In a parallel world off the field, on computers and mobile phones across the world, another important competition – the ICC Fantasy League – is entering a crucial phase. The Fantasy League is already a week into its second stage and just like the World Cup itself, the final week provides a last-minute opportunity for those in the lower half of the table to rise.
Stage 3, the quarterfinals, has fewer teams (eight, compared to 14 in stages 1 and 2) and more substitutions per match (4.5, compared to 2 subs per game in stages 1 and 2). This means that most Fantasy League players, especially the ones at the top, will stack their teams with the usual suspects – the Virat Kohlis, AB de Villiers, David Warners, Brendon McCullums etc. – making it tougher for those below them to bridge the gap.
De Villiers is an automatic pick in any Fantasy League team. At $110000, he is the costliest player in the competition, but leaving him out of your side could turn out to be an even costlier mistake. The South African captain is comfortably leading the points table with 1044 points from five matches and is already the most sought after Fantasy League player, featuring in 62 percent of the teams. Kohli is the next most popular, featuring in 48% of the sides during India's matches. These numbers will only increase in the next stage. In other words, you may have the best of players in your team during the knockouts, but it will count for little, as everyone else is likely to have more or less the same side.
It is this backdrop that makes the coming week a final opportunity for those catching up. I won't get into details of how exactly one should go about strategising for the next week, as that has already been done elaborately by my colleagues and seasoned fantasy pros Dileep V and Saurabh Somani. A week into Stage 2, most of you will have your plans in place anyway.
However, what I will try and do is to bring attention to a section of the cricketers who are largely ignored and thus, if picked, can potentially give exclusive points: players from the Associate nations. A casual glimpse at the schedule for the week shows that three Associate teams – Ireland, United Arab Emirates and Scotland – have two matches remaining, while all other teams apart from India, Bangladesh and England have only one match each. Due to lack of familiarity, trust or sheer affiliation to the more popular sides, there is a general tendency to overlook these players, but if picked carefully, they can provide a big boost to your rankings due to their low popularity.
For example, Ireland's Ed Joyce, Scotland's Kyle Coetzer and UAE's Shaiman Anwar all have more points than the more popular stars like Virat Kohli, Faf du Plessis, Angelo Mathews, Suresh Raina and others. These players are not only low in popularity, but they also come at a cheap price. Joyce, who costs 85000, is present only in 4% of the teams, while Anwar, a steal at 65000, has a popularity of 2%. Only 1% of Fantasy League players have Coetzer in their side, which means a century (or even an 80 or 90) by the likes of Coetzer and Anwar could have a bigger impact in your rankings than a century by the more popular Kohli or Joe Root.
Similarly, a number of bowlers from the Associate countries have more points than established stars from other teams. Scotland's Joshua Davey costs just 70000 and is a part of only 2% of Fantasy League sides, but with 494 points from four matches to his name, he has outperformed the likes of Dale Steyn (449 points from five matches), Lasith Malinga (409 points from five matches) and James Anderson (96 points from four matches). Afghanistan's fast-bowling star Shapoor Zadran is a reliable pick too and is the most successful Fantasy League player from an associate nation, with 512 points from five matches. Hamid Hassan, Samiullah Shenwari, Paul Stirling, Kevin O'Brien, Richie Berrington and Amjad Naveed are few other valuable picks from the associates.
The lesser-popular players (in Fantasy League terms) outperforming the bigger names is not restricted to Associate countries alone. Daniel Vettori and Sean Williams feature only in around 10% of the sides, but have more than 850 points each. Similarly, Wahab Riaz is a part of only 7% of the sides, but has amassed 743 points already. Indian fans love to pick their dashing batsmen, but it is the bowlers who are giving them the points. Mohammed Shami is leading their charts with 578 points, R Ashwin is close behind with 581 while Umesh Yadav, a steal at 75000, has given 424 points.
Make no mistake, this doesn't mean that you should fill your side only with these value picks. The Kohlis and Glenn Maxwells are popular for a reason and dropping them for even one match could turn out to be costly (as I found out the hard way when I went in without Maxwell and Sangakkara on Sunday). Striking a balance between the stars and the lesser-knowns and maximising points with the Power Player option are the biggest challenges in the competition and is completely up to the team manager.
There are broadly two types of players in the Fantasy League. The Virender Sehwag type player who will always gamble with the McCullums and Chris Gayles, and the Rahul Dravid type who will be happy to play safe with Kane Williamson type of picks. Whichever type you are, remember that there are a lot more options apart from the regulars who can help you move up the ladder.
Last week. Last chance.
Karthik Lakshmanan is Senior Staff Writer at Wisden India. He tweets @lk_karthik