January 29, 2015

My heart says New Zealand, head South Africa

How the top eight teams stack up ahead of the World Cup, plus predictions for the knockouts

South Africa have the most balanced squad, but they need to manage the pressure moments better © AFP

Having digested New Zealand's World Cup chances, I will focus on the rest.

Firstly, I can't see past the eight major nations qualifying for the quarter-finals. The minnows are still way off the pace, although it would be romantic to see an upset or two in the opening few weeks. Could Ireland snare West Indies in Nelson?

The first of my gut feelings has to do with South Africa. They were dead unlucky in 1992 with crazy rain rules, and especially unlucky again in 1999. They had their chance to grab that tournament by knocking out Australia in Leeds in a Super Six match, but Herschelle Gibbs tried a circus act and "dropped the World Cup". Then they had another terrific chance to grab it again only days later, at Edgbaston, same opposition, only to feel it all evaporate in a hurry as they needed one run with four balls remaining. Allan Donald dropped his bat, was run out and that was that.

Four years later at home, they did the unthinkable, and not much has changed since. Yet now that AB de Villiers has become the world's most outrageous strokemaker there is reason to believe again. He stands on a pedestal as a man who can change a game in the blink of an eye. Along with Brendon McCullum, de Villiers is timing his run immaculately. These two leaders are the men I would love to see at the toss in Melbourne come March 29, if the draw will allow it.

South Africa also have Hashim Amla, a modern-day great player with a beautiful attitude to the game. He's the sort of guy you want to see succeed, oozing class from beard to toe. Quinton de Kock, Faf du Plessis, JP Duminy and David Miller are outstanding lieutenants with the bat. And who can go past the skill, experience and balance of Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel and Imran Tahir? It's an impressive line-up. The only question remaining is the actual execution of managing the pressure moments. I don't see de Villiers gasping for air this time around, for he has shown often lately that he completes all transactions on the field. His new-found maturity will rub off, and that's why I rate them as favourites to go to Melbourne.

Dark horses? England are capable of pulling off a few surprises © Getty Images

Co-hosts Australia should be highly competitive, yet I see a few critical holes in their line-up. It has come as a surprise that Michael Clarke has been given so few matches in which to resume his place in the side, and importantly, his position as captain. Frankly I can't see Australia winning the high-pressure matches without Clarke at the helm tactically. If I was Rod Marsh, I would be happy if Clarke played the last two round-robin games, another two weeks after the ultimatum already in place. There appears a strange cooling by Cricket Australia towards Clarke, potentially a major mistake in their hour of need.

Australia also have no genuine spinner and so their over rate will always be under threat and a nuisance to deal with. For teams to progress they must take wickets in the middle period and this is where Australia look vulnerable. Balance is everything, and without a top-class spinner, they look exposed. Overall, they have enough distractions around them to upset their focus when it matters.

All the subcontinent teams lack the fielding and bowling firepower to win it outright in foreign conditions. India will have their moments with the bat, but they are an average, inexperienced bowling side at present, and a well-grooved defence is of vital importance under pressure.

Sri Lanka have experience yet they too lack the skill in the seam bowling department, with real concerns over Lasith Malinga's fitness. After a wonderful year, Sri Lanka seem to be imploding with political influences playing a part in some of their selections. It is inexplicable that they haven't found some worthy supporting acts to support their big three in their final outing. Without Upul Tharanga, they must open with Mahela Jayawardene so he can use the pace of the ball for the outset.

Pakistan simply lack the X-factor and will ebb and flow as per usual, but they do have a developing side, with plenty of fearless youth to support their three ageing veterans. They will entertain; I'm just not sure they can galvanise and unify when under the pump.

This leaves England and West Indies. Of the top eight, these two come in with little backing. Yet that can be a great position from which to surprise. Hovering under the radar in a format like this one will allow for more expression and fearlessness. Or things could go drastically pear-shaped as predicted.

Australia's chances will suffer if Michael Clarke is absent for the high-pressure matches © Getty Images

England are one-dimensional with their bowling but they have in James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Steven Finn genuine wicket-takers on their day. Not picking Ben Stokes looks to be an error, as he has a way more all-round game than Ravi Bopara in the No. 7 spot. For some odd reason, I think England will play well. Perhaps it's because my heart wants them to do well without the tattooed one.

Young Jason Holder has been thrown a shocking hospital pass only weeks out. How Clive Lloyd thought a 23-year-old would manage his first hours as a new captain in the intense cauldron of a World Cup is beyond me. It makes no sense to have left out Dwayne Bravo, let alone as captain. All this upheaval makes it hard to think they have any hope, but funnier things have happened. If Chris Gayle or Marlon Samuels get in the right mood, they will be a cause for concern for any opponent. A massive if.

In summary, these are my top four:

South Africa have the best collection of players and only need a run of luck and unrelenting belief and they should go far. New Zealand have a wonderful spirit and respect for the game, and home advantage will benefit their well-balanced squad. Australia will have their gander up and will aggressively fight tooth and nail for fresh winds, but if they lose Clarke, they lose a mainsail. England are not to be underestimated: they have capable cricketers and there is always a silver lining, though their stitching hangs by a thread. Often after a rough storm, the clearing skies provide a new lease of life. Beware the hungry lion coming from behind.

At a rough guess, assuming that both hosts get to play at home no matter where they finish in pool play, the quarters may read: New Zealand (A1) to beat West Indies (B4) in Wellington, Australia (A2) to beat Pakistan (B3) in Melbourne, England (A3) to beat India (B2) in Adelaide, Sri Lanka (A4) to lose to South Africa (B1) in Sydney. Semis to be: New Zealand beating England in Auckland, Australia losing to South Africa in Sydney.

So I'm picking a new champion to be crowned. My heart says the Black Caps, my head suggests the Proteas.

Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s and early '90s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand

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