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I've just returned from two weeks in South Africa, haven't been anywhere near a World Cup game, haven't been following any cricket results and yet ... I've got World Cup Fever! Yes, it's the round-ball game I'm talking about but with the little white one made of leather. I'm really looking forward to cricket's World Cup next year. It promises to be a genuinely open contest with just about every major country fancying their chances. At this stage, I'm prepared to go out on a limb and leave West Indies off that list but just about every other team is capable of winning the trophy. And isn't that what the World Cup should be about?
Chatting to the more football-crazy tourists in South Africa, while I was looking after some Australian clients on safari in Kruger National Park, you get the sense that the football World Cup is a genuinely open competition. Just about every team that showed up, barring the obvious long shots, seemed to believe that they could win it, judging by the self-belief of their supporters. Even allowing for obvious jingoistic (patriotic) fervour, their optimism appeared genuine. I suppose football, with tighter scorelines where a single goal could decide a game, is more open to that sort of scenario, whereas cricket will generally need more than one moment of attacking brilliance. It's harder to win a cricket World Cup with tight defense. You need to go out and play positively for 80% of the duration rather than nicking an early advantage and then defending stoutly for the rest of the match.
I can't say I was surprised to hear that England were 2-0 up in the ODI series against Australia. It's not that I think Australia are a poor side - far from it. They're obviously still one of the best teams going around but that's exactly the point - they're now one of the better teams rather than being a clear No 1. Unlike during the last decade or so, when they clearly justified their top ranking at World Cups, this time around they will have every reason to be optimistic (that's just the way Australian cricket teams mentally prepare themselves) but none of the other teams will freeze with fear. A healthy respect all round me thinks.
England are clearly one of the most-improved teams. They seem to have a versatile and athletic unit, not necessarily revolving around any one individual, although Pietersen is still the scalp that will be most treasured. South Africa must surely shrug off their bad luck at major tournaments soon and. with arguably the world's most in-form player in AB De Villiers and wristy players like Hashim Amla to complement their coterie of allrounders, they will feature in the final shake-up.
Naturally, the hosts will be among the favourites to make the last four (Bangladesh excluded). Local support, local conditions and good depth are valuable assets in a long competition. I honestly can't see Bangladesh going all the way but the way they played (in patches) in England suggest that they may cause more than one upset, perhaps doing enough to derail another favourite. It will be interesting to see if Muttiah Muralitharan can be as effective as he once was in these conditions. I get the sense that he is not feared in the same way, although that might yet work in his favour. Harbajhan Singh is bowling well but India will need some good support for him, or teams will just sit on him and target the likes of Pathan, Jadeja or Mishra. India's fielding too will be crucial to their prospects.
New Zealand are always dangerous in World Cups, although they seem to lack the genuine depth of world-class players to go all the way. In subcontinent conditions, though, if Vettori is in top form and with clever use of medium-pacers on 'tired' pitches at the end of the tournament, they pose a credible threat. They bat deep, if not with any world-class pedigree but if it comes down to a scrap, New Zealand will fight to the death.
Pakistan are the big unknown. As always. The pitch conditions should pose no problems for them. It might just come down to whether the team dynamic is going through a smooth phase during that period or if there is yet another upheaval, either in the dressing room or at board level. They have the players to win it but they will need to soon start shedding the "unpredictable, mercurial, hot & cold" sort of reputation. The professional game cannot indulge such excuses, even though that is often what makes them such an alluring side to watch. For Pakistani supporters, I daresay they'd prefer a more predictable and bankable commodity at the expense of the usual roller-coaster ride.
Australia, of course, will probably enter the tournament as joint-favourites and rightly so. Their natural competitiveness and adaptability has always been their World Cup strength, coupled with big-match temperament. They might struggle on the spin-bowling front but Nathan Hauritz has continued to improve and they may yet be able to plug that gap effectively.
The reason I'm prepared to write off West Indies this early is because I don't think they have the depth of all-round talent to go even half the distance. Dwayne Bravo is probably their only genuine allrounder (especially now that Chris Gayle is reluctant to bowl 8-10 overs) and even their wicketkeeper bats too low and poorly when compared to just about every other team. Sure, Gayle might explode and win a game off his own bat but I don't think you can get to the last four on his relaxed shoulders. And their middle order plays spin too poorly.
Ironically enough, with all the exciting young talent coming through, it might still prove to be a World Cup decided by the one of the veterans. The peerless Sachin Tendulkar looms as one of the best bets for highest runs scored, Ricky Ponting is still the Australian wicket most prized and Mahela Jayawardene is probably the danger man for Sri Lanka. Many of the other top batsmen are not young men - Virender Sehwag, Pietersen, Brendon McCullum, Gayle, Jacques Kallis, Kumar Sangakkara, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Michael Hussey are closer to the end of their careers than the start. For some, it might be their last World Cup. Pakistan's batting talent seems to be in the hands of relatively young men. Umar Akmal and Salman Butt will need to score heavily for them to feature in the final wash-up. England too have a couple of young lions in Eoin Morgan and Craig Kieswetter who may provide a good foil for their older players.
Just as the 'other' World Cup nears its climax, I can't help but feel excited about the cricket version in 2011. It will make these next few months all the more interesting. Instead of watching meaningless ODI's that merge into anonymity, I'll be keeping an eagle eye on the form players and adjusting my predictions accordingly.
Coming through Johannesburg's international airport, there was a real sense of atmosphere in the air. Even when Bafana Bafana were eliminated in the first round, the locals shrugged their shoulders and kept smiling. They played the role of perfect hosts even in the face of disappointment. Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and India have always been renowned for their warm hospitality but I suspect the similarity will end there. For Sri Lanka and India, especially, exiting in the group stage will be nothing short of a calamity. For Bangladesh, their best bet may well be to play with freedom and gay abandon and see if their fanatical crowds can carry them past nervous opponents. For me, the most fascinating thing will be to see how Australia approach a tournament when they are not clear favourites. It's one thing convincing yourself that you're still the best but it's a lot easier to believe that when you know everyone else thinks that too. I suspect that may not necessarily be the case in 2011- which is what makes the next few months so important in fighting for those little psychological edges.
Anyone brave enough to make any predictions? I can't pick a clear favourite just yet. That's what makes a World Cup!
Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in BrisbaneFeeds: Michael Jeh
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Born in Colombo, educated at Oxford and now living in Brisbane, Michael Jeh (Fox) is a cricket lover with a global perspective on the game. An Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, he is a Playing Member of the MCC and still plays grade cricket. Michael now works closely with elite athletes, and is passionate about youth intervention programmes. He still chases his boyhood dream of running a wildlife safari operation called Barefoot in Africa.