A different ball game

Print edition : March 23, 2007

World Cup 2007 promises an exciting contest in a fascinating venue.

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

Australian captain Ricky Ponting with the World Cup trophies of 1999 and 2003, in Sydney.-MARK NOLAN/GETTY IMAGES

THIS will be a different World Cup for many reasons. The number of teams has grown from eight in the inaugural edition in 1975 to 16; spanking venues, all decked up in true Caribbean flavour and style, are hosting the matches for the first time; and the intensity of the contests is expected to be greater than ever. There are eight teams qualified to emerge the winner on April 28, 47 days after the first ball is bowled at Kingston, Jamaica. It may have taken a while for cricket's premier tournament to travel to the West Indies but it has found its most fascinating venue. The Caribbean passion for the game and spectator involvement, backed by revelry in the stands, will be a distinct feature of this World Cup.

"It is the place to give your best," Kapil Dev, captain of the Indian team that won the 1983 World Cup, has always said of cricket in the West Indies. The pristine beauty of the Caribbean islands, with some breathtaking natural spots, is an added attraction for cricketers and cricket-lovers. In recent years, the West Indies team may have declined as a force in international cricket but playing at home might bring out the best in the squad. Known for giving the world of cricket some of its most charming performers, the West Indies now showcases its organisational skills. The International Cricket Council (ICC) has indeed expressed its apprehensions about a few logistic problems the organising committee might encounter as the tournament progresses but the hosts sound confident and excited. Veteran cricket writer Tony Becca had been critical of the scheduling of the matches and some organisational aspects but past cricketers have been optimistic.

There has been talk of some heady cricket even before the start. The warm-up matches may not be the best indication but upsets can be expected. The World Cup has been witness to some great upheavals in the past when Australia lost to Zimbabwe, Pakistan went down to Bangladesh, West Indies succumbed to Kenya and, above all, India won the cup in a sensational finish at Lord's. Few cricket pundits are willing to pick one team as the favourite, a situation so different from the past. West Indies was expected to win in 1975 and 1979 and it did, with a flourish. That it did not win in 1983 was a shocker. India and Pakistan appeared the strongest in 1987 but the cup went to Australia. It should have been New Zealand in 1992 but Pakistan stole the limelight. None expected Sri Lanka to win in 1996 and there was no better candidate than Australia to wear the crown in 1999 and 2003. The absence of a favourite this time augurs well for the competition and for the game in general.

England captain Michael Vaughan and New Zeland captain Stephen Fleming.-

The format in the initial stages has not appealed to most cricket fans. There are five weak teams from the qualifying round - Holland, Scotland, Ireland, Bermuda and Canada. And Zimbabwe and Kenya have deteriorated over the years despite the ICC's efforts to improve the teams. Bangladesh can hardly be expected to give sleepless nights to formidable India and Sri Lanka in the group stage. "This is not the platform to debate whether weak teams deserve to play the World Cup or not. There is a place for everyone and we would do well to remember that as established nations we have to encourage the smaller teams by sharing our experience," noted Kapil Dev.

But the fact remains that the World Cup would become intense and competitive only at the second stage when the top eight teams go for one another. It needs no expertise to identify the eight likely to make it. These are: India, Australia, Pakistan, England, New Zealand, South Africa, Sri Lanka and West Indies. The great Viv Richards may have written off Australia but the discerning still back Ricky Ponting's side as the favourite. It has the mental and physical strength to go all the way, just as it did in the last two editions in England and South Africa, in varying conditions and after suffering early setbacks.

Indian captain Rahul Dravid-AMAN SHARMA/AP

The World Cup can be a test of a team's tactical acumen and its ability to play consistently well. "Consistency is the hallmark of a great side," says Mohinder Amarnath, star of the 1983 tournament. It is consistency that sets Australia apart. Under Ponting's leadership the team has learnt to conquer its poor form and its collective strength makes it the most formidable combination of the tournament. True, Australia's bowling suffered a big blow when Brett Lee hurt his ankle and was ruled out of the Cup but its strong grooming process allows it to dip into a strong pool of bowlers and come up with adequate replacement. Strong bench strength has always been Australia's forte and the team, despite the unfavourable remarks by Richards, remains the favourite of critics and fans.

The team best qualified to challenge Australia is India. Not known to excel overseas, this bunch is high on motivation and experience and capable of erasing its not-so-impressive record and writing a new chapter. It would not be out of place to back this team to win the cup for it has the talent and the sharpness to sweep all opposition aside. Which other team can boast of three batsmen in its ranks commanding an aggregate of more than 10,000 runs each in One Day Internationals.

South Africa's captain Grame Smith and West Indies' captain Brian Lara.-

Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid constitute a fantastic trio that could leave its mark on the tournament. Virender Sehwag, in his second World Cup, brings a touch of rare adventurism to his job, promising to swing the fortunes of the team on the individual strength of his formidable batsmanship. In Anil Kumble the team has a veteran of three World Cups; Ajit Agarkar plays his third World Cup, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh lend a fierce competitive value in their second World Cup, and players like Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Munaf Patel can be expected to contribute substantially along with Irfan Pathan. Many past greats of India have termed this Indian team the "best ever" to have appeared in a World Cup. The nation has reposed its faith in a team in which S. Sreesanth, Robin Uthappa and Dinesh Karthik signify the new trend of aggressive cricket. It is time Dravid and company lived up to it. "I have never seen a stronger Indian team," asserted former Sri Lanka captain Arjuna Ranatunga. Few would disagree with him.

PAKISTAN'S CAPTAIN INZAMAM ul Haq and Sri Lanka's captain Mahela Jayawardhane.-

The slow pitches are expected to favour the slow bowlers in this World Cup and that makes New Zealand a big threat. In Daniel Vettori and Jeetan Patel the Kiwis have an effective spin pair; and the dashing Stephen Fleming is known to play his captain's role with immense maturity and intelligence. Having promised a lot in the past, New Zealand is being talked of as the team to watch this time.

Can one rule out Pakistan? It is a team that becomes dangerous when it takes the field under pressure. The absence of Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif may come as a boon to coach Bob Woolmer, who can look forward to exercising complete control now with Inzamam ul Haq's support. The team has the capacity to make the most of a young force.

Sri Lanka might relish the favourable conditions and the off-spin great Muttiah Muralitharan must be licking his fingers in anticipation. Sanath Jayasuriya is the key to Sri Lanka's success and one cannot rule out this champion team of 1996 when it stunned a mighty Australia in the final at Lahore.

Andrew Flintoff, Kevin Petersen and Paul Collingwood carry England's hopes. The recent one-day success in Australia should act as the motivating factor for the team, which has failed to win the cup despite figuring in the finals thrice.

For teams like South Africa and the West Indies the pressures would be varying. South Africa has to improve its showing when not playing at home and the West Indies would need to raise the standard of its game to meet the great expectations of its supporters. The average Caribbean cricket lover would accept nothing short of a victory and it is here that Brian Lara, Chris Gayle, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Ramnaresh Sarwan and Dwayne Bravo would need to perform consistently.

This World Cup will involve lot of tactical adjustments and new ploys. The slower one will be a potent weapon on slow pitches and the spinners are likely to rule amidst a horde of fast bowlers. Many greats would make their final appearance in the World Cup and many young faces are expected to mark their presence with authority. This will be a very different World Cup - challenging, exciting, competitive and the biggest. The tournament has grown over the years; only it needs to match the intensity and quality of the 1992 edition in Australia and New Zealand. Nine venues, including some shimmering islands, would vie with one another to make this the most memorable of all World Cups.

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