Cricket: Eyes on the odds in Cup countdown

By David Leggat

Just 23 days to go to the start of the World Cup.

How are the big hopes shaping up? Who would you put your dollars on to triumph in the final at Mumbai on April 2?

Let's start with group A, New Zealand's group, which also houses the winners of the past three tournaments, Australia, 1996 champions Sri Lanka and New Zealand's current guests, Pakistan.

(The group is rounded out by Zimbabwe, Kenya and Canada, but for the purposes of this, they can be safely discounted. They might nail an upset but win the show? No.)

New Zealand and Pakistan have started their final countdown but rain in Queenstown this week trimmed the series from six to five games.

The cup is being hosted by India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Remember New Zealand played ODI series in all three countries last year and won a miserable one game out of a total of 12 completed matches there.

And yet they aren't the worst of chances to at least make their customary progress towards the semifinals.

They won the first ODI against Pakistan and the most important aspect is to get back to successful ways after last year's subcontinental nightmare.

The conditions are totally different to what they'll get at the tournament, but you can't do much about that. And look where trying to prepare in the tournament locations got them, anyway.

Pakistan? They've got some decent performers and they'll be in conditions they're intimately acquainted with.

Young opener Ahmed Shezhad is clearly a dashing sort; Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq offer experience, Umar and Kamran Akmal are attack-minded brothers, while Shahid Afridi and Abdul Razzaq can provide the late-innings clobber.

They had decent spinners and hard-working seamers, but they don't appeal as winners.

Australia? Not the team of old but began their seven-game ODI series against England with a roar, winning the first three games, before losing in Adelaide on Wednesday.

They have a champion player in Shane Watson and batsmen who can punish on their day, such as David Hussey and Cameron White.

They've wheeled out Brett Lee and Shaun Tait to try to get the opposing batsmen hopping. But while you would write them off at your peril, again they just don't look like a team to go all the way.

Sri Lanka? They haven't played a game this month, but they start a three-game home series against the West Indies on Monday.

Last year they won 15, lost six of 22 ODIs and ooze batting class and bowling unorthodoxy.

Captain Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene would walk into most world teams while Tillekaratne Dilshan can be a firecracker at the start of the innings.

Round-arm slinger Lasith Malinga and spinners Asantha Mendis and Muttiah Muralitharan, in his last hurrah, will occupy batsmen's minds.

They'll be a handful for anyone and will fancy their chances.

So what of group B? Ireland and the Netherlands provide the lightweight component, but the Irish in particular, are a handy outfit. The West Indies would offer the best chance of an upset for them.

Bangladesh won't win it either, but they are getting better as an ODI outfit. They have all six group games at home, too, so they must be a decent quarter-final chance, at least.

England won the Ashes, went euphoric and lost the first three ODIs on the trot to Australia. Does that necessarily mean they're suddenly a dusty 50-over outfit?

They are well drilled and while Andrew Strauss might not immediately appeal as a crunchy ODI opener, he averaged 57 in 14 innings last year.

Others such as Kevin Pietersen, the inventive Eion Morgan, Ian Bell and Luke Wright are all breezy hitters.

They field tidily and have a range of bowling options which make them far from the worst of chances among the major nations.

The West Indies don't strike you as good enough to win it. Incredibly, they haven't played an ODI since last May-June when they were duffed up 5-0 by South Africa.

But there are some decent players among the squad captained by fast-medium bowler Darren Sammy.

Ramnaresh Sarwan has been recalled from a year in the wilderness and with the explosive cool dude Chris Gayle and Shiv Chanderpaul the batting should be handy.

Dwayne Bravo is a colourful allrounder of talent, Suleiman Benn and Nikita Miller handy left-arm spinners, while Kieron Pollard is a big fish in the T20 world, although 50 overs might be a bit long a game for his liking.

Which leaves South Africa and India, who have just fought out a tight five-game series in the republic, won 3-2 by the hosts.

South Africa have a reputation for falling on the biggest of cricket stages - witness the 1999 semifinal against Australia and the tournament they hosted four years later where they fell flat on their faces and didn't make it out of pool play.

Still, if they're on song, they'll be tough. A batting lineup of Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers and JP Duminy is as strong as any around; Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Lonwabo Tsotsobe, a left-armer who has taken 36 wickets at 19.91 in 19 ODIs, provide the pace; the tidy Johan Botha heads five spin options.

India, the financial powerhouse, are chasing their second cup victory to follow the 1983 triumph in England.

Apart from the opening game against Bangladesh, they're at home throughout pool play.

Richly talented batsmen, muscular middle-order men such as Yusuf Pathan, captain MS Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh, and a highly respectable and varied bowling attack add up to a strong contender, provided the pressure of playing at home doesn't get to them.

- NZ Herald

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