The Cricket World Cup fever is rising. Former stars are being celebrated in the media and the newer ones busy in preparing for the big event in the sub-continent. There is no escaping cricket – be it on TV or in print, be it in drawing rooms or school campuses. Yes, the air is thick with conversation on World Cup – and the teams chances of laying their hands on the coveted trophy.
Once the teams get to the quarterfinal stage, it can be a bit of a lottery with one stunning performance by a player from the less fancied side knocking out a stronger unit. I believe all teams will be well aware of such risks and will look to cover all bases, going into the knockout stages. And the teams will all focus first on getting to the quarterfinals, planning for one match at a time, and then taking it from there.
So which are the eight sides that can get to that stage? Prediction is always fraught with risks. More so when the teams have not even started arriving in the sub-continent. Yet, it will be fun to assess the composition of the two groups. In group A, New Zealand will be thanking it stars that it hasn’t been drawn along the group as Bangladesh – remember it faced a 4-0 whitewash in the one-day games on its last tour. For all that, Daniel Vettori’s side will still have to be on top its game to get past Zimbabwe and Kenya.
Bangladesh, which punished India for a slack approach in the 2007 World Cup in the West Indies, will have to spring a surprise on either England or the West Indies to progress to the round of eight from Group B. To his credit, Shakib Al Hasan has been an inspiring leader of a talented and eager bunch of cricketers, seeking to show that Bangladesh’s entry into the Super Sixes stage of the 2007 World Cup was not a flash in the pan. It has had a string of good results and will be hoping to accompany India and South Africa to the round of eight
If the newest co-host of a World Cup tournament has to be stopped, then the West Indies and England should insure themselves against a shock each. The West Indies has been through some challenging times in the past few years and faces a daunting task under an inexperienced captain Darren Sammy. It has some match winners who can haul the team into the last eight. England comes into the tournament after a wonderful time in the Ashes but a none too happy time in the one-day series in Australia. For all that, it has a balanced squad that presents England with a very good chance of being among the semifinals.
The mercurial Pakistan has just won a one-day series in New Zealand and served notice of its unity and positive intent to stand up and be counted among the serious contenders for a semifinal spot. It seemed to set a date with risk by nearly changing captains from Shahid Afridi to Misbah-ul-Haq and did well to avert that. It has a number of experienced campaigners and some young legs as well and if it can stick together and enjoy its cricket, can be dangerous.
Graeme Smith’s South Africa will relish the fact that it will not face as much hype as it did at home in 2003 and in the West Indies in 2007. With the pressure off and with a superbly balanced composition, the Proteas can make their fond dream of winning the World Cup come true. The team has been tagged as a ‘choker’ and this could well be the best chance for it to overcome that, having played a lot of cricket recently in and against the teams from the sub-continent.
Sri Lanka will love to give the ageing Muttiah Muralitharan a fantastic farewell and has the ammunition to do one better than it did in the 2007 edition. Muralitharan was an integral part of the team that won the 1996 World Cup ahead of Australia. It has batsmen who are excellent strokeplayers and most efficient bowling line up to ensure that it is not written off at any stage of the tournament.
Australia may have a poor time in the Ashes but only the fool-hardy will ignore its changes of lasting the distance. It will surely mount a serious challenge to win the crown for the fourth time in a row, having an experienced line-up and a captain in Ricky Ponting who will be keen to leave a strong imprint before he fades away from the limelight.
And that brings us to India. As one of the co-hosts and as the financial hub of world cricket, there will be enormous pressure on Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his team to win the trophy. History may seem lined up against India – it lost in the semifinals both in 1987 and 1996 when it co-hosted the tournament – but Dhoni & Co. look set to defy that. The team has a number of match-winners in its ranks and appears to be in a better frame of mind than the side of 2007 which shocked all of India by crashing out early. The challenge for the home side will be to pick the best combination for each game and hit the ground running, without pressuring itself to win the crown for itself – and for the man answering to the name of Sachin Tendulkar.
(This piece was written for Jagran-I-Next’s World Cup special)