The last couple of months, there has been a World Cup in India. A Men’s cricket ODI World Cup, to be precise.
I’m sure it will be remembered for many things: The collapse of defending champions England, the host nation’s almost undefeated run, and Australia’s victory in a tournament that, for once, they weren’t favourites in. Not to mention a batsman being timed out for the first time ever.
The tournament also included many upsets, but I think for me the most memorable thing will be the upset that didn’t happen. An upset which certainly should have happened, but was foiled by a truly remarkable innings from the great Glenn Maxwell.
Setting the scene
The tournament involved ten teams. In the group stage, everyone played everyone, with the top four to qualify for the semi-finals. I expected India, Pakistan, England and Australia to make the semi-finals.
The first big upset
A month and a half ago, England were to face Afghanistan. It was a match where England were the clear favourites: Not only were they the defending champions from 2019, but they had most of the same players in the team that won the last T20 World Cup in Melbourne less than 12 months before.
Afghanistan had lost their first two matches, including a loss against Bangladesh - a team which England had beaten. It wasn’t just this tournament, either. They hadn’t won a single match at either the last ODI World Cup or the last T20 World Cup. Both, as I’ve said, tournaments which were won by England.
Given this post is about upsets, it’s probably not a surprise to find that Afghanistan won the match. But it wasn’t just the fact that they won: It was also how they won.
When England sent them in, they put up a decent total, then settled down to defend it. And that was the point when I started to think “You know, they really could win this”. Especially after they took a few early wickets.
This is the thing with upsets. I was at the MCG last year when Ireland upset England. It’s easy to think “They’re doing well, and, you know, they could actually win this (and I hope they do!)”. But I find there’s always a part of my mind going “This is England we’re talking about. They have many good players. Surely one of them’s going to turn this round?”
No such player stood up. Harry Brook, Bazballer extraordinary, came closest, but England were already looking like an outside chance before he was the 8th out.
And so Afghanistan notched their first win of the tournament. Their first upset. And at that point it seemed likely that that was match which would define Afghanistan’s tournament, in the same way as Ireland’s upset of England had defined their T20 tournament.
But there was a little more to it: At the start of the tournament, it had been clear that Afghanistan could be a handful. Spin bowling had always been their strongest suit, and Indian conditions were likely to suit them better than English or Australian conditions had. They seemed to have strengthened their batting, and as a result, on their day they could challenge any team. Perhaps even Australia.
The Netherlands join the act
Two days later, the Netherlands faced South Africa. South Africa was fresh off beating Australia and were looking like serious semi-final contenders. The Netherlands had actually upset South Africa in the last T20 World Cup, but this time round they were coming off losses to Pakistan and New Zealand.
There was no sign of an upset brewing, particularly not when the Netherlands lost early wickets and kept losing them. Still, they ended up putting up a decent total. Not as large as Afghanistan’s, but the question became “Could they defend it?” And they did. Solidly.
Afghanistan become surprise semi-finalist candidates
Both teams lost their next matches, Afghanistan to NZ and Netherlands to Sri Lanka. There was no shame in those losses - in particular, NZ had been shaping up as a likely semi-finalist.
It was easy to wonder whether the upsets were over. Well, until Afghanistan beat Pakistan. That meant they’d taken out two of my original four predicted semi-finalists.
They beat Sri Lanka. Then they faced the Netherlands and won again, and suddenly they were serious contenders for the semi-finals. Quite a change from being winless and bottom of the table.
Next up? Australia.
Australia’s statement win
Australia had been in a shaky position in the tournament after losing their first two matches. But since then they had won five matches in a row, leaving them comfortably third on the table with an excellent semi-final chance. Some of those matches had been close, most noticeably a nail-biting win over New Zealand that went down to the final ball.
But their most decisive victory had been against the Netherlands. After a solid start from the top order, Glenn Maxwell made a forty ball century - the fastest in ODI World Cup history. They didn’t quite make 400 - but they still won by over 300 runs.
It seemed like a statement. They were going to take each game seriously, and they weren’t going to be upset.
Next opponent? Afghanistan.
A memorable match
Both Australia and Afghanistan had started the tournament with two losses. But by the time they met, Australia had won their last five matches, while Afghanistan had won four of their last five. They were both in the hunt for a semi-final position, and the game could only have one winner.
Victory to Australia would see them qualify for the semi-finals. Victory to Afghanistan would give them a better chance of getting through, though they would probably still have to beat South Africa to make the semi-finals.
Afghanistan won the toss and batted, and for most of that innings, Australia seemed on top. But they lost control in the final ten overs, as Ibrahim Zadran made the first World Cup century by an Afghanistan player.
Australia’s final target was 292, 7 runs more than England had had to chase. But still - the total was one Australia should have been able to chase.
Then, like England, Australia lost early wickets. And kept losing them. Where England had never really recovered from 4-91, Australia were 7-91. It should have been game over. It felt like game over.
Sure, Glenn Maxwell was still in. But he wasn’t looking like the devastating ball-striker he had against the Netherlands. Afghanistan dropped him twice, and he also had an LBW decision overturned on review. The best case scenario was for him to put together a face-saving fifty like Harry Brook had for England. Good, but not enough.
When Glenn Maxwell is batting, it’s hard to look away. He makes the outrageous and the unbelievable look normal.
I’d watched his century against the Netherlands live, but this time I should have gone to bed. And I’m sure many saw an Afghanistan victory as a foregone conclusion and did go to bed.
Australia stayed on top of the required run rate, and there was no doubt they could chase it if they stayed in. Realistically, though, for much of the match Afghanistan were one wicket away from certain victory. A well-deserved victory, too. Surely he had to make a mistake sometime?
