At last, Cricket first

Print edition : February 28, 2003

South African President Thabo Mbeki officially inaugurates the event. He is flanked by Malcolm Gray (left) and Ngconde Balfour, South African Minister of Sport. - DAVID GRAY/REUTERS

As World Cup 2003 gets off to a spectacular start, both in terms of the opening ceremony and the inaugural match, the 14 teams are all set to battle it out, with Australia going in as the favourite.

IT was ironic that one of the official sponsors of the 2003 Cricket World Cup in South Africa, LG Electronics, had used the slogan `Cricket first' in its advertising campaign for the event. No previous edition of the World Cup has seen such energy expended on non-cricketing matters. The official contracts dispute between India and the International Cricket Council (ICC), the possible boycott of Zimbabwe by England and Australia, and the refusal of New Zealand to play in Kenya (as of February 10, 2003) caused tremendous uncertainty during the run-up to cricket's biggest event. Add the intense commercial and media hype surrounding the World Cup to the political drama and the situation has left the avid fan wanting to fast-forward directly to the cricket.

Despite the uncertainty, the tournament kicked off with a spectacular opening ceremony in Cape Town on February 8. Inspired by the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the organisers of this event held a large-scale inaugural ceremony, aimed at showcasing the diversity of the Rainbow Nation.

In a symbolic move, the hosts played the West Indies in the opening match in Newlands, Cape Town on February 9. As if to script, it went down to the wire and a resurgent West Indies beat the hosts by three runs. A magical 116 by one of cricket's greatest talents ever, Brian Lara, and tremendous support from skipper Carl Hooper, Ricardo Powell, Ramnaresh Sarwan and Shivnarine Chanderpaul allowed the Windies to post a strong total. The Windies looked to be coasting to victory when the man of the 1999 World Cup, Lance Klusener, chose to make a spectacular statement that he was not yet over the hill. Klusener's 57 off 48 balls, which included five sixes and one four, came within a few metres of snatching victory for South Africa from the jaws of defeat.

On day two of the World Cup, Sri Lanka beat the more fancied New Zealand by 47 runs. Powered by a superb ton from captain Sanath Jayasuriya, which was his first World Cup century, Sri Lanka posted a winning score of 272. Jayasuriya is in ominous form and now has scores of 122, 106, 6, 99 and 120 in his last five one-day innings. Despite a fighting 141 from Scott Styris, New Zealand's batsmen were exposed by Sri Lanka's mix of spin and seam. In the other match of the day, Zimbabwe thrashed minnows Namibia after opener Craig Wihart's 172 off 151 balls helped Zimbabwe reach a mammoth score of 340 for 2. At the time, Frontline went to print, these were the only three matches that had been played.

Saurav Ganguly leads the Indian team during the opening ceremony.-DAVID GRAY/REUTERS

Defending World Cup champion Australia was the favourite at the start of the tournament. There is little doubt that Australia is the most complete side in both forms of the game today. Unlike the Test arena, where a large gap exists between the Australians and other sides, the Australian one-day team does not seem overwhelmingly dominating. Several other sides seem capable of mounting a challenge against it and this potentially makes for an interesting tournament.

In Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Brett Lee and Andy Bichel, Australia has the most potent and consistent pace attack in the world today. Add to this heady mix, Shane Warne, arguably the greatest spinner in history, left-arm chinaman bowling all-rounder Brad Hogg, and part-time bowlers Darren Lehmann, Michael Bevan, Andrew Symonds and Ian Harvey, Australia has as complete a bowling attack as there is in the game today. Australia's fielding complements its bowling exceptionally well. Based on current form, openers Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist can lay serious claim to the title of the best batsmen in the game. Captain Ricky Ponting and Bevan, both attacking batsmen and brilliant runners between the wickets, complete the Aussie threat.

