SPORTS

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February 25, 2003

Cricket World Cup begins at long last; Australia is favored

Cricket fans all over the world celebrated this month when the International Cricket Council World Cup (ICCWC) finally got underway in South Africa. Since the last tournament in England in 1999, there are a few new faces in international cricket, such as Canada and Namibia, but the usual suspects are still around. Three of the traditional heavyweights--Australia, India and Pakistan--arrived with varying degrees of confidence. Yet expectations remain high and, in each case, nothing short of a championship will satisfy the fans. With the added bonus of a Pakistan-India game to look forward to, we are guaranteed plenty of fan fervor over the next six weeks.

As a neutral trying to pick a winner, it's difficult to look further than reigning champions and pre-tournament favorites Australia. They have an awesome blend of experience and talent, and their form over the last year or so has been solid. Witness their destruction of South Africa in the seven-match series last year, a side many predicted would provide the most difficult test for the Australians. It is difficult to pinpoint the main source of Australia's brilliance, since there are so many, but their depth is definitely up there. Their batting is consistently excellent, and they don't have to rely on one or two performers. Adam Gilchrist and skipper Ricky Ponting form arguably the most feared opening partnership in modern one-day cricket, but even having taken their wickets, you'd still have to contend with the likes of Damien Martyn and Matthew Hayden. Pakistan had them on the ropes at 86 runs off four wickets, but up stepped Andrew Symonds from nowhere to secure a century and the win.

But every batting lineup has an off day, and eventually someone might bowl out the Australians for 200. Any celebration would be strictly premature, though, as the Australian attack is also the best in the world. Again, depth and experience are key, with the ever-brilliant Glen McGrath having both in spades. The loss of influential spinner Shane Warne at the beginning of the tournament was enough to raise a few doubts about how the Australians would cope, but they have responded with outstanding performances such as the nine-wicket victory over the Indians, which was built around bowling the Indians out for 125. Young paceman Brett Lee is finally beginning to fulfill his potential, and both he and Jason Gillespie have shown competence with both bat and ball to ensure that the tail end of the batting lineup wags frequently. The icing on the cake for the Australians is their supreme athleticism and professionalism. Their fielders are the fastest, their injuries the least frequent and their attitude and composure are second to none.

So where does that leave the Indians? Despite their thrashing at the hands of the Australians, they still remain a good bet to do well, owing primarily to their strong batting order. The star is undoubtedly Sachin Tendulkar, perhaps the best batsman in the world at this moment. His technique is breathtaking and he is a pleasure to watch. His statistics tell the tale of many a slain bowler: 11,000 one-day runs, 9,000 test runs, over 25 centuries in both, and a batting average over 50. He formed the only opposition in the otherwise limp performance against the Australians, but only a fool would dismiss the ability of skipper Sourav Ganguly and batsman Rahul Dravid. The latter, in particular, has had a great year and was nipping at the heels of Englishman Michael Vaughan in the race for top batsmen of 2002. The final of the 2002 Natwest series at Lord's in London is a classic example of the ability of the Indian batsmen to turn a match on its head. England batted first and scored 325 runs with the help of centuries by Nasser Hussain and Marcus Trescothick. India picked the gauntlet up and threw it firmly back at England by scoring a two-wicket victory, secured in the last over of a gripping match.

The key weakness for India, however, is their bowling. Paceman Zaheer Khan is simply not good enough; he floundered in the three-match test series in England during September 2002. While spinners Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble are of top quality, one-day cricket has never been the best friend of spin bowling. Both can take wickets, but they give up too many runs.

Pakistan has long been one of the most talented teams in cricket, yet since their glorious victory in the 1992 World Cup, they have frequently lacked cohesion and professionalism. Their strengths and weaknesses complement those of the Indians, which leads to fierce competition when the two meet. Fast bowler Shoaib Akhtar is a typical Pakistani player: hugely talented and able to match anyone on good days, but liable to lose focus at any moment. Recall his withdrawal from the Pakistani team last summer on grounds of fatigue and injury, which coincided with a mercenary appearance for a famous British pub side. Yet with Akhtar as part of a three-pronged pace attack with veteran Wasim Akram and skipper Waqar Younis, and flanked by the guile of spinner Saqlain Mushtaq, Pakistan can intimidate even the most formidable batsman.

Pakistan's problem lies in the batting; the linup is not inept, but it is decidedly unspectacular. Somebody needs to tell Shahid Afridi that you hold a bat with two hands. And England, a side not renowned for its bowling, crushed the Pakistani batsmen.

So who will win? Probably the Australians, but the Indians and even the temperamental Pakistanis shouldn't be ruled out, nor should the plucky Sri Lankans. But for the Indians and Pakistanis, the real competition will be in their grudge match. As usual, decorum goes out the window. The almost ritualistic burning of players' effigies in India this week means that one hopes that, for the sake of the players, the match finishes a draw.

Cricket enthusiasts can watch the ICCWC matches at the I-House for a small donation, or at the Subway on 55th Street and Hyde Park Boulevard for free. Matches typically start at 2 a.m.