It has been a curious tournament so far.
The Australians have proved a washout, with rain dousing their flame in every match. The other fancied side, the South Africans, have stumbled to their characteristic choke, literally ‘running out’ of ideas.
Sri Lanka played out of their skins to upset the cruising Indian apple-cart but resorted to rather abysmal cricket to contribute to a hard-earned defeat against Pakistan. The Kiwis found voice whenever Kane Williamson was on song but were muted almost every time he got out.
The semifinal line up, therefore, contains at least two, or perhaps even three, surprises.
Pakistan is there, having gone through their entire expanse of unpredictability, from turning the heat on with splendid cricket to proving to be a damp squib with pathetic phases of play. When Sri Lanka were trying hard to lose the key encounter against them, Pakistan was busy pulling out all the volatility that constitute their cricketing DNA. They too seemed to be working extra hard to keep the match in balance, no matter how many times Sri Lanka all but threw it their way. Before Sarfraz Ahmed, the Karachi street-fighter of this generation, produced a steely-nerved classic, almost as if paying homage to the original Karachi streetfighter on the latter’s birthday.
Unpredictability is the only constant with this maverick bunch, and one can only predict the future at one’s own peril with this curious parameter in the fray.
The other three teams in the knockout stage have proved more solid.
Bangladesh has really been the major whiff of fresh air. A formidable side is defined by its depth of resources, and nothing exemplified this developing dimension of their cricket than the historic stand between Shakib Al Hasan and Mahmudullah. Before that, the batting had given the impression of being Tamim-based. But the way the two men stood up to deliver, after the consistent opener had been dismissed for a duck and the side was tottering at 33 for 4, was the hallmark of a side that has come through a long, long formative stage and can stand shoulder to shoulder with the best in business.
One can still argue that the bowling has been less than the best in the group matches, but this tournament has often proved to be a case of chasing down big scores and grappling with the splashes of rain and associated intricacies of Duckworth-Lewis. Bangladesh has proved to be roaring tigers at tackling the first bit, and one can only leave the other to the slings and arrows of fortune.
However, the band of resilient men will be up against India. This is a side that has shown absolutely no weakness in the tournament, other than somehow allowing Sri Lanka to chase down the mammoth 322. Their top bats have fired in every match, Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma have blazed away like a double-barrelled gun at the top of the order, Virat Kohli has been sublime, Yuvraj Singh has turned the clock back and MS Dhoni is as feared a finisher as ever.
The Indian bowling has been top notch, but for that off-day against Sri Lanka. The pacemen have swung it and hurried the batsmen, Ravindra Jadeja got the stick against the Lankans but otherwise, the spinners have delivered consistently. They have knocked over good batting sides for sub-200 totals, albeit helped by moments of madness from their opponents. The fielding has also been alert, on occasions brilliant.
If Bangladesh do fire on Thursday it should be a keenly contested match fit for such a stage.
Yet, I have to say that the best side on view till now happen to be the hosts.
In the last few years, England have reinvented their approach to limited overs cricket to build themselves up into a fearsome outfit. Jason Roy is the only one yet to come good with the bat. Joe Root has been all class, and the Ben Stokes-Eoin Morgan combination positively destructive. Liam Plunkett has had batsmen in all sorts of trouble. Mark Wood and Jake Ball have been consistent. And Adil Rashid has both choked the middle overs and dented the middle orders.
What’s more, England have remained undefeated. The only side to do so in the tournament. They have set totals and defended them, and chased down huge targets with plenty to spare. And finally, they are playing at home.
At this stage, if given the hazardous task of picking a favourite, I would probably go with the Englishmen.
Yes, I would back them to pull off their first ever Global Tournament win in ODIs.
The biggest hurdle I see in their way is perhaps the unpredictability associated with Pakistan. The limited over format is a fickle one, and the best teams can come a cropper against a relatively ordinary bunch. One cannot predict such outcomes. Hence, the semi-finals will be fraught with uncertainty, and that is the seasoning that makes the fare heavenly.
However, the likeliest of results seem to point to an England-India final with the hosts starting out as favourites in the title round.
Yet, would it not be fantastic if we found either the erratic Pakistanis or the hope-tinged Bangladeshis in the final? Or better still, both?
Prediction is a perilous game, but the fascinating bit at this juncture is that whatever be the outcome of the semi-finals, it will either add substance to the final or spice to the mix.
And it will always be a mouth-watering delight to savour.