World Cup thrown suddenly wide open
By John Mehaffey
March 2, 2007
LONDON, England (Reuters) - Five weeks ago, in the considered judgment of Australia coach John Buchanan, England and New Zealand's batsmen were not good enough to give his team a game.
Buchanan being Buchanan, he did not say so in as many words.
"In essence, the batting efforts of our opposition are not assisting the development of our bowlers' one-day skills and the decision-making that accompanies being placed under the microscope of competition," was the quote on the official Australian Web site (www.baggygreen.com.au).
Given that most of the cricketing world loves to kick Australians when they are down, Buchanan's words were condemned as examples of incorrigible antipodean arrogance when his team lost successive series to the teams whose batting was deemed inadequate.
A more accurate interpretation would acknowledge that Buchanan's remarks were an accurate reflection of an interminable tri-series which seemed to be limping to an inevitable conclusion. In three out of four years they would have been quickly forgotten as the southern hemisphere season drifted to a close.
This, though, is the fourth year when the world prepares for the one-day World Cup and any sign that Australia are not cruising serenely to a third consecutive title has been welcomed by the rest of the world.
Australia have lost their number one ranking to South Africa, who crushed India and Pakistan at home.
They have also lost their paciest bowler Brett Lee, whose replacement Stuart Clark was approved by the International Cricket Council (ICC) on Wednesday. They will start the tournament without opener Matthew Hayden and all-rounder Andrew Symonds who are both injured.
But Australia will still field two of the world's top three one-day batsmen in Michael Hussey and captain Ricky Ponting and any hint of complacency has been extinguished after a 2-0 loss in the tri-series finals to England followed by a 3-0 whitewash in New Zealand.
"I know we are going to be extremely hard to beat," Ponting told the Australian Associated Press in Sydney before his team left for the two-month tournament in the West Indies.
"We're drifting favourites but, once the cricket gets under way, hopefully you'll see some cricket that's going to mean that we are still the favourites going in."
Barring accidents each of the top eight countries will play each other once for the first time since 1992 in a tournament which has suddenly been thrown wide open.
The tournament begins with four groups of four with the two leading teams qualifying for the super-eight stage. There they will meet each of the other qualifiers with the exception of the side they played in the first round.
Already the game of the first round looks to be the March 24 match between Australia and South Africa in St Kitts. The winners will take two points through to the second round plus a clear psychological boost.
At this point, though, any of West Indies, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, England and New Zealand are also plausible finalists.
West Indies have Brian Lara, a group of exciting young batsmen and a genuine fast bowler in Jerome Taylor. The Caribbean pitches are expected to be slow and low, which will suit the sub-continental teams. England and New Zealand are on a roll.
"Australia start as favourites but the competition is going to be tight among the eight teams," India captain Rahul Dravid told reporters on Tuesday. "Like Brian Lara said yesterday, you get to the semi-final and then it is a matter of playing two good games.