Plenty to gain in a West Indian win
If there is an opportunity for this tournament's profile to slip any further it lies in Sunday's match in Guyana. Too much has already been taken away from the World Cup. Murder and the talk surrounding it has left a bad taste in the mouth. The teams with the biggest followings have been dismissed in the first round. Locals, alienated by the prices and culture and of this sanitised mega-event, have stayed away from even those games featuring the home side. What enthusiasm there remains in the Caribbean for their, and cricket's, showpiece spectacle is in danger of evaporating completely should the home team be knocked out before half the competition has finished.
A West Indian loss to Sri Lanka will not technically conclude their semi-finals aspirations, but will certainly make the prospect extremely difficult. Not only will they then need to win three on the run, but will also have to hope all other permutations going their way. Conversely, a revived Windies team hold the potential to inspire fans to rally round them and infuse some much-need energy into the event, on the street and on the radio, in mini-buses and in rum shops - and, it is hoped, in the stands too.
Organisers expect a big turnout for tomorrow's game, but Brian Lara's current worries go beyond noise from the crowd. In familiar fashion, Lara chose an extraordinarily eccentric XI for Thursday's dismal surrender to New Zealand, leaving out prime bowling firepower in the form of Jerome Taylor in order to play an inexperienced opening batsman in Lendl Simmons at No. 8.
Having digested the line-up on the team sheet, Andy Roberts, one of the three selectors, went on record to say: "I can't find the words to describe it. If you play an extra batsman at No. 8, he has to be able to bowl. All I can say is that Simmons must have changed roles since I last saw him."
Lara's response to that had been that, "I can simply say to Andy Roberts that I did not select this World Cup squad. I was not there in the meeting. The team was selected without me. But I still go out there and fight my very best with the squad given to me." He was still in a fighting mood in Guyana two days later: "I was caught by surprise at the press conference. I was surprised and shocked that things like that need to be spoken about in public. It's not healthy."
Something is terribly off in West Indies cricket if captain and selectors repeatedly and publicly fall out. In last year's tour of the Caribbean by India, weeks of grumbling from Lara culminated in a colossal salvo against the selection committee. He was appointed for a third term as captain to provide a sense of elderly calm before the World Cup, but the constant tussle with Lara and administrators has rather undermined the rationale. Quite apart from the selection clashes has been the long-running contracts dispute with the board.
If the atmosphere has been less than inspirational behind the scenes, it has was scarcely more encouraging in Antigua's new stadium during the week, where stands were about quarter full for marquee West Indies encounters.
"Even if you have empty stadiums and no contracts, this is still the World Cup," Lara shrugged. "If you're a professional, you should be able to play under any circumstances."
West Indies have enough on their plate without the own goals. Though they eventually reached the finals of that tournament, the last time they Indies played Sri Lanka they were bowled out on a low pitch at Mumbai in the Champions Trophy for 80. Coming on second change, Farveez Maharoof, the medium-pacer, took 6 for 14. Two batsmen reached double figures. Sri Lanka hunted the target in 13 overs.
The surface at the Providence Stadium is more temperate than then, one that will still suit Sri Lanka. Coach Tom Moody has promised a better batting performance than in their tense loss to South Africa on Wednesday.
"We know that we really only competed in about 30 per cent of that game," he said. "It was only because of a brilliant spell of four balls that made it look a lot closer than it was. We know that we didn't bat as well as we could have upfront. Thankfully [Russell] Arnold and [Tillakaratne] Dilshan gave us the opportunity to compete in the match. But we will be looking for a hell of a better batting performance at the top end."
West Indies (probable) 1 Chris Gayle, 2 Shivnarine Chanderpaul, 3 Brian Lara (capt), 4 Ramnaresh Sarwan, 5 Marlon Samuels, 6 Dwayne Bravo, 7 Dwayne Smith, 8 Denesh Ramdin (wk), 9 Ian Bradshaw, 10 Daren Powell, 11 Jerome Taylor.
Sri Lanka (probable) 1 Upul Tharanga, 2 Sanath Jayasuriya, 3 Mahela Jayawardene (capt), 4 Kumar Sangakkara (wk), 5 Chamara Silva, 6 Russel Arnold, 7 Tillakaratne Dilshan, 8 Chaminda Vaas, 9 Farveez Maharoof, 10 Muttiah Muralitharan, 11 Lasith Malinga.
Rahul Bhattacharya is contributing editor of Cricinfo Magazine and author of Pundits from Pakistan: On Tour with India, 2003-04