24 February 2007

One Day Nightmares, Or Am I Dreaming? A World Cup Preview

The 2007 Cricket World Cup is shaping up nicely.

As recently as a month or so ago it was looking like a foregone conclusion: Australia had swept the Ashes 5-0 and were bullying both New Zealand and a thoroughly demoralised England side in the CB series that followed. How quickly things change. I first started to draft this post in the middle of the triangular series. England had just lost two back to back matches, making a total of 230 runs in both games combined. Truly shocking stuff.

Now, both the aforementioned bullied teams have turned things around and shocked the Aussies - admittedly with the help of some Australian injury nightmares (Symonds, Lee, Hayden, Ponting and Gilchrist all missing games). England woke from their slumber, cantering to 4 back to back wins - 3 against Australia and one against New Zealand - to not only reach the final of the CB series from a hopeless position but walk away from it with the trophy with a game to spare. For their part, New Zealand have grown since their early trip home from the triangular series: when the Aussies arrived for the Chappel-Hadlee series they were on the wrong end of a 3-0 tonking, including their first ever 10 wicket ODI defeat in the opening game. All of which means that now, officially, South Africa have assumed the mantle of the world's best One Day side. Unofficially this is not the case; Australia are going through a slump but are still, when fit and firing, the best side in the world by a margin. Their problem is that they aren't, currently, fit or firing, but they still have time to turn the first around; the minnows in their group for the first stage of the tournament proper (Scotland and Holland) give them the opportunity to reverse the latter.

The return to some sort of form of England and New Zealand gives hope for a good tournament. Ideally all the 8 major Test nations (sorry, Bangladesh) will give good accounts of themselves and create a truly vibrant competition. India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka don't generally travel too well, yet all have the kind of players who on their day can rule the roost; Pakistan's inconsistency is the greatest potential for let-down of the three, while arguably the biggest factor working for any of the subcontinental sides is Murali - West Indian conditions might just make his bowling even more dangerous than normal. India's star-studded line-up can never be completely overlooked though and despite their seeding being the lowest of the major nations (on what basis I really cannot think) I would imagine they will perform the best of the Asian sides.

South Africa's lofty ranking is, I think, a bit of a misnomer; yes, they are a very dangerous team and capable of frightening scoring but they lose some of that aura when playing away from home. Their recent demolitions of Pakistan and India were at home in conditions that suit them to the ground and benefit their pace-heavy approach. The team lacks spin options though and, perhaps unfairly, still needs to throw off the tag of "chokers" in pressure situations where silverware is at stake. On slow, low pitches in the Carribean there are major doubts about just how effective the SA pace corps will be, but I do expect them to reach the semi-finals at least.

England and New Zealand are re-awoken and whilst I don't see either side winning the tournament they have proved they can compete - something there were major doubts about just last month. England are probably too beholden to three players - Collingwood, Flintoff and Pietersen - though the CB series win was sealed without the latter. The bowling is too weak, in my view, to really give the team a chance of shining but there is now enough big game experience to help out - and the proof that England's best spinner can play one day cricket. Pietersen's off breaks might be a weapon of sorts on West Indian pitches, too. I feel New Zealand, likewise, are reliant on a few key players: Oram and Vettori to the fore for their all-round talents, but also Shane Bond who on his day is as devastating as anyone, and Fleming's superb captaincy which has long disguised his less than stellar batting.

The hosts are an enigma. The Windies line-up is not one that looks imposing but the conditions will suit them down to the ground and they keep getting results. In Chris Gayle they have a truly underrated all-rounder; everyone knows about his explosive batting at the top of the order but it is easy to forget how much he contributes with his fast, flat off-spin. Dwayne Bravo, too, is a prodigious all-round talent and it will be Brian Lara's last shot at the World Cup... I wouldn't count them out of it, but nor would I tout them as real favourites; dark horses capable of flopping altogether or storming to a grand home-win.

But Australia, for all their recent troubles, must start favourites. A month ago I'd never have logically considered any other winner despite Cricket, and ODIs in particular, being a funny old game; they were clear favourites by a mile and winning games at a canter. Now they've tasted defeat, have doubts about some of their matchwinners and are going in on the back of five or six straight defeats. But any team that contains Gilchrist, Ponting and Hussey with power to add Hayden and Clarke will out-bat most sides in their sleep. The bowling is more of an issue - especially now Brett Lee has been ruled out - but who would bet against Glenn McGrath retiring from cricket on the back of a third successive World Cup?

A glorious month of Cricket awaits before we find out either way, and praise to the sides who knocked Australia out of their stride for injecting new and exciting life into the build up to a competition that was previously looking ominously dull.

No comments: