All to play for in Pretoria

After months of intense preparation, the eighth women's World Cup kicks off today in South Africa and, as Australia's captain Belinda Clark told Cricinfo: "It should be a great competition."
Well, yes it should - but just who will be watching? In 1997, crowds of 80,000 flocked to Eden Gardens to see Australia defeat New Zealand, while Cricinfo live-streamed the next event, in 2000, from New Zealand.

But this World Cup, based in and around Pretoria, could struggle to attract decent crowds - the women's game is still very much in its infancy in South Africa - so much so that free tickets are being offered for all matches. The exception is the final, at Centurion, where a ringside seat to watch the world's finest compete for ultimate supremacy will set punters back just R20 (£1.80).

Yet on display in the tournament will be a former Wisden Cricketer of the Year, Clark, among others. Clark's Australia are in dominant mood, with an ominous will. "Our motivation is that we don't hold the World Cup," Clark adds. They're certainly going about reclaiming it in the best possible fashion: they beat India recently 4-3 and last week won all three matches against New Zealand to claim the Rose Bowl.

It was not the only defeat suffered by the current World Cup holders, New Zealand, in the build-up: they also lost 3-2 in England last summer. England rose to second in the world on the back of that series: have they peaked at the right moment? The signs are good. They rolled over the hosts South Africa in their two-match warm-up, and butchered two Gauteng representative sides, one by 368 runs and the other by ten wickets with a whopping 44 overs to spare. But England know there are significant tests ahead - starting with Australia in their first warm-up match.

"Everyone is a threat," England's allrounder Clare Taylor told Cricinfo. And she should know - this is her fifth World Cup. "Anyone can win in a one-off game. It all depends what happens on the day." "It's going to be a tough schedule," says Ireland's manager and former player, Sandra Dawson. She isn't wrong: each of the eight teams faces a gruelling seven matches in 13 days - and that's just for starters.

The teams play each other on a round-robin basis, with the top four qualifying for the semi-finals. Ireland would love to reach the last four: but their goal is a more realistic top-six finish, which will guarantee them automatic qualification for the next tournament. They haven't played a one-day international since New Zealand hammered them 3-0 last summer and they know that they are far from finalist material.

The final itself will be held at SuperSport Park, Centurion, on April 10, but the preliminary matches provide some less attractive venues: some grounds are even situated on a roundabout. But after the merry-go-round that was West Indies' preparations, the Caribbean side are just grateful to be taking part at all.

Since pre-qualifying in Holland in 2003 they have faced an uphill struggle to secure the sponsorship. On paper, they are the weakest side: they have only one centurion in their number - Nadine George. But their financial difficulties could have a galvanic effect, although the semi-finals would be a more realistic ambition.

The likely last four are Australia, New Zealand, England and India, with hosts South Africa the other team in the frame. Whether anyone will be there to see it is a different matter.