
Stability may not be a phrase synonymous with Pakistani cricket, but they have just that thanks to a world class top three.
The fire and ice combination of Fakhar Zaman (1442 ODI career runs at 53.40) and Imam-ul-Haq (1090 at 60.55) has averaged 61.06 as an opening pair over the past 12 months. Only England's Jonny Bairstow and Jason Roy (64.64) have fared better among opening combinations that have played more than five ODIs since last March.
With Babar Azam - fifth on the ODI rankings and averaging 51.29 - coming in at No.3, Pakistan's top three does not leave much to be desired.
Rookie quicks Usman Shinwari and Shaheen Afridi will have big roles to play alongside the more established Hasan Ali. With 20-year-old leg-spinner Shadab Khan there too, Pakistan has most areas covered with the ball.
THE CONCERN - Big names misfiring
There is a lot to get excited about with the next generation of Pakistani cricketers coming through. The likes of Imam-ul-Haq, Babar Azam, Shaheen Afridi, Usman Shinwari and Shadab Khan - aged between 20 and 25 - have all shown that they can have a serious impact.
However, if Pakistan is going to make a splash at the World Cup then the senior pros will need to step up too. That's a concern given Mohammad Hafeez is nursing a thumb injury and veterans Shoaib Malik (404 runs at 33.66) and Sarfaraz Ahmed (213 runs at 26.62) have both looked off colour over the past 12 months.
Mohammed Amir is also struggling. The quick has taken three wickets at 86.33 over the past 12 months in ODI cricket. While Pakistan has not missed him too much, thanks to Afridi (19 wickets at 19.36) and Shinwari (17 at 19.41), Amir is a big stage player. The left-arm quick was at the heart of Pakistan's Champions Trophy win, taking 3-16 in the final.
"If a senior bowler like him looks out of form, off-colour, it's a worry for us, but we still have time for Amir. We still have ten one-dayers and two-three months," chief selector and former batsman Inzamam-ul-Haq said. "Amir can make a comeback. We will give him full chance to make a comeback. He is a big-occasion bowler and we need to have a bowler like him in our armoury."
THE STRENGTH: The Smith and Warner factor
It's difficult to gauge just how strong Australia's World Cup hopes are. On form, the defending champions should stand little chance. It has been more than two years since they last won an ODI series, and their win-loss ratio in that period (four wins, 19 losses) is the worst in the world.
However with five World Cups in the trophy cabinet and an attack featuring Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins, they simply can't be ruled out.
The biggest factor for the Australians might just be the returns of David Warner and Steve Smith, however. With more than 7000 runs and 22 ODI centuries between the two of them, Warner (4343 runs at 43.43) and Smith (3431 at 41.84) are Australia's two most proven batsmen and are good enough to take Australia's batting order from faltering to elite.
THE CONCERN: The hole Smith and Warner need to fill
There are a host of concerns for Australia, and it is going to take more than the return of Smith and Warner to remedy those issues. This was a 50-over team in trouble before their suspensions after all, with the pair involved in 10 straight ODI losses before their 12-month bans.
Nevertheless, how quickly the two find their feet on the international stage is going to have a huge say on Australia's World Cup hopes. Given the struggles of Aaron Finch, right now what this Australian team is missing more than anything is batsmen who know how to turn a start into a match defining performance.
You needn't look further than the respective XIs in the first ODI of the India-Australia series for that. Indian opener Shikhar Dhawan had one more century (15) than the entire Australian XI combined. Rohit Sharma (22) and Virat Kohli (39) each have more than the entire Australian squad combined (19).
With 14 and 8 ODI centuries respectively, Warner and Smith need to fill that hole.
THE STRENGTH: Big stage experience
Bangladesh surprised the world by making it past the group stage of the World Cup last time, and in the years since have become proven performers on the big stage.
In 2017, the Tigers made it into the semi-finals of the Champions Trophy, getting through a group that featured England, New Zealand and Australia. In 2018, they made the Asia Cup final, and lost a last-ball thriller against India.
Each of those tournaments saw a senior bat step up, with Tamim Iqbal scoring 293 at 73.25 in the Champions trophy and Mushfiqur Rahim 302 at 60.50 in the Asia Cup.
