Most open tournament yet held
The 2007 World Cup has all the makings of the most open tournament yet held with as many as six teams having a realistic chance of lifting the trophy at Kensington Oval in late April.
Adding to the difficulty in predicting a winner or even the four semi-finalists, is the wide range of pitch conditions that might prevail. As recently as the middle of last year many Caribbean pitches were slow and low with considerable assistance for the spinners. However, a number of new wicket blocks have subsequently been laid and there are suggestions these will provide some encouragement for the faster bowlers. Depending on what actually transpires in the way of pitch behaviour, teams like South Africa will either have no chance [if they are slow and low] or a real threat [if they provide pace and bounce] and the reverse holds true for Sri Lanka and India.
Not since the 1991-92 World Cup when matches were played in Australia and New Zealand have teams had to contend with such diverse conditions as those being predicted for the Caribbean. The 1991-92 tournament was a wide open affair with Pakistan saving their best till last and defeating England in the final.
Oddly enough those are the two major nations without a realistic chance of winning the trophy in 2007. Nevertheless, England with their late resurgence on the tour of Australia and the return of the highly dangerous Kevin Pietersen could be worth a flutter to make the semi-finals if a few cards fall their way.
Despite their derailment in the last few weeks, Australia must still be the slight favourite, as they have the players best equipped to cover variable pitch conditions. However, they still have to unearth a bowling combination which can consistently "shut down" the opposition in the final overs, with Glenn McGrath currently their only reasonable performer in that situation. They also desperately need a spinner to regularly take wickets in the overs following the Powerplays. If they don't solve these two major problems and Andrew Symonds isn't effective with his damaged arm, then even their strong batting line-up won't be enough to win them a record third consecutive World Cup.
|Depending on what actually transpires in the way of pitch behaviour, teams like South Africa will either have no chance [if they are slow and low] or a real threat [if they provide pace and bounce] and the reverse holds true for Sri Lanka and India|
New Zealand, South Africa, India, West Indies and Sri Lanka are all on the next rung of the favouritism ladder. South Africa is a one-dimensional side; they like to stifle the scoring with their pace-oriented attack and they don't bat so well in conditions that suit good spinners. However, they are a blue-collar bunch who are extremely competitive and in conditions that suit their pace bowlers they'll be dangerous if Graeme Smith and Herschelle Gibbs fire with the bat.
India has the batting experience plus the explosive power of Virender Sehwag and Mahendra Singh Dhoni to either post or chase down big totals. The big question mark is the ability of the bowlers to hold it together when they are attacked in the field restriction period of an innings. It was their failure to retain composure that let them down in the 2003 final and a lot of those same fielders are now four years older so the task won't be any easier this time unless Zaheer Khan and company bowl well.
Sri Lanka has a varied attack that should handle any conditions but they rely heavily on Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Sanath Jayasuriya for the bulk of their runs on bouncier pitches. The West Indies has quietly compiled a good one-day record under Brian Lara with a win and a trip to the final in the last two Champions Trophy tournaments. They have depth and power in batting and good variety in bowling and their fielding is solid so it's not surprising that they are a competitive side. Their one failing is a lack of a power bat in the middle-order and they need Dwayne Smith to confirm his potential.
New Zealand are a strong allround side with a varied and skilled attack, backed by committed fielders. The recent improvement in their top order run getting has boosted their chances enormously and a fit Jacob Oram, along with the equally dangerous Brendon McCullum, provide power with control in the middle-order. If three successive victories over Australia are a sign that self-belief has made a belated but grand entrance to their camp, then they are genuine contenders.
In a tightly bunched field I favour Australia, New Zealand, West Indies and India to scramble into the final four. If, to reach the knock out stage it's the battle I expect, then it'll be a tremendous tournament; it's just a pity it takes so long to reach the highly competitive stage.
George Binoy is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo