Can Afghanistan rekindle the romance in an all-too-predictable World Cup?

Afghanistan leave the field after another heavy defeat Getty Images

Is this World Cup done with its biting and barking? Are there no more metaphorical dogs to be let out? If true, it would please Anslem "Doggie" Douglas, writer of the original ditty, but not cricket fans. On Tuesday, the 2019 edition will be into match 24 of 45 games in a round-robin that was expected to be crackling with electricity, with tense encounters and narrow finishes. It is the central tenet for the 10-team format - quality match-ups and close contests. Except, at the moment, 2019 is only crackling spinach: savoury in bits but requiring much more to complete the meal.

On Sunday, India v Pakistan was an occasion generating the due amount of heat and noise, but after Rohit Sharma's century set up the end-overs hitting and Kuldeep Yadav produced a beauty to Babar Azam, not much of a contest ensued. It generated lot of heat but no light, a lot of noise but no real reverberations.

On Monday, Bangladesh got their second big World Cup victory, defeating West Indies - a headline-making, earth-shaking team, but against Bangladesh they had lost seven of their last nine ODIs since July 2018.

On Tuesday, England - with a few injury worries - will face Afghanistan, who are threatening to go from yesterday's fairytale to tomorrow's chart-bombing soap opera.

To be fair the washouts - Pakistan v Sri Lanka, Bangladesh v Sri Lanka, India v New Zealand, South Africa v West Indies - did have the potential to be proper bust-ups, but went on to only add to the emergence of a pattern: that the top four teams are too strong and too organised to even be challenged by the rest of the field to a nailbiter; that at this point in time, in 50-over World Cups, match-ups between individual skills will be outweighed by organised experience; that slipshod decision-making and cottage-industry disorganisation will fatally undermine natural ability.

Over the last two decades or so, the underdog 50-overs champ has been turned into a romantic relic. India '83 and Australia '87 are too far back in history; in the age of coloured clothing ODIs, Pakistan '92 or Sri Lanka '96 could simply not happen again. It is what Olympic-scale support staff, video analysis, medical intervention and mental conditioning has led us to. It is what the 2019 World Cup's round-robin format carousel is meant to confirm.

Afghanistan, pitchforked into cricket only this century, are now grappling with having to balance aspirations with professionalism and skills with methods. They are finding 100 overs against the top teams in the world harder to handle than the format they first came into wider notice with.

"It is not like a T20 or like other formats," Afghanistan captain Gulbudin Naib said at the pre-match briefing. He then said: "You can think six-seven hours for that - we didn't play 50 overs four games."

The Afghans are not replying to questions in Urdu, so much can be lost in translation. There is a possibility that Naib was referring to the 50-over game being much more demanding given its duration and the fact that the opposition has more of a chance to recover and respond (like even the bedraggled Sri Lankans did to set up their first win in Cardiff).

That his batsmen did not bat the full fifty overs in any of the three matches where they batted first. And the fact that his team dropped Najibullah Zadran, their best-performing batsman in the World Cup, against South Africa.

"It's a tough format for us," Naib said. "So tough teams, so trying to learn a lot of things." In the last four years, Afghanistan's ODI opposition have mostly been Ireland (23 of 67 matches), Zimbabwe (21), and West Indies and Bangladesh, five each. It should be of no surprise that they are today the easy-beats of the competition with four straight defeats against Australia, Sri Lanka, New Zealand and South Africa.

England are not going to be easier, though the stackful of spinners in their nets a sign that the pitch (same track as India-Pakistan) may convince the Afghans to bring back Mujeeb ur Rahman, who has sat out two matches and bowled less than eight overs in the event.

Naib said he was available to play. When England captain Eoin Morgan was asked of Afghanistan, he was polite in saying that he "still believed they will beat teams at this World Cup… They haven't done it yet, so that makes the game a tougher challenge." Going by their form so far, Afghanistan can consider themselves enormously flattered. It could be England being welcoming hosts, given that the Afghanistan president will be at the ground on Tuesday.

Naib said the Afghans were trying to put their bad start behind them: "We are just trying to do well in the present and future… We are trying to do what's good for our cricket... we are looking for victories in matches here [in the World Cup]… It's a tough tournament, and also it's a high tournament of ICC of cricket." In this eleventh edition of this toughest tournament, it must go beyond words. Smart selection, smart decisions, smart choices.

The idea that the World Cup games will follow the currently established pattern gives fans of the top four ahead on the points (Australia, England, India and New Zealand) optimism and buoyancy. For the neutral, it offers a resigned inevitability because there is still a month to go for the final.

It could be that the big upsets have already taken place - England losing to Pakistan and South Africa to Bangladesh.

After all, rarely is every World Cup a thrill a day; each edition has one or maybe two upsets and only a handful of narrow matches. Rose-tinted nostalgia does give previous editions more sheen than was seen at the time. It is also possible the ten-team format is the same wine, only in a differently-shaped bottle.

Two other things are possible now - a South African counter-attack to knock everyone off their game. Or washouts flooding the points table and drowning all predictions. It can all start tomorrow.