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Monday, February 19, 2007

Looking into the World Cup Crystal ball

It's a little under three weeks before the warm-up games start in the build-up to the 2007 Cricket World Cup, and less than two weeks later when the real action begins.

Can we learn anything from the previous five World Cups that will help us glean who may win this year's tournament? Here are some of the key players who have been involved in epic matches since 1987.

In that year, Geoff Marsh and David Boon were the leading scorers for winners Australia, and Craig McDermott took 18 wickets. Together with other individuals, the Aussies teamed up under the tutelage of Bobby Simpson to mark a resurgence in the nation's cricket fortunes. After this win, the Australian team had only one way to go forward - up and away.

Javed Miandad was the leading scorer for Pakistan's 1992 World Cup winning squad. Wasim Akram and Mushtaq Ahmed took 18 and 16 wickets each to complement the batting. This was the World Cup that announced the arrival of Inzamam-ul-Haq, whose explosive batting, especially in the semi-final and final, ensured that the Pakistan bowlers had enough runs on the board to defend. Sachin Tendulkar also made his debut that year, but didn't make such a pronounced impact.

During the 1996 tournament, Aravinda de Silva scored 448 runs for Sri Lanka's winning cause. Australia were the finalists then, helped by Mark Waugh's aggregate of 484. But the Aussies were no match for Arjuna Ranatunga and his Lions. The Sri Lankan batting line-up, which had Roshan Mahanama at No.7, was too powerful for all their rivals and they duly announced their arrival among the elite.

In the 1999 World Cup, it was the Aussie captain again - this time Steve Waugh - who scored 398 (including the match-winning century against South Africa) who made a telling contribution to the winning cause. Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne were the outstanding bowlers with 18 and 20 wickets each. The Aussies, who were on the brink of elimination, won six consecutive matches to take the tournament in England.

During the 2002 World Cup in South Africa, Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist scored 415 and 408 runs respectively, ensuring that Australia won the tournament comfortably. McGrath and Brett Lee took 21 and 22 wickets respectively, while Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly scored heavily for India, the eventual finalists, and Zaheer Khan took 18 wickets.

But who are the in-form players this time around,and which team has that all-important X Factor?

Australia's
form has dipped alarmingly recently and they have just suffered a fifth one-day defeat in six straight matches. With the retirement of Damien Martyn and the injuries to Andrew Symonds and Brett Lee, they are struggling, and this is McGrath's farewell tournament. Ponting might be the star performer again, but I see the Aussies weak in their bowling line-up. Shaun Tait and the others do not have the experience on such slow West Indian wickets, which will be their biggest handicap.

West Indies should do well on home soil. Brian Lara is still a class act and Dwayne Bravo will be the unknown factor for many teams (except India). Chris Gayle will also be a major influence for the Windies.

South Africa seem to lean heavily on Jacques Kallis and Shaun Pollock. They are the men in form but the Proteas have often lost out in big games. They will be lucky to make the semi-finals.

India have got the advantage of touring the Carribbean a few months ago. Skipper Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar are the star batsmen, while Munaf Patel and Anil Kumble will provide the bowling edge. The Indians have a very good chance of making it to the semi-finals.

Sri Lanka are dependent on Kumar Sangakkara, Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralitharan and should do well given that the Caribbean wickets are quite close to what they have back at home.

New Zealand
have Shane Bond's firepower, even for the slow wickets in West Indies (his fitness might be the only worry). Batting-wise, they have skipper Stephen Fleming and young batsman Ross Taylor capable of rattling any attack. Watch out for Taylor - he could be a revelation.

Pakistan do not know what will be their final and best 11. Will Shoaib Ahktar and Mohammed Asif play? The batting is good with Mohamad Yusuf, Younis Khan and Inzamam-al-Huq being the key players. But the bowling is too unsettled for them to have any chance.

England
are hampered by the injury to skipper Michael Vaughan but they have just completed a fabulous, if unexpected, one-day series victory over Australia. Still, I can't see them making an impact and my semi-finalists are Australia, Sri Lanka, West Indies and India.
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