Who will win the Cup?
The World Cup of cricket, the one in the middle and the one between the respected Test and the popular T20 formats of the game, is back on stage. It is under way, and it is flexing its muscles.
It promises, even in the absence of spin wizard Sunil Narine but with the preponderance of top-class batsmen, and the number of fast-scoring batsmen at that, to be one of the most exciting in its 40-year-old history.
Always the showpiece of the game, the World Cup, played once every four years, is a game which caters to the thrill of victory. There are no drawn matches, and it is a format in which in all departments of the game - batting, bowling, and fielding - are under the microscope, especially the glorious art of batting.
In the past, batsmen like Alvin Kallicharran, Clive Lloyd, Viv Richards, Brian Lara, Kapil Dev, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist, Aravinda de Silva Sanath Jayasuriya, John Davison, and Herschelle Gibbs have thrilled millions of fans with their brilliant and fantastic displays.
I remember The Oval in 1975 when Kallicharran blasted Dennis Lillee in an innings of 78 with 35 coming off 10 deliveries from the feared pacer - 4,4,4,4,4,1,4,6,0.4; I remember Lord's in the final of 1979 when Collis King played a scintillating innings of 86; I remember Tunbridge Wells in 1983 when India were 78 for seven and Dev rescued them with an innings of 175 not out off 138 deliveries with 16 fours and six sixes; and I remember Centurion Park in 2003 when Davison of Canada blasted the West Indies bowling for 111 with eight fours and six sixes off 76 deliveries, and not another batsman getting to 20.
I also remember Lasith Malinga's four wickets in four deliveries, Gibbs slamming six sixes in one over in St. Kitts in 2007.
This time around, however, the fireworks should come from batsmen such as AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla of South Africa, Brendan McCullum and Kane Williamson of New Zealand, Virat Kohli and Ajinka Rahane of India, Michael Clarke, David Warner, and Steve Smith of Australia, Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan of Pakistan, Chris Gayle and Marlon Samuels of the West Indies, and a host of gifted newcomers.
To them is the task of winning friends with their exciting batting just as it is the job of teams like Australia, South Africa, and India to remind of the West Indies in 1975 and New Zealand in 1979 in the field, and of players like Andre Russell, Darren Sammy, Dwayne Smith, and Steve Smith to bring back memories of the likes of Richards, Lloyd, Jonty Rhodes, Roger Harper, Faoud Bacchus, and Gibbs, etcetera, etcetera, also in the field.
The World Cup, however, was more than individual brilliance, especially whenever it includes the skill of bowlers like Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Joel Garner, Denis Lillee, Jeff Thompson, Shane Warne, Glen McGrath, Chaminda Vaas, Malinga, Muttiah Muralitheran, Wasim Akram and Saqlain Mushtaq.
Over the years, there has been one burning question, and it has always been, who will win the Cup?
This time, will it be Australia for the fifth time, West Indies for the third time, India for the third time, Pakistan for the second time, and Sri Lanka also the second time, or will it be England, who have been to the final on three occasions but have never won it, or will it be South Africa or New Zealand, who have never been to the final but who have been close and who look dangerous, very dangerous, this time around?
Australia, as the co-hosts and with Clarke, Smith, Warner, Shane Watson, Aaron Finch, and George Bailey as batsmen, Mitchell Johnson, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, and Pat Cummins as fast bowlers, plus all-rounders like James Faulkner and Glen Maxwell, look good, and although they are playing away from home, so do India, with batsmen like Kohli, Rahane, Sharma, Raina, Dhawan, and Mahendra Singh Dhoni, and bowlers such as Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umar Yadav, Ravi Ashwin, and Ravindra Jadeja.
SOUTH AFRICA HOT
South Africa, the number one ranked team to many, are hot. With their batting to come from Amla, de Villiers, Faf Du Plessis, David Miller, Quinton de Kock, Rilee Roussaw, and JP Duminy, and their bowling from Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander, and Imran Tahir, they could shrug off the tag as chokers.
Those are the top three, the people's favourites, followed by Pakistan with batsmen Misbah-ul-Haq, Younis Khan, and Umar Akmal, and pacers Mohammed Irfan and Wahab Riaz, and leg-spinner Shahidi Afridi, by Sri Lanka with their experience batsmen Kumar Sangarakka, Mahela Jayawardene, and Tillakaratne Dilshan, their ace sling bowler, Malinga, and their all-rounder Angelo Matthews, and by England, who will be relying on Eoin Morgan, Joe Root, and Ian Bell to get their runs and James Anderson and Stuart Broad, as usual, Steve Flynn, and Chris Jordan to pick up their wickets.
The outsiders, however, are the New Zealanders. The "Kiwis" have always been there or thereabouts in the past. They are playing at home, or partly at home, and they boast a well conditioned team, a team of McCullum, Williamson, Taylor, and Martin Guptil as batsmen, Corey Anderson as an all-rounder, Tim Southee and Trent Boult as speedsters, and Daniel Vettori as a left-arm spinner.
Many, however, particularly West Indians and especially those who remember the glory days of 1975, 1979, and even 1983, are hoping and praying that the West Indies can, somehow, crash the party and steal the Cup, despite, and on top of everything else, what happened against Scotland a day or so ago.
At number eight in the one-day ranking, with their history of losing everything to everyone that matters over the past 20 years or so, and with the absence of Narine, that is hardly likely, though not impossible.
It is not impossible because, despite recent performances, they possess batsmen in the likes of power-hitters Gayle, Samuels, and Dwayne Smith, all-rounders of such power, with the bat, as Andre Russell and Darren Sammy, a fast bowler like Kemar Roach, if he is fit, and others like Jerome Taylor, Jason Holder, and even Sheldon Cottrell.
On their day, and mostly because of their batsmen, they can be awesome, especially if they field brilliantly, and if they play as one.
It is important to note the format of the tournament.
Each group consists of seven teams, one of the rules of the World Cup calls for the first four from each group to qualify for the quarter-finals, apart from South Africa, India, and Pakistan, Group B includes Zimbabwe, Ireland, and United Arab Emirates, and that after the qualification process, it becomes a knockout tournament.
Barring a major upset, therefore, the West Indies should reach the quarter-finals, and it is one match at a time for the Cup from thereon.
It seems, however, if all goes well, especially for South Africa, and despite the contest being held mostly in Australian territory, that it will be, or should be, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and India to finish in that order, with the West Indies missing out once again.