How Pool A shapes up at the Over-50s World Cup

The Over-50s Cricket World Cup is just around the corner. Some of the overseas players have already departed for South Africa, and we are just over a week away from the opening ceremony.

So, let’s take a closer look at the sides competing.

The 12 teams have been split into two pools of six, with the two top sides from each pool progressing to the semifinals. The remaining teams will then play off for positions 5 through 12

Today we preview Pool A, which contains Australia, New Zealand, West Indies, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and Canada.

The favourites to progress from Pool A must be defending champions Australia. Australia has a long history of veterans’ cricket and depth in numbers that most other countries can only dream of. For example, each Australian state has several sides (New South Wales alone sent seven teams to the national Over-50s Championships, and last week’s NSW regional champs had no fewer than three divisions of eight teams each), and there are regular Over-50s leagues in the bigger cities.

The standout among these players is the world’s premier Over-50s batsman and team captain, Pete Solway. Solway has a batting average in Over-50s internationals (O50Is) of 91.80 - a figure that brings to mind another well-known Australian batsman - and was a vital part of their success in Sydney. Was that a fluke? Well, he averaged over 100 at the national championships in November and is averaging 88 overall this season, so perhaps not.

Other top batsmen in the Aussie line-up include Joe Santostefano, who averaged 45 in Sydney, and opener Gavin Brown, whose hard hitting regularly gave his side positive starts that allowed the likes of Solway to work their way in.

Pace bowling is where Australia traditionally excels and it’s unlikely to be different this time. There are very high expectations of NSW’s Phillip Melville, and his partnership with Tony Clark will put a lot of pressure on opposition batting line-ups. A lot has been said recently about South Africa's opening duo of Alan Dawson and Henry Williams, but Clark and Melville would be quietly confident of being just as effective.

They’ll be joined by returning World Cup-winners Bill Blair, Tim Sargent and Darren Smith, while spinner Steve Gollan is second on the all-time O50I wicket-taking list, with 15 at an average of 13.33. Clark is also an excellent batsman (average of 44 in O50Is) and will be expected to again perform well in the middle order.

There are seven newcomers to the Australian side and they have replaced some very good players, so it will be fascinating to see how they take the step up. The Aussie side is not full of household names - Over-50s cricket there is more for grade cricketers who have never stopped playing than for ex-bigshots - but we can be sure that there will not be any weak links, and if any side can become the first to beat Australia in a World Cup, they will have played very well.

The second seeds in this group (based solely on where they finished in 2018) are New Zealand. They lost a thrilling semifinal to Australia in Sydney and will have high hopes of being among the top two sides in Pool A.

Their strength is clearly their batting, with three of their top-order players - Mason Robinson, Adrian Dale and Richard Petrie - ranked in the top six run-scorers in O50Is, and in the top six Over-50s players in the world. Dale is in great form already this season, with a century against a touring New South Wales side and 99 in a recent club match.

These three are joined by a crop of newcomers including ex-Otago first-class player Andrew Hore, John Garry (who scored 100 and 42* vs. NSW, plus two other centuries at club level this season) and the aggressive Dean Read, who has only played five games of Over-50s cricket, but has scored four 50s and is averaging 70.

The Greycaps’ spin bowling also looks good, led by 61-year-old Andrew Nuttall (equal second on the all-time O50I wicket-takers’ list), and there are a lot of bowling options in the side, with good variations.

New Zealand’s first match, against West Indies, will be crucial for both those sides, as a loss for either team could make it quite difficult to get through to the next stage - if everything else goes to form.

West Indies will also be looking to its batsmen to lead the side out of the group. Chief among these will be Sudesh Dhaniram, who has been in superb nick in the lead-up games and will definitely be the prize wicket for opposing sides.

The West Indies have found run-scoring somewhat difficult in their warm-up games - admittedly on some tough wickets - with Dhaniram, Ishwar Maraj and Azad Mohammed being the most notable exceptions. Captain Zamin Amin can also be relied upon in the lower middle order.

Bowling-wise, the Windies appear to be pinning a lot of their hopes on former Barbados fast bowler Allison Johnson, even though he lives in Cape Town and has not played any of the team’s warm-up games. He is apparently still bowling at good pace, and his height, speed and knowledge of local conditions could be a powerful weapon for the Windies. The spin trio of Azad Mohammed, Zamin Amin and Fareed Hossain could also be hard to get away.

In terms of big names, Zimbabwe +50 Cricket Association probably have the most recognisable squad in the tournament, apart from South Africa. The headliners are Eddo Brandes (he of chicken farming, World Cup hat-tricks and witty biscuit-related retorts), big-hitting all-rounder Craig Evans and Test opener Mark Burmester.

However, it may well be some of the lesser-known players who play vital roles for Zimbabwe. Off-spinner Garry Spence has been in good form in their warm-up games, while Brian Goodwin hit a club century just the other day.

With no track record in Over-50s international cricket, Zimbabwe could bring a real X factor to the tournament. Their first match, against Australia on March 11, will be one to watch closely, as an upset there would certainly throw the cat - and the chicken farmer - among the pigeons.

Canada are the holders of the ‘Plate’, having defeated South Africa in the Plate Final to finish fifth in Sydney. They did this after losing every one of their round-robin games, so will need to improve dramatically this time around if they are to nab a semifinals spot. They will be looking to channel their strong effort against New Zealand in Sydney, where they were on target to chase down 220 but couldn’t quite get there.

Ten of their players are returning from 2018, led by former Sri Lankan Test player Rohan Jayasekera. He had a lean World Cup last time in terms of runs, but will be aiming to inspire a cohesive unit this time. His brother, Shantha, did perform well (145 runs at 48.33) and will be a mainstay of Canada’s batting. Former Indian Ranji Trophy player Mukesh Narula will add some more solid first-class experience.

There is unlikely to be any express pace (even by Over-50s standards) in the Canadian bowling line-up, but the likes of Rudy Gibson, with his slingy left-armers, and Vince Correia could set things up for the spinners, which include Rajadurai, a former leggie for Sri Lanka ‘A’.

Sri Lanka only narrowly missed out on a semifinal spot in Sydney. For logistical reasons that side was predominantly made up of Australian-based Sri Lankans, but still performed admirably. They are now boosted by the inclusion of some Sri Lankan-resident players and the development of a veterans league in that country.

Among these is batting all-rounder Suranjith Dharmasena, who came close to full national selection in his younger years and now promises to be a vital cog in the team’s batting order. He, along with ODI player Marlon Von Hagt, Shane Fernando, keeper Shafik Rahim, and former Australian Over-50s rep Noel Raymond, will form quite a solid batting line-up.

Pace bowler Roshan Ismail was the side’s leading wicket-taker in 2018 (12 at 14.67) and his combination with Harry Nagendran and Janaka Rambukwella (the only bowler to take a hat-trick in O50Is) will be important. Sri Lanka will miss the canny left-arm spin of Maxwell Labrooy (a late withdrawal), but should still be well covered in the spin department.

Overall, it is quite difficult to predict which two teams will emerge as the top two from this pool. Australia are favourites for one of the spots, but all of the other five sides will feel they have a good shot of taking the other place. There is a good chance that this pool could come down to bonus points.

By Jim Morrison