Cricket: World Cup hopefuls, organisers on tightrope

A promo of the upcoming World Cup by the host broadcasters shows cricketers from the 14 participating nations walking a tightrope high in the air to achieve their goal.

With reigning champions Australia shedding their prowess and evenly matched teams facing a treacherous knockout format, copywriters have already forseen an unpredictable, wide open tournament from February 19 to April 2.

Australia have dominated the World Cup stage in spectacular fashion, winning the last three editions in 1999, 2003 and 2007 to add to their first success under Allan Border in 1987.

But rivals this time will fancy their chances against the new-look Aussies following the retirement of key stars like Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Matthew Hayden, Adam Gilchrist and Andrew Symonds.

Australia will still remain strong contenders to pick up a fifth title, but India and Sri Lanka - who co-host the World Cup with Bangladesh - and South Africa and England are regarded the frontrunners.

With the unpredictable, but hugely talented, Pakistanis also in the mix alongside two-time champions West Indies and New Zealand, the race for the title is wide open.

"This could be anyone's tournament," Kapil Dev, India's World Cup-winning captain in 1983, told AFP.

"The conditions will favour teams from the sub-continent, but don't write off other sides. They have all played enough in this part of the world to know what awaits them."

Adding to the excitement is the new format where teams face sudden-death after the preliminary league.

Unlike the last three editions, where there were two league stages before the semi-finalists were determined, the upcoming tournament will see the knock-outs begin after the first round itself.

The 14 teams have been divided into two groups for the initial round-robin league, with the top four from each half advancing to the quarter-finals.

The quarter-final format, first used in 1996 before being discarded, was revived to ensure a team plays a minimum of six matches even if they don't make the next round.

In the 2007 World Cup in the Caribbean, crowd pullers India and Pakistan went out of the reckoning after just three matches as they failed to enter the second round.

India captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni admitted the new `banana skin' format was a double-edged sword.

"Teams will get to play more matches, but once through to the second round, you just can't afford to have an off-day," said Dhoni. "One bad move and you could be out of it."

Reigning champions Australia have been drawn with Sri Lanka, Pakistan, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Canada and Kenya in Group A.

India and Bangladesh, who play the tournament opener in Dhaka on February 19, will be joined by England, South Africa, West Indies, Ireland and the Netherlands in a relatively tougher Group B.

The World Cup will be held in the sub-continent, the nerve-centre and financial powerhouse of cricket, for the third time after India and Pakistan held it in 1987 and were joined by Sri Lanka in 1996.

Pakistan were also due to co-host the 2011 party, but were stripped of their rights due to security concerns in the volatile nation in the aftermath of the terror attack on the Sri Lankan team in 2009.

India are using eight Test venues for their 29 matches, but they have already hit problems in a worrying echo of the troubles which dogged the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.

The Wankhede stadium in Mumbai, the site of the April 2 final, has been reconstructed.

But refurbishment work on the iconic Eden Gardens in Kolkata was so far behind schedule that the venue's first game of four - the February 27 clash betwen India and England - has had to be moved to another ground.

Sri Lanka's 12 matches will be held at three venues, including two brand new 25,000-seater stadia in Pallekele near the hill resort of Kandy and Hambantota in the deep south.

The eight games alloted to Bangladesh will be played at the Sher-e-Bangla cricket stadium in Mirpur on the outskirts of Dhaka and the Zohur Ahmed Chowdhury stadium in Chittagong.

The World Cup contenders are set for a financial bonanza with a record prize purse of eight million dollars on offer, a rise of three million from the previous edition.

The winners receive $US3.25 million ($NZ4.20 million) - Australia took home $US2.2m in 2007 - while the losing finalists get $US1.5m.

With an additional $US30,000 kept aside for the winners of each first round match, the champions stand to gain another $US180,000 if they win all their six preliminary games.

The two losing semifinalists take home $US500,000 each, while teams that are knocked out in the quarterfinal stage will get $US250,000 each.

The prizemoney does not include the share of the profits the International Cricket Council dishes out to all the 14 participating teams from its joint revenue pool.

- AFP

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