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Aiming for the top of the world

Posted in ICC Cricket World Cup 2011

It is unfortunate that the last two World Cups have been chiefly remembered for the wrong reasons.

The 2003 tournament was blighted by political wrangling and security issues, which saw both England and New Zealand forfeit matches, while the tragic death of Pakistan coach Bob Woolmer overshadowed proceedings in the Caribbean four years later.

Every cricket fan will therefore be keen to see on-field matters take centre stage when this year’s showpiece gets under way in Dhaka tomorrow.

Thankfully, there is reason to be optimistic as we look set to witness the most open World Cup in history, with at least half a dozen sides appearing to have a realistic chance of emerging victorious.

Co-hosts India will start as the bookmakers’ favourites and their confidence will certainly have been boosted by impressive warm-up wins over Australia and New Zealand.

India’s batting line-up is particularly formidable and their bowlers should flourish on home soil, but it remains to be seen how Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s side will cope with the huge expectation on their shoulders.

After all, they were also among the leading contenders four years ago, when they slipped to an embarrassing first-round exit following defeats to Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

Sri Lanka went on to reach the final on that occasion and will be confident of progressing to the latter stages once again.

Like India, they are blessed with a host of world-class batsmen and should be capable of posting imposing totals on a regular basis.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni

The weight of a nation: How well will Mahendra Singh Dhoni and India cope with heightened expectations of lifting the World Cup?

The great Muttiah Muralitharan will also be determined to make an impression in his international swansong, while seamer Lasith Malinga represents a significant threat, particularly in the closing overs of an innings.

While India and Sri Lanka head the betting, it should not be forgotten that neither side currently lead the way in the ICC one-day international rankings.

That honour goes to Australia – the winners of the last three World Cups – although, in truth, it is difficult to know what to expect from them this time around.

A comprehensive 6-1 victory over England in the recent Commonwealth Bank Series will have done their confidence no harm. However, those matches were played in completely different conditions to those on the sub-continent and both sides were also weakened by a host of injuries.

England, therefore, will not be overly concerned by their loss, although it is clear there is work to do if they are to follow up last year’s World Twenty20 success.

Much will depend on the performances of Kevin Pietersen, who made an encouraging 66 against Pakistan today in his second match since being promoted to the top of the order.

The absence of Eoin Morgan, who fractured a finger in Australia, is a significant blow, but England’s bowling attack looks set to be back to full strength in time for their opening game against the Netherlands on Tuesday.

Among England’s rivals in Group B are South Africa, another country with high hopes of taking the main prize when the final takes place at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium on April 2.

In Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers, South Africa can call on the first and third highest run-scorers in ODIs during 2010, and their side appears to have a better balance following the long-awaited inclusion of leg-spinner Imran Tahir.

The Proteas have frequently faltered on the biggest stage in the past, but may benefit from slightly reduced expectations this time around.

Hashim Amla & AB de Villiers

In Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers, fancied South Africa can call upon two of the most prolific ODI batsmen over the last 12 months

Then, of course, there is Pakistan, who must surely be the most unpredictable team in any sport, let alone cricket.

Many will feel Pakistan lack the necessary consistency to triumph in such a lengthy event. However, if the likes of Shahid Afridi, Shoaib Akhtar and Umar Akmal find their best form, the 1992 champions could well go all the way.

It would be something of a surprise if any of the other nations came out on top, but then few would have forecast that India and Sri Lanka would triumph in 1983 and 1996 respectively.

In fact, the only thing I can safely predict is that the forthcoming World Cup will be unpredictable, which should make it a cracker.

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