An out-of-the-box World Cup

Print edition : March 28, 2003

It will take a tremendous effort to prevent Australia from retaining the World Cup. With a rampant Sachin Tendulkar at the helm, India seems best placed to dethrone the 1999 champions; but, should it reach the semi-finals, New Zealand is more than capable of springing a surprise.

IT has been billed as the biggest and best World Cup so far. At the start of the event, several likely contenders emerged and the tournament looked wide open. The format and the points system were devised in such a manner that teams would have a strong incentive to win every match and it was believed that the competitive intensity would be sustained through the entire tournament. But somewhere along the way, the script went a little wrong.

Javagal Srinath celebrates the dismissal of Sri Lanka's Jehan Mubarak during the Super Six match between India and Sri Lanka in Johannesburg, South Africa, on March 10. Srinath, who struck twice in his first over, took four wickets in the match.-AMAN SHARMA/AP

After an intriguing preliminary stage, where the fate of many teams hung in the balance until the very last match, the Super Six stage of the tournament has almost been anti-climatic. Forfeits and the interference of rain helped Zimbabwe and Kenya progress into the Super Six stage and sent West Indies, South Africa, England and Pakistan packing early, taking the sheen off the second stage. A major disappointment has been the fact that some of the semi-finalists will be identified well before the Super Six stage is completed. Coming into the second stage, Australia was required to win only one Super Six game to guarantee itself a semi-final berth but more absurdly there is a theoretical possibility that Kenya may enter the next phase without winning a single Super Six match.

When Frontline went to print, four Super Six matches had been completed. A century from Ricky Ponting and an attacking 99 off 88 balls by Adam Gilchrist helped Australia outclass Sri Lanka and in the process guaranteed their team a place in the semi-finals. Kenya threatened to turn the tables on India before a fighting century from Sourav Ganguly and an attacking 58 from Yuvraj Singh saved their team the blushes. Powered by a 153-run opening partnership between Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag and devastating spells of fast bowling from Javagal Srinath, Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra, India thrashed Sri Lanka by 183 runs and sealed its place in the semi-finals.

Sri Lanka must win its final Super Six game against Zimbabwe to keep any hopes alive. Hindered by the points it lost after refusing to play Kenya in Nairobi, New Zealand scraped through to the Super Sixes in a dramatic fashion, aided by South Africa's incomprehensible error in interpreting the Duckworth-Lewis tables.

Nathan Astle and Chris Cairns starred in New Zealand's comfortable six-wicket win over Zimbabwe. Stephen Fleming's team may eventually be hurt by the lack of points it has carried forward from the first round of the event. New Zealand must win at least one of its remaining matches (against Australia and India) to keep any hopes alive but two wins will make sure that the Kiwis are through.

Kenya will be hard-pressed to win a Super Six game but it may not need to.

Having carried forward 10 points from the first stage, a theoretical possibility exists where Kenya could still make the penultimate stage of the tournament without winning a single Super Six game. Zimbabwe was in the worst position entering the Super Six and reaching the semi-finals will be a tall order.

At this juncture, only four teams (Australia, India, New Zealand and Sri Lanka) look like contenders, though Sri Lanka has been on a steady slide. On form, Australia and India have an edge. Australia remains the overwhelming favourite but some feel that India is very capable of challenging the champions. As of March 10, Australia has won a record 13 straight one-day games and, barring the match against England where Michael Bevan and Andy Bichel saved the day, Australia has hardly been pushed. In particular, Australia has not been put under much pressure in a run-chase and this could be the area where the Aussies might falter. The highest total that Australians have chased so far is 247 (against Zimbabwe).

To beat Australia, other teams, particularly India, will be hoping to bat first and post a substantial total. The last team to defeat the Aussies was Sri Lanka (in the VB series in January) and Sanath Jayasuriya's men followed this plan to a T - they put up 343 runs and went about defending it.

Unlike India where Sachin Tendulkar and, to a lesser extent, Yuvraj Singh and Rahul Dravid, have been standouts, Australia has had key batting contributions from many players, including Adam Gilchrist, Ricky Ponting, Andrew Symonds, Michael Bevan, Damien Martyn and Darren Lehmann. The top of Australia's line-up poses the main batting threat. Gilchrist, Ponting and Hayden are a lethal trio at the top of the order. Australia's middle-order looks relatively susceptible in comparison.

To win, opponents will somehow have to get the better of Australia's potent bowling attack. Glenn McGrath has been consistent but opposing teams may have received some relief after Jason Gillespie's exit from the World Cup after he sustained an injury. The extremely talented but oft-injured Gillespie bowled with terrific pace and variation in the matches he played. Andy Bichel, his replacement a testament to Australia's superb bench strength, has had enviable returns so far. Brad Hogg has filled Shane Warne's shoes commendably and provides Australia with another attacking option. The Aussie bowling attack is relentless and it is imperative that opposing teams make the maximum use of the overs bowled by the fifth bowler, whose duties are shared by Lehmann, Symonds and Harvey.