So, is there any chink in the Aussie armour? Injury worries are a major concern for the Aussies. In the last two months, McGrath, Warne, Gillespie, Bichel and Bevan have all been sidelined, at various times, by injuries. Australia is also weak in the all-rounder department. Symonds and Harvey are both inconsistent and currently out of form and Hogg is largely untested. The lower middle order, possibly comprising Damien Martyn, Lehmann, Bevan and one of the all-rounders, looks a little fragile. Much will depend on the form and fitness of Bevan, currently hampered by a torn groin muscle.

Will Australia miss Steve Waugh's guts, determination and leadership? Waugh's 120 not out in a must-win Super Six match against South Africa in the 1999 World Cup is now the stuff of legend. Australia got off to a bad start in that event but Waugh's inspirational leadership was instrumental in turning Australia's fortunes around. Ponting has proved an able captain but how he handles the pressure of the World Cup remains to be seen. If Australia does not defend its title, it might seriously rue the decision that left cricket's greatest fighter at home.

On paper, host South Africa seems to be the strongest team in the fray after Australia. South Africa will have the home advantage but it will also have to grapple with the fact that hosts have not, as a rule, performed exceptionally well. To win, South Africa must first shed its reputation of being `chokers' in vital games.

Participating teams pose for a photograph before the opening ceremony. From front to back: South Africa, Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, England, Holland, India, Kenya, Namibia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, West Indies and Zimbabwe.-AP

South Africa has high-calibre fast bowlers in captain Shaun Pollock and Makhaya Ntini. If the opening match of the tournament is anything to go by, South Africa's other bowlers - the legendary Allan Donald, all-rounders Jacques Kallis and Lance Klusener and left-arm spinner Nicky Boje - have to improve significantly. But there is plenty of potential in South Africa's bowling, which is ably backed by its outstanding fielding. South Africa's Achilles heel is its batting, which is capable of self-destruction. Talented opener Herschelle Gibbs and his partner, the experienced Gary Kirsten, accomplished all-rounder Kallis and the ever-energetic Jonty Rhodes will have to shoulder a large burden, especially in important games. Though the lower middle order of Klusener, dashing batsman-wicket-keeper Mark Boucher and Pollock is more than able, it would be hard for the host team to win if the top of its batting line-up fails. Perhaps, the most vital members are Gibbs and Kallis. If they can come good in crucial matches, South Africa may be capable of breaking its World Cup jinx.

In June 2002, India looked a strong World Cup contender but the team has had a rough time since then. A loss to the West Indies in the one-day series at home and a disastrous tour of New Zealand in December and January has raised strong doubts about its prospects. This does not bode well since India seems to be a momentum team that thrives on confidence.

ON paper, India's batting line-up is the best in the world. The supremely talented Virender Sehwag has been a major reason for India's success in 2002. India's line-up is full of players who depend on scoring boundaries and the team will look to Rahul Dravid in the middle order to rotate the strike and consolidate the innings. India is not a one-man team anymore but Sachin Tendulkar may still hold the key to India's fortunes. Though Tendulkar did not have anywhere as successful a year as he is accustomed to, his mere presence adds a different quality to the team. Tendulkar needs to put a lacklustre 2002 behind him and once again stand up and be a world-beater.

India's biggest weakness is its bowling and it will be hoping that its bowlers do not crack under pressure. Seam bowlers Zaheer Khan and Javagal Srinath are currently in good form. Off-spinner Harbhajan Singh is a proven match-winner but India is weak at the third, fourth and fifth bowling spots. Barring the young dynamic duo of Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif, India has few outstanding fielders. It knows it cannot expect too much from make-shift keeper Dravid but will need him to remain relatively error-free in important matches.

The current Indian team contains a good mix of youth and experience and has generated a buzz that few previous Indian World Cup teams have. Perhaps, the most important factor to India's World Cup campaign is its level of self-belief and its ability to bounce back from the New Zealand fiasco.

