For the first time in World Cup history, four teams from Asia have qualified for the quarter-finals. On Sunday, Pakistan defeated Ireland by seven wickets to join Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka in the knockout round.
Cricket's flagship tournament started with fourteen teams, including five from the sub-continent, Afghanistan being the fifth. After the end of round-robin stage, four top teams from each Pool qualified for the quarter-finals.
In Pool A, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh finished third and fourth respectively, behind co-hosts New Zealand and Australia. Sri Lanka, winners of 1996 World Cup, lost to New Zealand, then beat Afghanistan, Bangladesh and England before losing to Australia. In their last match they defeated Scotland to make it four wins in six outings.
For Bangladesh, luck played a vital role in their passage into the knockouts. After beating minnows Afghanistan, they escaped a possible thrashing from Australia thanks to bad weather, and earned a crucial point. Then they lost to Sri Lanka, before beating Scotland. Then in a major upset, they got the better of England to seal their spot in the next round. In their final Pool A game against New Zealand, Bangladesh pushed the Kiwis right through to put in a laudable effort in defeat.
In Pool A, defending champions India left all their misfortunes of the prolonged Australian tour and started by thrashing arch-rivals Pakistan. Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Co. maintained the momentum and won all their matches, beating pre-tournament favourites South Africa – for the first time in World Cup history, followed by wins over United Arab Emirates, West Indies, Ireland and Zimbabwe. In the process, they also registered a record 10-match winning streak in the competition.
Pakistan, after a disastrous start to their campaign, won four matches on the trot to assure themselves of a quarter-final spot. After losing to India, Misbah-ul-Haq and his side were found wanting against the West Indies. And at one point, an unceremonious exit was on the cards for the Pakistanis. But a fighting win over Zimbabwe spurred the team. It was followed by wins over United Arab Emirates and South Africa. Misbah's men then overcame Ireland in a do-or-die game in their final Pool B match to set up a quarter-final clash against the Aussies.
Among individuals, Sri Lankan Kumar Sangakkara shone like no one before, establishing a permanent place in cricketing folklore. The 37-year-old from Matale hit four successive centuries – a feat that had never been achieved in ODIs. His average after the six pool matches is an astonishing 124 with an aggregate of 496 runs.
Bangladesh's Mahmudullah also scored two successive hundreds. For a batsman, who started his career as a bowler, to become the first Bangladesh player to score back-to-back hundreds was commendable. He along with host of other lesser known but large-hearted players have certainly provided the minnows moments of pleasure. Their shock win over England summed up the whole story.
In a so called batsmen's World Cup, Indian bowlers performed against all odds to give the defending champions a realistic chance of defending their crown. After enduring a listless outing in both the Tests and ODI series in the tour preceding the World Cup, Indian bowlers toyed with opposing batsmen with purposeful short bowling. All of India's frontline bowlers have been exceptional, especially Mohammed Shami.
Indian batsmen, as expected, continued to produce runs during this early phase of the tournament. Shikhar Dhawan, who was at the receiving end of criticism in recent times, returned with a bang hitting two hundreds. His form will be crucial to India's chances going forward. Virat Kohli notched up a century as well. Explosive batting displays of Suresh Raina and skipper Dhoni's superb finishing augurs well for India as they go into the business end of the tournament.
Always a side full of mercurial talents, Pakistan shrugged off their initial slump thanks to some outstanding individual performances. Their reliable skipper Misbah-ul-Haq, as expected, continued to be the backbone of the team, but the arrival of young wicketkeeper-batsman Sarfraz Ahmed has added another dimension to their game. Sarfraz became the first Pakistani wicketkeeper to hit a hundred in the World Cup. Left-arm fast bowlers in Mohammad Irfan, Wahab Riaz, Rahat Ali, and Sohail Khan have provided the team with a lethal pace bowling attack.
For the associate side Afghanistan, the tournament has indeed served as a learning ground. But their lion-hearted performance during these last 30 days have compelled the cricket world to appreciate the efforts. They also recorded their first World Cup win, by beating fellow minnows Scotland in a thriller.
Now that we have four Asian teams in the quarter-finals of the showpiece event, they are likely to give a tough fight to the other teams.