United Press International's Krishnadev Calamur and Martin Hutchinson here review prospects for the 2003 World Cup, the eights in a quadrennial series beginning in 1975, team by team. In this Part II, the Group A teams. Part I Thursday discussed the overall competition structure; Part III Saturday will discuss the Group B teams.
Australia by Krishnadev Calamur
Australia are probably the favorites to win the tournament. In addition to being the perfect test side, they are also the perfect one-day side. No Sachin Tendulkars or Brian Laras here. In fact, the only one among the Aussies who could be called a cricketing demigod is veteran leggie Shane Warne. But that's what sets this team apart. They have balance: each team member has a role and performs it to the best of his ability. Skipper Ricky Ponting is an aggressive cricketer and has both the flair and the talent to lead his side to the final. With wicket keeper Adam Gilchrist, fast bowler Glen McGrath and Warne, he forms the nucleus of the team that is most likely to win the World Cup. Conditions in the South Africa are exactly what the Aussies are used to: Nice grounds and hard and fast pitches. Their only likely competitors -- South Africa.
England by Martin Hutchinson
In terms of the odds quoted in Part 1 Thursday, England at 20-1 is a "buy." England currently lie seventh in the International Cricket Council's unofficial One-day International Championship (comparing team records in ODIs played worldwide) but the teams in fifth through eight places are very close, with New Zealand having a points rating of 97, England on 98 and India and West Indies, on 99. Sri Lanka (fourth) and Pakistan (third) are somewhat ahead, while South Africa (second) and Australia (top) are substantially stronger.
Looking at Group A, therefore, Australia will almost certainly qualify, and the other qualifiers (absent a surprise by Zimbabwe) will come from England, Pakistan and India. England's chances of being one of the two from that group of three must be around 2/3. In the second round, England will seek to be one of four teams chosen from six, maybe a 50-50 chance. To win, from four teams in two matches, it's almost random, maybe 1 in 5. Total odds, 1 in 15, or 14-1.
In one-day games, England has considerable strengths. Marcus Trescothick and Michael Vaughan are as good a pair of opening batsmen as there are in the world, and Nasser Hussain, Nick Knight and Alec Stewart are all accomplished one-day batsmen. Andrew Flintoff, the fine all-rounder (bowler who bats) is back from injury and Paul Collingwood, the 26-year-old Durham batsman who bowls, is an important new find. England's lack of decent spin bowling, so damaging in Test cricket, is of course much less of a problem in the one-day game, where only the very best spinners, such as Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan have met with significant success.
England ended up doing slightly better in the Test series against Australia than had seemed likely early on. Its chances of winning the World Cup must be rated slightly higher than it's a priori chances of beating Australia in a Test series.
Pakistan by Martin Hutchinson
If Pakistan play together as a team, they will be tough to beat. Admittedly captain and star fast bowler Waqar Younis is 31, already over the hill for a bowler relying on speed, while the dazzling all-rounder Wasim Akram is 36, but Shoaib Akhtar, 27 is close to his peak and possibly the fastest bowler in the world. To round out the spearhead of their attack, Pakistan has ace spinner Saqlain Mushtaq, only 26 but already with 205 Test wickets to his credit. Spin bowling is sometimes said to be ineffective in one day games, but top quality attacking spin bowling, of the caliber provided by Saqlain, is as effective as equivalent quality fast bowling, and much rarer.
Pakistan's batting is somewhat less strong, although it is led by Inzamam-ul-Haq (32) and Saeed Anwar (34) both of whom already have almost 9,000 ODI runs to their credit. Yousuf Youhana (28) and Younas Khan (25) are also capable, experienced players. Rashid Latif is an able if veteran wicket keeper.
A particular strength of Pakistan is the ability of their all-rounders, a tradition pioneered by the great Imran Khan and admirably upheld by Wasim, and fast medium bowling all-rounders Azhar Mahmood (27) and Abdur Razzaq (23). Googly bowling all-rounder Shahid Afridi (22) is another such, although his bowling may be risky on the fast South African pitches. Getting a few quick wickets against many sides in a one-day game can ensure victory; that has never been the case against Pakistan. Equally, there are no feeble "fifth bowlers" for the opposition to feast upon once the front liners have been seen off.
The difficulty of course is and has always been getting Pakistan's immensely talented cricketers to play together. Wasim and Waqar have clearly been on too many difficult tours together, and the side is allegedly split down the middle with factions. The whole may therefore be very much less than the sum of its superb parts.
All the same, I wouldn't like to have to play them in the final!
India by Krishnadev Calamur
The team with the best batting side on paper and which for the longest time has been billed the next-best thing. If their big guns -- Tendulkar, skipper Saurav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid fire -- this could be the team that upsets the Aussie applecart. Their Achilles Heel -- their bowling attack. Still, pacemen Zaheer Khan and the veteran Javagal Srinath may be able to take it to their opponents, and off-spinner Harbhajan Singh may be the man to watch. Among the new blood -- watch for Mohammed Kaif.
The Aussies are the most likely -- perhaps the only tram near guaranteed -- from this group to make it through to the Super Six. Four teams have the potential to claim the other two spots -- India, Pakistan, England and Zimbabwe.
If all goes well, one of those spots could well be India's, though after a disastrous tour of New Zealand coach John Wright and the team's think tank will have to do their homework on how to counter the short-pitch stuff in South African conditions.
But they will have a billion people praying for them and strong crowd support.
Zimbabwe, Namibia and Netherlands, by Martin Hutchinson
The extraordinary difficulties facing Zimbabwean cricket reduce the likelihood of Zimbabwe progressing beyond the first round, although they did so in England in 1999. Indeed, it seems likely that the fine traditions of Zimbabwean cricket, heavily concentrated as it has been among that country's now tiny white population, are likely to fade from the scene. Captain Heath Streak (28) is a very fine all-rounder, and veteran batsman Andy Flower (34) has a Test and ODI record that will compare with anybody's, but the supporting cast is now considerably weaker than a few years ago. Of course, the disruptions to Zimbabwean life by that country's dreadful political and economic situation, which seem likely to deprive the country of most if not all its hoped for revenue from the World Cup, make it still less likely that the team will summon the concentration to prosper.
Namibia's political and economic situation is considerably better than Zimbabwe's, but the total population is only 1.8 million, making it unlikely to compete seriously with much larger countries. The country began a 10-year plan in 1998, to qualify for the World Cup finals in 2007, so are very pleased to have done so four years ahead of schedule. Nevertheless, when the national side competed this season in the South African domestic provincial one-day competition, it lost all five matches, so the outlook is not good. Namibia's best player is probably the youngest in the squad, and also its only black player, fast bowling all rounder Burton van Rooi (20) who achieved his country's gratitude by taking 6 for 43 against Scotland to put Namibia into the World Cup final.
Netherlands has the strongest cricket tradition in continental Europe, but that's not saying much -- the continent has never recovered from the cancellation of the first English overseas tour, by the Duke of Dorset's XI, because of the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. Captain and all-rounder Roland Lefebvre played first class cricket for Somerset and Glamorgan, but he's 40. Only one other player, Bastian Zuiderent (24), has first class experience, playing several times for Sussex in 2001-02. To the extent that any of the sides deserves to be 5000-1, Netherlands does.