Friday, March 2, 2007

Cricket World Cup 2007 Preview

With the cricket World Cup approaching faster than a well directed Makhaya Ntini bouncer I thought I'd peer into my well-polished, slightly tampered, extra-strong mint enhanced crystal cricket ball and provide a few thoughts for the upcoming festival of cricket and culture that will take place in the Caribbean over five fabulous weeks of sporting entertainment. Not to mention, Alan has selflessly opted to fly out to Trinidad to provide some on-site insights into things.

This tournament doesn't start in earnest until March 27 when the second round of clashes of the "Super Eight" begins. Expect the chasm between the haves and the have-nots to be painfully obvious; although Ireland and Kenya could force a surprise if they catch a top side unawares. Realistically, Kenya is the only side not to compete at the champions' trophy with any chance of qualifying for the second round. Yes, they did make the final four at the last world cup, and with England in their group in current form England are capable of losing to anyone.

This World Cup features a total of 11 matches for the winning side, and a minimum of nine for those who make the second round. Unfortunately for the underdogs, the extended second round of six matches for each side makes the tournament a battle of attrition and limits the value of one or two good performances at the right time in favour of sides with greater depth. Expect Australia, South Africa, and to a lesser extent India and Pakistan to wear other sides down during the tournament as injuries and fatigue take their toll. These sides, Australia in particular, will be afforded the luxury of resting players in early clashes with lesser nations to keep key men fresh for the business end of the tournament.

So here they are: four groups, sixteen teams and their chances of bringing home the chocolates...

Group A

Australia: A month ago it would have been hard to find an opposition worthy of Australia. Even without a couple of their preferred players the Aussies were sweeping all before them, crushing the English in record style in the Ashes and were cruising in the triangular one day series with England and the Kiwis. Since then though, while the wheels haven't totally fallen off, they are starting to wobble pretty badly and make some unusual noises. They've lost six of their last seven matches and had some enormous scores chased down (albeit on some pool-table sized grounds in NZ), so their bowling is in need of a bit of a tune-up. To make matters worse there are now some lingering injury worries with Symonds in serious doubt, Brett Lee is out, and the truck-hearted Queenslander Hayden nursing a newly broken toe. Add that to Gilly missing the early part of the tournament to be with the newest addition to his family, and rightfully so. Even if these guys make it back in time for the business end of the tournament it will be hard for them to integrate seamlessly back into the side.

All of that said, they still have more potential firepower than any other team in the competition. That Ricky Ponting guy just can't stop himself scoring centuries, Hussey is totally impossible to get out and Gilly up front can slaughter any bowling attack in the world on his day and can have a match won inside the first twenty-five overs. McGrath will quietly deliver awesome performances as he always does and if they put together a couple of good wins they will be back to their pack hunting best. Those who doubt the ability of an Australian team to hit back like Mohammed Ali right hook are directed to the recent Ashes history: shock loss in 2005, record breaking annihilation of their opponents in 2006-07.

Key to Victory: Staying healthy and getting a couple of confidence building wins early on, and controlling the haemorrhaging of runs in the last 10 overs.

Prediction: If they can get some build wins early and build some momentum, Ponting will have the winners' speech drafted by the half-way mark...

South Africa: Take perhaps the strongest form into the tournament with home wins over India and Pakistan. Unlucky to be drawn against Australia in the group; at least they get a chance to avenge their demons on ’99 and ’03 before they meet in the semi-finals. Expect South Africa to be strong and to test Australia in the group stage, particularly if Australia rests a bowler or two. Gibbs, Kallis, Pollock and Boucher must show the way once again, and they need contributions from the likes of Ashwell Prince, AB de Villiers and Andre Nel to continue. Dale Steyn and Boeta Dipenaar look to be unlucky to miss out to the quota system, despite denials from South African cricket. Heaven help them if they face Australia in the semis (given their past crimes against mathematics and utter lack of cool under pressure), a few players might be joining Daryll Cullinan on the psychiatrists couch.

Key to Victory: Contributions from outside the core of experienced players.

Prediction: Lose in a nail-biter to Australia in the semis – of course.

Scotland: Their best chances are to surprise a cold and lethargic Australia in their opening match. The contest between Scotland and The Netherlands will likely boil down to who can bounce back from expected heavy defeats against South Africa and Australia respectively. A strong showing there from one or two players could really lift team morale to the point where they may have an edge over their opposition. Scotland has played well recently; expect them to beat the Dutch in a low-scoring affair.

