Monday, March 12, 2007

2007 World Cup 2: Cricket

Sixteen nations. Twelve grounds in nine countries. Seven weeks. Fifty-one matches. One winner.

That's the Cricket World Cup in numbers, but how will it play out? I am, of course, looking forward to it immensely, as I think most cricket fans are. It's much too long, due to a schedule that prevents more than one match taking place on any particular day, but as a tournament, it's almost completely wide open, which should provide us with some great cricket over the next few weeks.

Here's my hastily cobbled together preview:

I suppose that, despite their recent defeats to England and New Zealand, Australia just about enter the tourney as favourites. They have experience and quality throughout their team and cannot be written off by anyone. However, there is some question about their bowling, with Brett Lee out, and Glenn McGrath at the end of his career. A lot will be expected of Nathan Bracken and Stuart Clark (a great record in tests, but less good in the short form). Ponting, Gilchrist and Hussey are the backbone of a great batting lineup.

England will have some confidence from their recent success in Australia and will be boosted by the return of Kevin Pietersen to the side. If he and Flintoff can hit top form, we'll be able to chase most targets and post challenging ones for other teams. The major weakness is a lack of experience amongst the squad, with only two 100 cap players (Flintoff and Collingwood). We also lack an attacking presence at the top of the batting order, which means we could get bogged down in the scoring. However, the pitches in the West Indies are unproven and possibly tricky, so it could be an advantage to have classic batting stylists such as Bell and Vaughan who are able to build a platform on their superior technique, rather than slogging (sorry, pinch-hitting) early on. Maybe. If we can beat New Zealand on Friday, we can count ourselves in with a shout.

Conversely, the Kiwis will be among the favourites if they can beat us. Their hopes rest on the injury-prone Shane Bond. If he's fit, he'll probably be the best fast bowler in the competition and can run through teams like the proverbial through a goose. His record against the Aussies is particularly good. But, if, as so often, he gets injured, New Zealand might lack a cutting edge.

The hosts, the West Indies, are probably my second favourite team, but I'm not sure they'll make it beyond the Super 8s. They have the batsmen to cut it in the short game (Gayle, Chanderpaul, Sarwan and, of course, the peerless Brian Lara) but I don't think their bowling is world class at the moment. Still, the crowds will be behind them and their performance will dictate how successful the tournament is. I think they'll start with a win against Pakistan tomorrow.

The number one ranked team is South Africa, and they have a very strong and experienced squad. I think they could well get to the semis, and their group game against Australia could prove crucial to their chances. The question is whether they can hold their nerve when the pressure is on - something they've failed to do in the past couple of World Cups. I don't think you can write off any team that can chase 435 and win, though.

Among the teams from the sub-continent, India and Sri Lanka are strongly tipped. They are in the same group, so their game should be one of the highlights of the first round. I think both have the potential to get to the semis and slow pitches should suit their games. A spanner could be thrown in the works by Bangladesh, who are also in their group, and who are the strongest of the "outsiders". I fancy them to give India and Sri Lanka a good game and wouldn't be surprised if they came out with a victory: their medium pacers could pose a few threats on sluggish surfaces. Bizarrely, I don't fancy Pakistan to do well at all - their bowling is short without Asif and Shoaib (drugs cheats who are both injured) - although their batting can be very dangerous.

The minnows in the tournament are Bermuda, Scotland, Canada, Ireland, Kenya and Holland and they'll be happy to beat each other in the group stages. Mind you, Kenya got to the semis in bizarre circumstances last time so I suppose nothing is impossible. Ireland should have a chance to beat Zimbabwe, the weakest test nation.

So, it all kicks off tomorrow, with Windies against Pakistan. I suspect I'll be spending a lot of time on cricinfo between now and the end of April.

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