The runners and riders
Only three teams have ever had their name on the World Cup trophy - Australia, England and New Zealand. Is it time for a change? As the teams line up to do battle in South Africa, Jenny Thompson considers each side's chances and picks out the players to watch.
The undoubted favourites, Australia are desperate to get their hands on The World Cup after being pipped at the post by New Zealand in the close-fought final of 2000. Led by the indomitable Belinda Clark, they come into the World Cup on the back of a successful series against India, which they won 4-3. The hard-hitting Karen Rolton, Australia's Player of the Year, and the allrounder Lisa Keightley will be the ones to watch, while the world's fastest female bowler, Cathryn Fitzpatrick, will be on hand to lend both fire and experience.
"People who haven't seen England for a while will be in for a shock," insists the ECB media manager Andrea Wiggins. England's last outing in the World Cup resulted in their worst finish - fifth - but they've been building steadily since, and head to South Africa having defeated New Zealand 3-2 in their last one-day series. Their new approach - improved fitness, specialised coaching, more funding - could pay dividends, and they are now ranked second in the world. Watch out for the classy batsman Charlotte Edwards, and rookie allrounder Rosalie Birch.
Mercurial India can be brilliant or, quite frankly, poor as they tend to lose their heads, shape and their discipline - all at once. But they will take heart from winning the last two matches of the series against Australia in January - and, if their slow left-armer Neetu David is on the money, they could easily make the semi-finals.
Ireland had to pre-qualify as they ended up seventh in last World Cup - and they were hammered in their three one-dayers against New Zealand, such a drubbing prompting them into a harsh fitness regime. They have trained hard throughout the winter and are now in the ascendancy, with 14-year-old Jill Smythe, a medium-pacer and sharp fielder, their rising star. Realistically, however, a top-four finish would be more than credible.
Big, strong, mentally tough, and agile, New Zealand won't give up their trophy without a fight. The batsman Emily Drumm and wicketkeeper-batsman Rebecca Rolls, who were both part of the World Cup-winning side of 2000, will be the players to watch once more. They have a lot of individual talent, although they didn't cohere last summer against England. Can they bring it together in South Africa?
The hosts South Africa find themselves in a period of rebuilding and consolidation, and their hopes are carried by a young squad. Much rests On the shoulders of 15-year-old batsman Johmari Logtenberg, but she has youth and bags of ability on her side and is in a purple patch of domestic form. They have been working together for the last three months and are ready to take on all-comers as they bid to improve on their semi-final placing at the last World Cup.
A youthful Sri Lankan side have won only three matches in their last two World Cups, and they have never played in South Africa. They will rely on the experience of Hiruka Dilanthi Fernando, a top-order batsman, to spearhead their World Cup campaign but they are unlikely to emulate their male counterparts' efforts of 1996 by going all the way.
They failed to qualify for the last World Cup and their preparations for this one have been marred by financial concerns. However, a morale-boosting cash injection saved their campaign at the last minute and spirits are now high. A place in the final may be the stuff of dreams, but can their relentless optimism in the face of a nightmare build-up at least take them to the semis? (Probably not, but stranger things have happened.) They will rely on their opening bat Nadine George - "The Lion" - to roar into life and dispatch the opposition's bowlers with her fierce alacrity.