Key to Victory: Try to look good losing.

Prediction: Group Stage.

The Netherlands: Lucky to no longer hold the world record for most expensive bowling in a one-day international (Mick Lewis of Australia was nice enough to concede 113 from his allotted 10 overs against the cricket-boks last year). The Netherlands shouldn't pose any team meeting headaches for Australia or South Africa. Expect Ponting to book an afternoon round of golf or a twilight cruise on the bay (in the case of a day-nighter) for his boys.

Key to Victory: They don't have one.

Prediction: Will go home winless, but high as kites having done serious comparison tests between homeland and Caribbean party drugs.

Group B

India: Again a reasonable threat to take the title; legendary Sachin Tendulkar has scored more runs than anyone in the World Cup, though was dwarfed in the 2003 by the Aussies crushing batting performance (cue Punter). They do take series win over Sri Lanka into the tournament. Sourav Ganguly is back in form and seemingly back in form at the top of the order. India may try Sehwag in the middle order to boost his form and the robustness of a sluggish middle-lower order. MS Dhoni, who has featured the ODI player rankings of late must perform on the big stage as well. As always Kumble and Khan will lead the bowling, and it looks as though it may be the swansong for at least one of those two in the ODI arena. Expect plenty of spin at both ends on the turning Caribbean decks. The turbanator may feature strongly in the player of the series voting courtesy of batsmen going the tonk with the constrictive bowling of Kumble at the other end.

Key to Victory: Batsmen staying injury free and Sehwag finding form, will falter in the Super 8 stage otherwise.

Prediction: Will bow out in the Super 8.

Sri Lanka: Sri Lanka is a hard side to pick. They were World Cup Champions back in 1996 and on their day they can be crushed, or crush any other team in the world. They've put together some good performances in the last year or so, smashing England 5-0 in England, drawing the Kiwi's away as well as India. Jayasuriya is still hanging around and if you know anything about international cricket you'll know that on his day he is capable of doing absolute horrible things to any bowling attack. The "bent-arm bandit" Murali (come on, call a spade a spade!) will be chucking out batsmen in all directions as well, so they do have quite a solid core group. Outside of Jayasuriya their top order can be a little thin, but they'll cruise through to the second round in this easy group.

Key to Victory: Marvin Attapatu, Russel Arnold must score runs to take the pressure off Sangakara and Jayawardene. Murali desperately needs support in the bowling.

Prediction: Will give the semi-finals a serious shake, most likely will end up mid table in the Super 8.

Bangladesh: Will beat Bermuda but will otherwise be pummelled from pillar to post by their more experienced and better credentialed subcontinent opponents. Leaving out their experienced wicketkeeper for an untried youth may be a mistake, but won’t make a difference in their W column at the end of the day.

Key to Victory: To be fair they did beat Australia once, not too long ago. If they lift at exactly the right time, well they'll probably still lose.

Prediction: They'll beat Bermuda, that's it.

Bermuda: You're kidding aren't you? A triangle between third man, deep square leg and long off should see the entire team disappear without a win. Expect a batting bonanza for Sri Lanka and India against these guys and probably a record or two to fall. Experienced heavy losses to Canada in the build-up, Bermuda are the real minnows of the competiton.

Key to Victory: Several "Bermuda Triangle" puns and the desperate hope that the other team doesn't show.

Prediction: Last, but they'll have a good time.

Group C

New Zealand: The black caps are starting to hit some serious form coming into the competition with impressive performances against England and especially Australia late in the Australian summer series. Somehow missed out on the CB finals, which is still a complete mystery, but hit hard in the Chappel-Hadlee series against an admittedly under strength Aussie side. They have plenty of batting prowess, all seemingly hitting form at the right time. The return of hard-hitting Jacob Oram, discovery of Taylor, frequently awesome bowling of Shane Bond, ever consistent Daniel Vettori and captaincy of Stephen Fleming will all conspire to carry the Kiwi's deep into the tournament.

Key to Victory: Despite having a list of talented players for a long time, they've consistently found new and varied ways to simply not gel. They're gelling at the moment, but they need to keep it together long-term. They're also struggling a little for depth, so need the top seven or eight guys to remain healthy and in form.

Prediction: In the semi's and threatening for a final spot.

England: Let's not get carried away with a couple of consolation wins at the end of a desperately bad tour of Australia. England still have no chance at the big dance.

