By John Mehaffey BASSETERRE, St Kitts, Reuters
World Cup team combinations and bookmakers’ odds are being hastily reassessed as the 16 teams travel to their respective islands for the opening round starting on Tuesday. A week of warm-up matches has confirmed that pitches in the West Indies, once the hunting grounds for a conveyor belt of express bowlers, now resemble those on the Indian sub-continent. “Slow bowlers are going to play a part,” Ricky Ponting, the captain of defending champions Australia, told reporters this week. “We just have to look at the makeup of the West Indies’ side during the last 12 months. “They had Chris Gayle and Marlon Samuels bowling a lot for them during the middle. That would suggest they are preparing to bowl in a World Cup.” Predictions that the short boundaries would lead to a flurry of big-hitting and, possibly, the first team score in excess of 500, have also been revised with batsmen constantly having to check their shots to counter the slow and sometimes variable bounce. Australia are still favourites to win the Cup for an unprecedented successive third time, despite their recent blip in form when they lost five matches in a row to England and New Zealand. They have a long list of attacking batsmen, headed by Ponting and Adam Gilchrist, varied bowling and consistently excellent fielding.
But South Africa, who struggled to defeat Ireland then lost to Pakistan, and who will field their customary array of fast-medium bowlers, look over-priced at second place ahead of Sri Lanka. For their part, Sri Lanka could not have asked for better conditions 11 years after beating Australia in the 1996 World Cup final in Lahore. Sanath Jayasuriya, who redefined the role of opening bat in 1996, could still be the most valuable one-day player in the world with his explosive left-hand batting and canny, flat leg-spin while Muttiah Muralitharan has the control to bowl a series of two-over spells without offering a loose ball. After sweeping West Indies aside on Friday in their final warm-up game, India will also relish the conditions as will Pakistan, who remain the most unpredictable team in world cricket. Pakistan meet West Indies in Tuesday’s opening match in Jamaica, a game which will determine who will carry two invaluable points through to the Super Eights round. Two days later England play New Zealand in the key Group C clash while India meet Sri Lanka in Group B on March 23 followed by Australia against South Africa in Group A. West Indies captain Brian Lara, on the eve of the biggest tournament of his life, told the cricinfo Web site (www.cricinfo.com) he did not think Australia were guaranteed to get any further than the semi-finals “which is still two big, big matches away from winning the final”.