Up until the ODI series against New Zealand, both those men were in hot form. In the past 12 months, Mushfiqur has averaged 51.84 and Tamim 63.14. Alongside Shakib Al Hasan they will carry the bulk of the responsibility with the bat for Bangladesh. If Mahmudullah and Soumya Sarkar can step up too, then this Bangladeshi outfit will be a handful.
THE CONCERN: What happens if they need to chase big runs?
While the form of Bangladesh's batsmen is impressive, collectively they are going to have to step it up in England. With flat pitches and small grounds the norm, scores around 300 are expected to be par.
That's a concern for a Bangladeshi batting order that has only passed 300 once in the past 12 months and six times since the 2015 World Cup. Afghanistan is the only World Cup team to have reached 300 on fewer occasions (2) since the last tournament.
The counterpoint to this is that Bangladesh has only concede 300 runs in an ODI eight times since the last World Cup and only once in the past 12 months.
THE STRENGTH: Rapid scorers
With all-rounder Thisara Perera (512 runs at 39.38, strike rate of 121.04) leading the charge, Sri Lanka's batsmen have scored at 5.78 runs a year across the past 12 months. Only England (6.41) has scored faster.
Alongside Thisara Perera, Niroshan Dickwella and Kusal Perera shape as the key me in Sri Lanka's batting order. Both have scored more than 400 runs in the past 12 months, with strike rates just under 100.
THE CONCERN: Rapid conceders
While the Sri Lankans score runs at a rapid rate, they concede them even quicker. The Lasith Malinga-led side has leaked a world-worst 6.21 an over across the past 12 months. No wonder they have lost 12 of their past 16 ODIs.
Worryingly for Sri Lanka, their two best bowlers over the past year have both had stints on the sidelines.
Akila Dananjaya , a right-arm spinner of every variety, has been both their greatest threat (26 wickets at 19.76) and most frugal bowler (6.45) in the past 12 months. He has only just returned to playing duties after a stint on the sidelines because of suspect action.
Malinga, the team's second highest wicket-taker in the past year (17 at 28.05), is never a guarantee to play given his age and injury history.
THE STRENGTH AND THE CONCERN: A team of x-factors
The West Indies' greatest strength and biggest concern are one and the same. Theirs is a dynamite team - whether they implode or explode is the question.
With Chris Gayle back at the top of the order, and power hitters like Shimron Hetmyer and Carlos Brathwaite in the side, the West Indies are capable of posting scores few other teams in the world can.
Just ask England's bowlers, who were at the receiving end of some absolutely disdainful batting during a recent ODI series in the Caribbean that finished 2-2. Gayle was at the centre of that series, with the bruising left-hander in ominous touch ahead of the World Cup. He hammered 424 runs for the campaign at an average of 106.00 with a strike rate of 134.17. There were 39 sixes along the way.
At the same time, the West Indies are as likely to crumble as any team, having been held under 200 on six occasions in the past 12 months.
THE STRENGTH: Spin to win
In Rashid Khan, Afghanistan has the best white-ball spin bowler in the world. Second on the ICC's ODI bowling rankings, Rashid has taken 33 wickets at just 17.36 runs apiece in the past year. He's only leaked 3.85 runs an over in that time.
The scary thing about Afghanistan is that Rashid is no one-man band. Brisbane Heat fans got a look at Mujeeb ur Rahman over the summer in the BBL (12 wickets at 23.41, econ. 6.04), and the 18-year-old has been a revelation since making his ODI debut (47 wickets at 18.14, econ 3.74). Throw in the finger spin of all-rounder Mohammad Nabi and Afghanistan's attack is not short of quality.
Though the pace stocks aren't impressive, Afghanistan boast the most economic attack of any team at the World Cup, leaking just 4.21 runs per over in the past year and 4.51 since the last World Cup.
THE CONCERN: Slow scorers
Having registered wins over Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and a tie with India at last year's Asia Cup, Afghanistan don't need to have any concerns over whether they are good enough to mix it with the big boys.
However, they will have to improve their run rate if they want to be more than also-rans. Asghar Afghan's team has scored at just 4.64 runs per over across the past year. That makes them comfortably the slowest scorers of any team in the World Cup, with Pakistan (4.64) the next worst.
Big tournaments from Nabi and wicketkeeper Mohammad Shahzad could rectify that issue.