Hosts hope calm is not followed by a storm
By Mike Atherton, Sunday Telegraph
Last Updated: 3:43am GMT 12/03/2007
Chris Dehring, the man ultimately responsible for the organisation and smooth running of the Word Cup, was in Kiplingesque mode on the eve of the tournament when he suggested that it would be either "the very best thing that happens to the Caribbean or the very worst". Whether West Indians would treat those twin imposters with equanimity is very much in doubt. There is too much - self-esteem, principally - at stake.
The early signs are promising. Notwithstanding a small hiccup at Trelawny Stadium in Jamaica, when groundstaff who had not been given accreditation were unable to gain admission to the ground before one of the warm-up matches, things have gone smoothly so far. There have been no nightmarish tales of delayed or cancelled flights, lost baggage, horrendous queues at immigration or stadiums ill-prepared for matches to add grist to the mill for those who are looking for the Caribbean to fall flat on its face.
On the field, events have taken a surprising turn or two: the gas leak at the Trinidad Hilton which affected Pakistan and South Africa last week has not been the only scare suffered by the 'Super 8' nations. Bangladesh surprised New Zealand and Ireland gave notice that they cannot be underestimated.
Nevertheless, by the time the opening skirmishes are complete, the Super 8 phase ought to consist of the top eight teams in the world. Only the improving Bangladesh team have a realistic chance to upset the odds.
From the second stage onwards this World Cup should provide the most interesting and entertaining cricket since the Australia/New Zealand tournament 15 years ago. The six Super 8 matches played by each nation who reach the second stage ought to be hotly contested and, by its end, the seeded teams will have all played against each other. There should be no complaints from those eliminated before the semi-finals because the format means the last four will have arrived strictly on merit. From then on luck will play its part, as it always does in knock-out cricket.
Who, then, are favoured to make the semi-finals? Much depends on the conditions and, since so much of the cricket will be played on new grounds and new pitches, forecasting is a hazardous business. The early pitches have been slow and if they remain so the sub-continental teams, especially India and Sri Lanka, will be favoured. The loss of Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif should be enough to halt the Pakistan charge, but they may still be good enough to make a semi-final berth.
But the relevance of these warm-up matches is questionable, played as they have been on grounds that will not feature as the tournament progresses. The 3 W's ground in Barbados, for example, has been home from home for Sri Lanka (despite their loss on Friday to New Zealand) - slow, dusty and offering plenty of turn.
But domestic matches that have been played on the Kensington Oval, which will host the Super 8 games in Barbados, suggest that the quicker bowlers will enjoy the kind of pace and bounce they once took for granted in the Caribbean. In such conditions teams like South Africa and Australia will come to the fore.
And what of England? Well, it doesn't need this columnist to talk up their chances as the England players have been doing plenty of that these last couple of weeks. Paul Nixon has been quoted everywhere, proving to be as chirpy and garrulous off the field as he is on it. "We've got some good characters who can stand up and be counted. Let's bring it on," he enthused. Even Michael Vaughan has found the opportunity to trumpet his squad's claims too good to miss: "We are talking a good game at the minute, and rightly so."
Well, up to a point, skipper. England have their best chance for a long time to make an impact, but only because of the general frailty of the rest. England's own preparations since the last World Cup - the last fortnight in Australia aside - have been completely shambolic and if preparation is a prerequisite for success then they have little chance. Bowling, both the consistency of it and lack of penetration, is surely too big an Achilles heel for them to go all the way. Only a short while ago Duncan Fletcher said that he felt his squad to be a year behind in their preparations, a hardly enthusiastic but probably accurate assessment.
The semi-finalists, then? At the risk of looking extremely foolish, I take Australia, India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
For most in this region, though, if it is not to be the home side (and after their abject performance against India on Friday it would take a brave man to back the West Indies) the identity of the ultimate winners is insignificant compared to the staging of a successful tournament. While the local organising committees are keen to see things like efficiency and security match up to elsewhere, it is important that the special aroma of watching cricket in the Caribbean is not lost.
The usual carnival atmosphere will not be easy to create, given the Gestapo-like rules and regulations that confront every spectator. When I took my son to watch a warm-up match this week we could not even take a bottle of water into the ground, never mind the usual paraphernalia of conches, whistles, horns, Eskies, ice and shedloads of rum that West Indian supporters traditionally associate with a day out at the cricket.
Still, taking a sneak preview of the new ground in Antigua this week, it was reassuring to note that whoever designed it had the Caribbean spectator in mind. Away to the left of the new pavilion there is a beach front, a plunge pool and a wooden-decked disco area for Chickie, formerly the king of the Antigua Recreation Ground, to recreate the unique atmosphere that has always characterised watching cricket in the Caribbean.
Those who have worked tirelessly to bring together a world-class tournament spread over nine sovereign nations - an unbelievably complex task - should carry our best wishes.
Pakistan ! Nay...I don't think so...and I'm a Pakistani! The format of the World Cup requires consistency...something the Pakistan team has lacked at the best of times. My final four:
I see every expert is writing off the chances of the number 1 ranked team in the world. South africa have an excellent record in the Carribean and will make the semis.
Well said Athers!
Who is Mike Atherton to pontificate about shambolic preparations and comment on who has whatever chances of getting to the semis?
In the interest of accuracy, I believe Mr Dehring was being Dickensian not Kiplingesque.
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