The ‘Underdogs’ – 29th May 2019

A lot of noise is usually made before big series and tournaments, like this one, about the importance – or otherwise – of being tagged the ‘favourite’. Most favourites instinctively deny the charge for fear of the consequential increase in expectations and the negative impact it may have on some of the nervier, less experienced players.

But sometimes the form-book is so convincing it becomes impossible to ignore, even for the most determined denier. England captain Eoin Morgan knows it would be ridiculous to suggest his team could be anything but the bookmaker’s preferred choice but has, nonetheless, often repeated the line that ‘there are a lot of good teams’ and ‘anyone can win.’ He has also said on a several occasions that ‘there is very little between any of the teams.’

He’s right, of course, and it would give the world’s media an open-house field day of extreme headlines if he acquiesced, shrugged his shoulders and said: ‘Of course we’re favourites’. England are as strong a favourites as South Africa were here 20 years ago. Hansie Cronje and Bob Woolmer had spent two and a half years building that team and achieved a win/loss ratio only ever matched, briefly, by the great West Indies team of the 1980s.

Having dominated the ODI scene for the two years preceding the 1999 World Cup Cronje felt the same futility as Morgan when repeatedly confronted with the favourites label. I’ll never forget his first couple of attempts at obfuscation – they didn’t go well – and his quick change of plan: “I understand why people want to call us that and I accept it. I’m not going to deny it,” he said.

Jacques Kallis was part of that team, as he was at five World Cups during which he never knew what it was like to play without the rest of the world expecting great things from South Africa.

“I played in all five of my World Cups with the team featuring, to a greater or lesser degree, amongst the favourites. It affected us, to some degree, every time. Not always negatively, but everybody was aware of it. In hindsight I know it played a part in how we performed on the field – and not always negatively. Occasionally it was a good thing,” Kallis said in London this week.

“But I know Faf du Plessis and his team have enjoyed seeing the spotlight and attention shining more brightly on England and India and it has allowed them the time and space to focus on the details of their own game and strategies for each match.”

Head coach Ottis Gibson echoed those sentiments when asked how the team would tackle the task of playing England in the opening game on Thursday: “All the pressure is on them, we can just go out there and play our best game. If it isn’t good enough on the day then so be it, it’s a six-week tournament, we’ve got another eight games after that one – another ten if we get to the semi finals and final.”

“If you remove the WC from CWC then it’s just another cricket match, that’s how we are preparing for it. Other teams have a lot more expectation and attention on them. But we also know that if we do play our best then we can beat anyone and win the whole thing.”

Words are easy at this stage before a game has even been played in anger. They will become trickier as the wins and losses start piling up, and not just for the vanquished. Victorious captains can find it just as awkward avoiding saying something which might come back to haunt him or his team. Such is the power of the spoken word – and the media’s representation of it.

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