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The West Indies, who were due to arrive in Sri Lanka yesterday, face the formidable South Africa side in their opening match on Friday and nothing less than a victory is required if the Caribbean cricketers are to qualify for the next stage.
The third team in the zone is lightweight Kenya, with both the West Indies and South Africa expected to crush the non-Test playing country. Victory in their head-to-head clash will almost certainly guarantee the winner a semifinal berth.
Since their re-entry into international cricket, South Africa have been tough nuts to crack in the limited overs version of the game, boasting a superior record against all the Test-playing countries, even though they lost to Sri Lanka in the recent Morocco Cup final.
Only the mighty World Cup champions Australia, in 45 ODIs against South Africa, have stayed on their heels with 21 losses against 22 wins as the other two matches were undecided.
Considering that this tournament, which features all 10 Test-playing nations as well as Kenya and the Netherlands, is being used as a gauge for next year's World Cup in South Africa, championship glory will provide Shaun Pollock's side with a psychological boost, in addition to home advantage.
The South Africansí first hurdle in Sri Lanka over the next week will be the West Indies, who they have out-played over the years in their limited overs clashes, winning 12 and losing six of 18 matches.
In inspirational skipper Pollock, Jacques Kallis, Lance Klusener and Nicky Boje, South Africa have four outstanding all-rounders in this form of cricket while Herschelle Gibbs and Jonty Rhodes are not only excellent One-day batsmen but also fantastic fielders.
Jacques Kallis will be the key weapon for South Africa. Kallis, who has scored eight centuries in amassing 5 416 runs at an average of 43.67 and taken 144 wickets in 155 ODIs, will be the key weapon for South Africa.
But Klusener, with two centuries and 17 fifties in 3 129 runs at an average of 43.86 and 165 wickets, including six five-wicket innings hauls in 137 limited overs matches, is also a match-winner.
Veteran Allan Donald, boasting 248 wickets at an average of 21.32 in 147 ODIs, will spearhead the South African bowling with support from the all-rounders as well as the inconsistent Makhaya Ntini and rookie medium pacer Alan Dawson.
On the other hand, the West Indies, buoyed by their 3-1 home series limited overs success against the combative New Zealand earlier this year, will be seeking to upstage the South Africans as Kenya, whom they have met four times in One-day Internationals, should be a cakewalk.
After their humiliating loss to the Kenyans in the 1995 World Cup in India, the West Indies restored their pride by blanking the Africans 3-0 in a one-sided series last year in Kenya.
Even though they have not played against international opposition since their series against the Black Caps in July, the West Indian players still had benefit of match practice prior to leaving for Sri Lanka by participating in the just-ended Red Stripe Bowl One-day tournament.
The recall of leg-spinner Mahendra Nagamootoo and the last-minute inclusion of experienced fast-bowling all-rounder Vasbert Drakes for Cameron Cuffy give the West Indies some depth in their lower-order batting.
Nagamootoo warmed up for the ICC Champions Trophy with 10 cheap wickets in five matches where he bowled economically and an aggressive half-century in a close win for Guyana against Trinidad and Tobago.
Drakes, who has played professional cricket extensively in England and South Africa but last represented the West Indies in five One-day Internationals against Australia in 1995, was named best bowler of the Red Stripe Bowl Final Four.
But West Indies' hopes of lifting the ICC Trophy will depend heavily on star batsman Brian Lara, who has scored 14 centuries in 7 417 One-day runs at an average of 42.38, captain Hooper and the improving all-round skills of dashing opening batsman Chris Gayle.
Gayle formed a successful opening partnership with the reliable Shivnarine Chanderpaul against the New Zealanders but also revealed another side of his game, capturing 12 wickets in five matches with his flat off-spin bowling.
RELY ON SPINNERS
Unlike South Africa, whose strength in One-day cricket has been built around their seam-bowling all-rounders such as Pollock, Kallis and Klusener, the West Indies will rely mostly on spinning all-rounders.
The experienced Hooper, with seven centuries in 5 504 runs at an average of 35.97 and 185 wickets in 213 ODIs, is a key cog in the West Indies engine but the roles of Gayle, Nagamootoo and rookie Ryan Hinds could be critical to the team's fortunes.
Carl Hooper, key cog in the West Indies side, young batsmen Wavell Hinds, Ramnaresh Sarwan and Runako Morton will also need to support the more accomplished Lara, Hooper and Chanderpaul in the batting department.
In the fast-bowling department, the ever-improving trio of Mervyn Dillon, Pedro Collins and Corey Collymore will be required to stem the early flow of runs with accurate bowling in the absence of the lanky Cameron Cuffy. Finally, wicketkeeper Ridley Jacobs could also be a key weapon with his aggressive left-handed batting in the closing overs and efficient glove-work.
Prior to meeting the South Africans, the West Indies will have a warm-up game against hosts Sri Lanka at the NCC grounds today. (Windiescricket.com)