Thursday, December 12, 2002

I was talking to a South African friend of mine today, and the subject of the impending cricket world cup to be played in South Africa from February came up. We discussed who we thought would win it. The two most favoured sides are Australia and South Africa. These clearly are the two best teams in world cricket, and they are playing in conditions and cultures that are familiar to them. Both sides have bowlers capable of taking advantage of the hard, bouncy pitches of South Africa, and both have batsmen who play well in one day cricket. Australia in recent years have had a psychological edge over South Africa, and when they play in a big match South Africa tends to crumble. For this reason, if the two sides meet in a semi-final or in the final, my expectation is that Australia will win.

So, how about the other sides. In no particular order

England have been traumatised by their present tour of Australia, are carrying a lot of injuries, and do not really have the playing depth to compete. They will not make the semi finals.

New Zealand have an exceptionally fine captain in Stephen Fleming, are extremely well coached, are often the best prepared side in world cricket and play well in South African / Australian conditions with hard pitches. My expectation is that they will start extremely well and will make the semi finals. In the end they probably lack the playing depth to win the tournament, but they will acquit themselves extremely well.

Sri Lanka are close to being the best side in the world when playing on the subcontinent. If the tournament were being played in India or Sri Lanka, they would be a good chance to win it (as indeed they did when it was last played there in 1996). However, their performances in South Africa (both during their current tour and their previous one in 2000-01) have been very disappointing. Muttiah Muralitharan, one of the best bowlers in the world, has not been very successful against either Australia or South Africa. I do not expect Sri Lanka to make much of a dent on the tournament.

India are the great frustration of world cricket. They have on paper the best batting side in the world, although their bowling is ordinary. In India they can be magnificent. Elsewhere they are very inconsistent. (Actually, that is wrong. Outside India they lose consistently). Their present performance in New Zealand is not inspiring. I don't expect them to go very far in the tournament either. For them to have a shot at winning the tournament, one or more of their world class batsman (probably Sachin Tendulkar) is going to have to have an absolute blinder of a tournament, by which I mean he is going to have to score four or more centuries. He is going to have to do this against the bowlers of South Africa and Australia, which will be hard. To win, India have to score large totals consistently and prevent their opposition from doing the same. They do not have the bowlers to win low scoring matches. A win by India in the tournament is unlikely, although not actually impossible.

Pakistan are for me the great unknowns. They have the ability to produce wonderful players from nowhere, and they have the ability to win anywhere in the world. The last time the tournament was held in conditions like this (in Australia in 1992) they won it. They have bowlers who can exploit bouncy pitches. They played wonderfully to beat South Africa in Port Elizabeth yesterday. (Saleem Elahi appears to be one of those exceptionally good players who appear from nowhere). And yet against Australia a couple of months ago they were terrible. I would bet a large sum of money on Pakistan puting in at least one shocking game and at least one brilliant game in the tournament. (This happened when they won the tournament in 1992, and happened when they were beaten finalists in 1999, although on that occasion their shocking game was the final). However, my feeling is that if any side other than Australia or South Africa wins the tournament, it will be Pakistan. For me they are clear third favourites.

The West Indies only have a chance to get anywhere in the tournament if Brian Lara can recover from hepatitis, get fit, and then dominate the tournament like nobody has ever dominated a World Cup before. Lara is inconsistent, but goes through hot patches every now and then, and when he does he bats more like a god than any other player I have ever seen (with apologies to Viv Richards, who isn't far behind). This is not especially likely to happen, but boy will it be something to watch if it does.

Zimababwe, Bangladesh, Kenya, Namibia, Holland and Canada are just there to make up the numbers.

My overall prediction is that the semi-finalists will be Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, and Pakistan. If Australia and South Africa are in different semi-finals, the final will be Australia versus South Africa. If not, the final will be Australia versus Pakistan. In either case, Australia will likely win the final.

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