West Indies batsman Brian Lara acknowledges the cheers of the crowd after completing a sublime century against South Africa in the opening match of the tournament.-JON HRUSA/AP

Mercurial Pakistan is a definite threat. Writing in The Sportstar, the distinguished cricket writer Peter Roebuck described Pakistan's capabilities aptly: "Pakistan can still beat anyone, including themselves." Few teams can boast of better individual talent than the Pakistanis. But the team can be as disorganised and lackadaisical as it can be brilliant.

Pakistan's overwhelming strength is its bowling, which, on its day, can be even more devastating than the Australian or South African bowling. The bowling attack will be anchored by the legendary Ws - Wasim Akram and skipper Waqar Younis. Both are in the twilight of their glorious careers but are still very capable of making the ball talk. Experienced off-spinner Saqlain Mushtaq will add important variety to the Pakistani bowling. In express speedster, Shoaib Akhtar, Pakistan has a genuinely quick bowler who is capable of turning games around. Shoaib has often failed to live up to the hype that has been created around him but his performance has improved since 2002. Not one to lack in confidence, Shoaib had this to say on Pakistan's chances: "If our batsmen can consistently score 250 or more, then we've got the bowling to beat anyone. We're such a talented side, if three or four of our guys perform in every game I don't see any chance of us losing the World Cup." Shoaib may well have a point but Pakistan's batting is often fragile. As they often have in the past, the attacking and prolific Inzamam ul-Haq and Yousuf Youhana will have to shoulder a lot of responsibility and avoid the tendency to self-destruct. Predicting Pakistani performance is as daunting a task as forecasting next year's monsoon but if the side manages to reach the semi-finals, it will be hard to beat.

With series wins against New Zealand at home and India away in 2002, the West Indies team has rekindled hopes of a Caribbean revival. West Indies might be this time's dark horse, and it proved this with a fantastic opening win against South Africa. Unlike its predecessors in 1975, 1979 and 1983, who boasted fast bowlers of the highest quality, this West Indies team will rely primarily on its batting. Chris Gayle can help the Windies achieve 300-plus totals and in Ramnaresh Sarwan and Marlon Samuels, the team has two young batsmen of the highest calibre. The reliable grafter Shivnarine Chanderpaul, the classy Carl Hooper and the explosive Ricardo Powell are intelligent cricketers who provide stability and power in the middle order.

The ace up the West Indian sleeve, of course, is Brian Lara. Lara may have been overshadowed by Sachin Tendulkar, Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden but is undoubtedly one of the greatest batting talents the world has seen. His 16th One Day International (ODI) century, in the opener against South Africa, was an innings of tremendous quality and temperament. He is getting on in his career but if the game against South Africa is any indication, 2003 may just be Lara's Cup.

The major weakness is the West Indian bowling and fielding. Mervyn Dillon and Vasbert Drakes have proved reliable one-day bowlers. The West Indian team has often chosen to play only three specialist bowlers, depending on Hooper, Gayle and Powell to bowl 20 overs between them. Hooper is an under-rated and extremely intelligent bowler but much will depend on how Gayle and Powell handle the pressure. The only genuinely quick bowler is young Jermaine Lawson but he seems too raw to make an impact just yet. The bowling is also disadvantaged by inconsistent fielding support. The lack of bowling depth may be the major hurdle for the team. But then, the unpretentious Indian medium pacers in 1983 were not expected to turn the tables on Vivian Richards, Clive Lloyd, Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes either.

Sri Lanka has not been in good form leading up to the World Cup. In fact, the Lankans had a forgettable ODI series in Australia and South Africa recently. But Sri Lanka will be encouraged by the form of its explosive opening batsman and captain Jayasuriya. Jayasuriya is capable of winning matches single-handedly, as he showed in the 1996 World Cup. He underscored his importance to the side with a superb century against New Zealand in Sri Lanka's first game. Aravinda de Silva and Hashan Tillakaratne provide plenty of experience to the batting order. Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jaywardene are very talented batsmen but the latter is not in good nick.