As always Flintoff and Pietersen will be the keys to their batting, but will too much be asked of them to prop up a struggling top order? Paul Nixon is perhaps the biggest selection surprise ever at 36, but has recently showed glimpses of form with the bat and the gloves down under to go with a distinguished county cricket record. With fitness clouds providing typical English mizzle (a more than slightly depressing combination of mist and drizzle for those who've never experienced the delights of English weather) over all of their key players, including mercurial skipper Vaughan, Pietersen and more recently James Andersen, may be costly in a side lacking serious depth in quality in all departments. Expect Panesar to bring life to the team, and possibly pick up wickets on the slower decks if consistency and pressure can be built at the other end. Darren Gough, also 36 may be the answer; he has passion, belief and desire sadly lacking in the English team at the moment.

Considering the drubbing they have received at the hands of New Zealand and Australia this southern summer (a blip in the finals series notwithstanding) and their outstandingly poor record against all comers they may miss out on the second round. For all those English fans chuckling quietly into their lukewarm pints at the absurdity of that thought, and the bacon-and-egg tie merchants huddling around the famous urn in their long room thinking wistfully with longing of better times in ’05, just remember that Kenya made the final four in their last world cup innings. The only sad side-effect could be that the barmy army could be back on the plane before that get a chance to tell anyone whoooooo they are, and wheeeere they come from.

Key to Victory: Andrew Fintoff must shrug off all expectations (and stay out of the bar) in order to have any chance of meeting them. Pietersen should perform but their other ringers must also stand up if the Poms are to get anywhere.

Predicted Finish: Second in group, but will not get close to the semi finals.

Kenya: Convincing winners in the World Cricket League trophy, Kenya will be hoping to repeat their miraculous semi-final appearance in the last world cup. They are a chance of making the second round if they upset England in the group stage.

Key to Victory: Other results must go their way, and to pray for an upset over NZ or England.

Prediction: Will probably just miss out on the Super 8.

Canada: Canada are no slouches, and despite a poor showing at the world cricket league. John Davison is a good player but most nations’ standard and their wicketkeeper (Bagai) was named player of the tournament. Another of the also-rans, they will struggle to compete other commonwealth nations England and New Zealand, but may be in with a show against Kenya. Maybe.

Key to Victory: Mammoth performances from John Davison – just like the last World Cup.

Predicted Finish: Last in group.

Group D

Pakistan: Afridi in doubt due to an incident with the crowd where he thrust his bat in the direction of a sledging spectator, and Abuld Razzaq being injured will cast serious doubt over their ability to make it through the Super 8. Their top order is weak, and no amount of run scoring from Mohammed Yousuf can drag them out of trouble every time. Will Akhtar and Sami play? Who knows. They will still power through the group phase though, probably at the top of the pool, which is no indication of their strength in the next round.

Key to Victory: Mohammed Abdul has some very big boom boom shoes to fill for Razzaq, and maybe also Afridi if he serves a long ban.

Predicted Finish: The bottom end of the Super 8, if they're lucky.

West Indies: Interestingly, the team hosting the cricket world cup has never won it. We kinda doubt that's going to change this time around. Having said that, they played very well in last year's ICC Champions Trophy, eventually losing to the Aussies in the final. The hosts will enjoy some success in the early stages (they're not exactly in the "group of death") and the steel drums will be infectious (I might have to buy one myself), but even the great Brian Charles Lara will not be able to lift the side to win consistently against the top three or four teams. With the batting power they've got they need to be taken seriously, but with consistency issues and a fairly meek bowling attack, they won't be able to go all the way.

Key to Victory: The right Brian Lara showing up. Consistently.

Predicted Finish: Deep into the Super 8, in the mix for a semi spot.

Ireland: Ireland surprisingly have claimed the odd big scalp in their history (including a crushing win over a Clive Lloyd led West Indies). Without Ed Joyce though (possibly opting to play for England instead of his native Ireland), they're not really going to be too much trouble for the big guns.

Key to Victory: Take the opposition out the night before the match. .

Predicted Finish: I'd love to see them do well, but I'd be the first one spitting Guinness back out my nose in shock if they made it through the first round.

Zimbabwe: Zimbabwe cricket has gone from bad, to worse, and inexplicably even worse since the player contract dispute of a few years ago. The effects of the Mugabe regime extend even to their cricket side it seems. Without any class players they fall right back into the ranks of the also-rans. Matsikeneyri and Taibu will fight hard but won’t receive adequate support.

Key to Victory: Prayer.

Predicted Finish: Will bow out in the group stage.

That’s how we’re seeing it... so far.
Mickos and Al.

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