Ireland's victory over West Indies on Monday has set the cat among the pigeons in Pool B of the World Cup. While South Africa and India won their opening matches, the two other teams favoured to make it to the quarter-final from this pool--Pakistan and the West Indies--ended up losers.
For the West Indies, the issue gets serious because they've lost to what is euphemistically called a 'minnow' team. To ensure a place in the last eight, they now have to beat at least two of the major teams, apart of course, from the weak ones.
The problem for the West Indies gets compounded further when you consider how well Zimbabwe performed against favourites South Africa. The Zimbabweans may have lost, but they are certainly no pushovers.
I'll take that argument further and say that none of the major teams--South Africa and India included though they have the buffer of a win each--can take the so-called minnow teams lightly. There is grief in store if they do, as the West Indies would readily testify.
The less fancied teams--especially Ireland and Zimbabwe in Pool B and Bangladesh in Pool A--have two things going for them. One, they are not burdened by high expectations from their supporters and can afford to play tension-free, high-risk cricket without compunction.
Moreover, they are deeply motivated to do well to remain in the upper echelons of the sport because the 2019 World Cup may have only 10 participating teams to be chosen by ranking. In other words, they are intent on proving a point.
The only no-hoper in Pool B is UAE. As I read it, India and South Africa look the most secure in this group and Ireland have stolen a march over Pakistan and West Indies with their victory on Monday. This makes Saturday's match between Pakistan and West Indies crucial; there is a real danger that one of these teams might not make it to the quarterfinal.
Seen whichever way, Ireland's win on Monday adds a fascinating dimension to the World Cup. Upsets and upheavals are not unknown in sport: in fact they sharpen the flavour of a tournament and ultimately enrich the sport. India's triumph over the mighty West Indies in 1983 is a classic example of this. Cricket has never been the same since.
Though considered to be a weak cricketing side, Ireland has been fairly impressive in ODIs and has actually pulled off some memorable wins in World Cups. In 2007, they beat Pakistan, the shock of which is believed to have led to coach Bob Woolmer's death. In 2011, they beat their favoured cousins England and on Monday, sent West Indies packing.
While the player base is small, there are highly committed cricketers in Ireland who are fighting not just for participation in the World Cup, but also for Test status. None of their players are big stars. The best-known cricketer from the country, Eoin Morgan, in fact plays for England.
But those who have remained true to the cause like Paul Stirling , William Porterfield, Ed Joyce, George Dockerell and the O'Brien brothers, Niall and Kevin who shone against the West Indies on Monday, have frequently shown their mettle against the strongest opponents.
For all that, the win over the West Indies was remarkable. To chase down a target of 305 with four wickets and 25 deliveries remaining suggests not a simple victory, but an emphatic one. Most sides would have been intimidated; the Irish batsmen did it with relish.
I will resist the temptation to say that the West Indies defeat was shocking because nothing about the team from the Caribbean shocks aficionados anymore: not from team selection (remember, Dwayne Bravo and Kieron Pollard have been controversially left out), to wage disputes with the board, to internecine problems in the dressing room, to the approach in a match. Perhaps the last mentioned attribute is a consequence of those mentioned earlier.
On Monday, they played with an abandon that exemplified a devil-may-care attitude. The top order threw their wickets in foolish pursuit of big shots or appalling running between the wickets. The score at one stage was 87-5 and the West Indies were down for the count.
They recovered marvelously through a brilliant rearguard partnership of 154 runs between Lendl Simmons and Darren Sammy to get to 304. It appeared then that their opponents had been snuffed out of the game. But the spunky Irish batsmen combined resolve with derring do to cut the West Indies down to size.
Flair, chutzpah and uninhibitedness have been the hallmarks of cricketers from the Caribbean. But there always used to be some method in their madness and a sense of pride in wearing the maroon cap which made the West Indies such great players, contributing to some of the best teams in the history of the game.
Think players like George Headley, Learie Constantine, Weekes, Walcott, Worrell, Sobers, Kanhai, Hall, Griffith, Gibbs, Butcher, Hunte, Lloyd, Richards, Roberts, Holding, Marshall, Garner, Lara and you get an idea of the legacy built up over 7-8 decades.
The decline of West Indies cricket is among the saddest stories in the history of sport. Only memories remain of a once-magnificent culture. Cricket lovers across the world will be hoping that the nadir has not been reached, that there is still scope of revival--hopefully in the World Cup itself.
For the moment, however, there is only lament.