Sri Lanka's bowling fortunes will rest heavily on the shoulders of the superb off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan, who has returned to the side after injury. Sri Lanka seems to be an entirely different side with Muralitharan. Sri Lanka may have been in poor form prior to the World Cup but with Jayasuriya in prime touch and Muralitharan fit again, the team looks capable of springing a surprise.

New Zealand is coming off a convincing series win at home against India and, on the face of it, looked to have as good a chance to win the tournament as any. However, the performance of the side in its opening fixture against Sri Lanka has dampened expectations, particularly since the team has decided to forfeit its match against Kenya. In style, New Zealand displays a strong contrast to the individual brilliance of subcontinental teams. Barring all-rounder Chris Cairns, fast bowler Shane Bond and batsman Nathan Astle, the Kiwis do not have outright match winners but rely heavily on teamwork. They are led superbly by Stephen Fleming and are solid in the batting and bowling departments.

New Zealand's fielding is in the same league as that of South Africa and Australia. The recent feats of Shane Bond have allowed him to stake a claim as one of the best fast bowlers in the world. With the pace and bounce he generates, he has the ability to be one of the stars of this World Cup. The indifferent form of several specialist batsmen, including Craig McMillan, Lou Vincent and Mathew Sinclair is a major concern for the side. New Zealand's biggest weakness is that it relies substantially on bits and pieces all-rounders Chris Harris, Jacob Oram, Scott Styris and Andre Adams to contribute with the bat and ball. Harris, Styris, Oram and Adams are most effective in bowler-friendly conditions but lack the pace to trouble good batsmen on less supportive wickets. This was demonstrated in New Zealand's opening game against Sri Lanka, where these medium pacers were taken apart by Jayasuriya. If fully fit, Cairns will be the axle upon which New Zealand's fortunes will revolve. He has tremendous natural ability and is a devastating batsman and effective bowler. We have come to expect a solid performance in the World Cup from the Kiwis, who have reached the semi-finals in 1975, 1979, 1992 and 1999. But they will need something extraordinary from Cairns and Bond to reach the pinnacle this time.

Though it edged out Sri Lanka in the recent VB Series in Australia, England's fortunes look fairly bleak. Placed in a strong group, it will need to pull off a win against Australia, India or Pakistan to have any hope of making the Super Six. A possible boycott of Zimbabwe might just be the last nail in their 2003 World Cup coffin. In Michael Vaughan, England has a fantastic stroke-maker who has proved capable of succeeding against the very best. When on song, Nick Knight and Marcus Trescothick are damaging openers who can score quickly. Paul Collingwood was a major part of England's campaign in the recent ODI series in Australia. Barring Andy Caddick and Mathew Hoggard, England's bowling does not seem capable of troubling strong batting line-ups.

Zimbabwe will have to perform despite political distractions. It must beat India, Pakistan and Australia to have a likely shot at the Super Six stage. Zimbabwe's fortunes will depend on brothers Andy and Grant Flower. Andy Flower is presently one of the best batsmen in the world and his batting, along with Grant's, will be vital in important games. The team is well organised and fields outstandingly but lacks batting and bowling firepower required to scale the heights. Given the relative strength of Australia, India and Pakistan this time, Zimbabwe does not look to be the threat it was in 1999.

WITH 14 teams in the fray, the pool for this World Cup is larger than ever before and the tournament itself is longer than any previous edition. With the inclusion of Namibia, Canada, Holland, Bangladesh and Kenya in the competition, several one-sided contests seem to be in store. Realistically these lesser teams have little hope of a respectable performance against the established teams. The ICC will do well to evaluate the performance of these teams against the A teams and the Under-19 squads of established cricketing nations over a period of time before allowing them into the World Cup.

This World Cup has had its share of controversies. It is now time for the real action to begin and time to put cricket first.

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