It is a tribute to Australia's professionalism and inner drive that it is yet to show any signs of complacency. To beat the Aussies, other teams must be at their very best. Australia will not be beaten if others get into a mindset of containment or circumspection. The key to beating the world champions may well be to attack from the very start and Sachin Tendulkar looks to be the most capable of taking the game away from the Australians. The Australians will be hard nuts to crack but Tendulkar's awe-inspiring form in the World Cup thus far has raised expectations. The form and contributions of Yuvraj Singh and Rahul Dravid have been of immense importance and Ganguly's return to form against Kenya and Sri Lanka is heartening.

After flattering to deceive often, Virender Sehwag came good against Sri Lanka but he will need to be consistent. Dinesh Mongia has looked all at sea and is cause for concern. The biggest test for the Indian batting line-up may come if Tendulkar fails in important games.

Australia's captain Ricky Ponting hits a six against Sri Lanka in Centurion, South Africa, on March 7, 2003, in their first match in the Super Six stage.-DAVID GRAY/REUTERS

Ashish Nehra and Zaheer Khan have been excellent. Srinath's contribution has been invaluable and he seems to be bowling better than ever before. Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble have not impressed.

Mongia, Sehwag, Ganguly and Yuvraj Singh have shared fifth bowler duties but this is the biggest chink in the Indian side. India cannot expect too much of them but it will be hoping for a quick return to form for Harbhajan or Kumble. Based on recent form, there does not seem to be much to choose between the two, but Harbhajan is clearly the more attacking, a quality that will be in demand against Australia.

Indian fielding has ably supported its bowlers, except against Kenya, when the fielding effort suggested complacency. If Tendulkar fires at the top and if two or three other batsmen and a solid overall bowling and fielding effort can support him, a win against Australia does not seem beyond India's reach.

Sri Lanka suffered humiliating losses to India and Australia and it does not appear to have the depth or class to trouble sides like these. Sanath Jayasuriya is the biggest threat in the Sri Lankan batting line-up but he will be hampered by injuries sustained against Australia. He has received good support from Marvan Attapatu and Aravinda de Silva in recent matches but the rest of the batsmen have had a very forgettable time at the crease. A terribly out of form Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkarra are major concerns.

Sri Lanka's bowling attack is perhaps plagued by a greater lack of depth. Chaminda Vaas has been outstanding, except against Australia and South Africa, but has received little support from Pulasthi Gunaratne, Dilhara Fernando and Prabath Nissanka. Though he is an ever-present threat, Muttiah Muralitharan has not been in top form as his wicket tally indicates. Sri Lanka has relied heavily on its part-time bowlers (Aravinda de Silva, Jayasuriya and Russel Arnold) but they will have their hands full against Australia. The obvious weakness in the Sri Lankan bowling is that other teams seem to have the option of playing out Murali's and Vaas' overs and can target the other bowlers.

New Zealand needed a fair share of luck to reach the second stage of the tournament but has been playing good cricket and, like India, seems to be peaking at the right stage. While New Zealand's task of getting to the semi-finals is difficult, the Kiwis are a definite threat if they get there. New Zealand is an efficient outfit, which is led excellently by Stephen Fleming. One-day wins against Australia in 2001-2002 and India in 2002-2003 have made the team believe that it is capable of beating the best. Scott Styris has been the find of the tournament for the Kiwis and has performed excellently with the bat and, to a lesser extent, with the ball. Stephen Fleming has struck a rich vein of form and Nathan Astle and Chris Cairns have recently shown encouraging signs. Andre Adams has impressed with his shot-making ability in the death.

New Zealand will also take comfort in the fact that it bats till number nine or ten. New Zealand's batting will be severely tested when chasing. If the batting holds up, it will be a barometer of the team's prospects.

Although he has not reaped rich rewards so far, Shane Bond is a potential match-winner. Daniel Vettori has shown himself extremely capable of slowing down the pace of the game if things get out of hand and provides the much-needed variety. The Kiwi all-rounders lack bowling fire-power and the unlikely Zimbabwean batting combination of Heath Streak and Sean Ervine demonstrated this chink most effectively. They plundered 77 runs off the last five overs in Zimbabwe's recent Super Six clash against the Kiwis.

Should New Zealand reach the semi-finals and meet India or Australia, it will be a dangerous side. South Africa's inexplicable error in reading the Duckworth-Lewis tables has provided a life-line for the Kiwis, who will be looking to exploit the situation to the maximum.

It will take a tremendous effort to prevent Australia from becoming the first back-to-back champions since the West Indies in 1975 and 1979. With a rampant Tendulkar at the helm, India seems best placed at present to dethrone the 1999 champions but, if it fights its way into the semi-finals, New Zealand is quite capable of upsetting India and Australia's apple-cart.

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