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Australia vs South Africa for title

Cricket's eighth World Cup looks a two horse race between defending champion Australia and host South Africa.

india Updated: Feb 08, 2003 01:32 IST
PTI

Cricket's eighth World Cup looks a two horse race between defending champion Australia and host South Africa.

The bookmakers say so. So do the Australian and South African fans.

And that's despite the impressive track records of West Indies, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka who have all won the title since the competition was first played in 1975.

When the trophy is handed over March 23 at the Wanderers' stadium, Johannesburg, it's probably going to either Australian batsman Ricky Ponting or South African allrounder Shaun Pollock. The simple reason is that Australia and South Africa are the top two teams in world cricket and both are probably best suited to the hard, fast wickets in the host country.

India, with Sachin Tendulkar still its star player, and Waqar Younis' Pakistan likely will make the semfinals.

West Indies, with Brian Lara back to full fitness and trying to recapture the record-breaking form of nine years ago, is an outside bet for the title. Sri Lanka, winner in 1996, has an experienced batting lineup and mesmerizing spin bowler Muttiah Muralitharan. But don't expect England to be in the final four. The nation that hosted four of the previous three World Cups and has been in three finals, has never won the title and doesn't look like doing it this time either.

Outplayed 4-1 by Australia in the recent Ashes test series and then soundly beaten by the Aussies in a one-day competition, Nasser Hussain and his team has arrived in South Africa low on confidence despite some standout batting by Michael Vaughan, the world's top scorer in tests during 2002.

They also found themselves at the heart of a political wrangle over whether they should play their game in Zimbabwe. The British government, which has accused the regime of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe of human rights atrocities, called on Hussain and his players not to go to Harare for the Feb. 13 game.

Unfortunately for the players, their employer, the England and Wales Cricket Board, backed the organizers' stand that Zimbabwe was safe to host its six games. While in Australia, Hussain and his players received threats from Mugabe opponents that they would disrupt the game.

With the fear of violence increasing, the players appealed to the ECB to change its mind and on Thursday the board requested the technical committee of the game's world governing body, the International Cricket Council, to review security in Zimbabwe. If the ICC says the game goes ahead in Harare, the England players may boycott the match and forfeit the four points. That would give Heath Streak and his talented but unpredictable team a head start in the competition where three teams advance from each of the two groups of seven.

Australia is also thinking over its game against Zimbabwe in Bulawayo but looks like going. India and Pakistan are also in the tougher of the two groups and have confirmed they will play there. The Netherlands and Namibia are in the same group but are expected to be among the first teams eliminated anyway.

With a star-studded lineup including opener Matthew Hayden, pacemen Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee and legspinner Shane Warne, Australia has no weaknesses.

Backing up Tendulkar on the Indian batting lineup are Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid and team captain Sourav Ganguly while the bowling stars are spinners Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh. If Pakistan is to win the title and make up for its dismal performance in the 1999 final at Lord's, it will rely on burly batting star Inzamam-ul-Haq to dominate the bowlers throughout the championship. Younis and Shoaib Akhtar have the pace to soften up Zimbabwe, England Netherlands and Namibia but could struggle against Australia and India.

Over in Group B, South Africa comes up against the West Indies _ winners of the first two championships in 1975 and '79 _ Sri Lanka, New Zealand and minnows Bangladesh, Kenya and Canada. Realistically, South Africa, West Indies, Sri Lanka and New Zealand will fight over three second round places. Playing on home turf, the South Africans are under extreme pressure to win the title for the first time and make up for its last over blunder against Australia four years ago. Lance Klusener, having put his team in a winning position with 31 quick runs, went for a match winning single with four balls to spare and ran out teammate Allan Donald. The game was tied but Australia went on to reach the final and crushed Pakistan to win the title for the second time.

Although Klusener is back to made amends, he is no longer the force he was then, and South Africa will rely on other stars such as Pollock, Jacques Kallis, Herschelle Gibbs and Jonty Rhodes. Donald, the victim of that disastrous blunder, acknowledges the pressure of a sports mad nation

"All South Africans will expect us to win the win the World Cup. You can only take one game at a time," he said.

"We had a nice chat with Francois Pienaar who was captain of the 1995 rugby team who won the World Cup here in South Africa. He spoke to us about the pressure and what to expect from them. "They're sports mad and he told us about the pressures both on the field and off the field as well," Donald said. "But we can only take it day by day and game by game. We're not going to shoot out of the hip, saying we're going to win the World Cup. "I think the South African public will expect us to win the World Cup and, so far as I can say, I think we have a very good chance."

The West Indies has reshaped its batting lineup with Ramnaresh Sarwan and Chris Gayle teaming up with Lara, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, team captain Carl Hooper and opener Wavel Hinds. They also hope that World Cup organizers will allow them to recall Marlon Samuels after positive news about his injured left knee.

Sri Lanka's batting strength is based on team captain and opener Sanath Jayasuriya, Marvan Atapattu, Hashan Tillakaratne and veteran Aravinda De Silva. It's matchwinner could be Muralitharan, whose suspect bowling action has been cleared by the ICC in the past and who has the ability to take wickets even on unhelpful batting strips.

New Zealand made the semifinal four years ago and, in Stephen Fleming, Nathan Astle, Craig McMillan, Chris Harris and the veteran Chris Cairns, has the ability to certainly reach the Super Six. The six qualifiers for the second phase play each other in another round robin format, carrying forward their first round results, with four teams then making it to the semifinals.