Earlier in the tournament, my brother and I had been talking about who would make the first double-century of the tournament. Rohit Sharma had prior experience, while David Warner and Quinton de Kock had both made big centuries. And of course openers have an advantage because they have longer to bat. Maxwell’s name came up, but I really didn’t see a finisher making a double, no matter how fast he could score.
Throughout this innings, even as we expected Afghanistan to win, we joked that Maxwell was still technically able to make a double-century. But surely it wasn’t going to happen? Even if he did manage to spear-head an improbable chase, surely he couldn’t make the script that perfect?
As it turned out, Maxwell scored 22 off his last four balls to seal an Australia win and his double century at the same time. He was the first non-opener in men’s ODI to make a double century. And he did it from #6.
He came to the crease at 4-49 and made 201 of the remaining 244 runs. That is insane.
There was a time when he could hardly take a single. When he would casually hit a six before hopping about in agony. There was a time when he collapsed to the ground after taking a single. It was painful to watch (and I’m sure much more painful to play) - but it was also strangely compelling viewing.
The danger of playing against lower ranked teams is that achievements against them tend to get dismissed. For example, I’m sure it will be said about his century against the Netherlands “Yes, it was an incredible innings - but it was only against the Netherlands”.
But that can’t happen with this innings. Afghanistan had showed themselves to be genuine semi-final threats, and he came out into a desperate match situation and then dominated the rest of the match in a way few players have.
The final scorecard shows Australia winning by three wickets with a few overs in hand. Close, but not that close.
Cricinfo’s win predictor tells the story better:
Australia shouldn’t have won. They should probably have lost by at least 150 runs. But one man proved the difference between a brilliant upset and a brilliant run-chase.
Back in Melbourne, it was 4AM, and somehow Australia had won. I needed sleep, but it was difficult to wind down.
I was glad I’d watched it live. I still am. I won’t be forgetting it any time soon. When I think of this tournament, this will be the innings I think of.
Not quite enough for Afghanistan
After losing to Australia, Afghanistan was technically still able to qualify for the semi-finals. But it would have required everything going their way. And that didn’t happen.
As it was, Afghanistan made it to 6th. They went from winning no matches the previous tournament to winning four out of the nine. It was a good result, and probably better than most people (including me) expected at the start of the tournament.
But I’m sure they’ll rue their losses against both Bangladesh and Australia. The Bangladesh one was a match that on paper should have been very winnable. While the Australia match they were on top for a lot of the game. And upsetting the mighty Australia would be something to boast of.
If they’d won them both, they would have made the semi-finals.
The importance of upsets
I tend to expect that Australia will beat all the lower ranked teams. Yes, they could absolutely be beaten by teams like India, England, New Zealand and South Africa. But teams like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and the Netherlands - well, it won’t even be close. Not only will Australia win, but they’ll probably be able to improve their net run rate. Sure, they might sometimes look in trouble, but even then someone will stand up and take the fight to the opponent.
On paper, that’s exactly what happened in the tournament: Australia lost to two of the eventual semi-finalists, while beating the other semi-finalist and all other non-semi-finalists. That put them comfortably in third place, and thus in a position they could win the tournament from.
Ideally, it shouldn’t be that way. I don’t think any victory should be taken for granted (even though I do it myself).
Upsets are fun. They’re unexpected. And even when the underdog team is on top, there’s the constant question “Can they do it?”
Taking the upsets to the next level
Upsets make for a great game, but I think it would be good for there to be more. Making the semi-finals should be a battle between all the teams, not just a battle between five or six regulars for the four semi-final slots.
This time round, three of the four semi-finalists were the same as in the last ODI World Cup. And they were actually exactly the same semi-finalists as the time before. Yes, it was a surprise that the defending champion didn’t even make the semi-finals - but the teams that did make it weren’t a huge surprise.
Two of the four semi-finalists, South Africa and New Zealand, had never won the tournament. They were beaten by Australia and India respectively. Who had, between them, won five of the last six.
Australia’s victory over the host nation (undefeated to that point of the tournament) was a slight upset - but it was also their fourth such win this century. Fittingly, as it turned out, Glenn Maxwell was at the crease to hit the winning runs (trivia: He also hit the winning runs in Australia’s 2021 T20 World Cup victory).
I wanted Afghanistan to make the semi-finals. It would have shaken things up and made for a feel good story. Even better if they’d then knocked out India and made the final.
After their upset of England, I said “While I’d prefer Australia to get through, if Afghanistan beating Australia is what it takes to make the semi-finals, it would be a good outcome”. As it turned out, Afghanistan did very nearly upset Australia, and even if they had done so Australia would probably still have made the semi-finals while Afghanistan would have missed out.
I hope that in the next 5 - 10 years Afghanistan make at least one semi-final. Preferably that they go on to win a tournament.
I also hope that the upsets keep coming from a variety of teams. That the Netherlands continue to find ways to win. That Ireland and Scotland and Zimbabwe return and provide a consistent challenge to higher ranked teams. Really, that it’s not just the Big Three winning everything (OK, they probably don’t win everything - but sometimes it feels like it).
Celebrating a remarkable player
Finally, though, I also hope to see more of Glenn Maxwell’s batting. Like I’ve said, it’s hard to look away when he’s batting. The other day he won another match for Australia with another century - this time in a T20 against the mighty India.
He is justly recognised as a white ball great. He hasn’t been given the opportunities that I think he should have been given in Test cricket, but he’s still made a century in all three formats. Perhaps his World Cup double century will end up his greatest achievement, or perhaps he will show us something even more remarkable. Either way, I’m very glad to have watched it live.