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Warmup matches start amid last minute preparations

BRIDGETOWN, Barbados: It's been a long time coming to the Caribbean.

With construction ongoing at stadiums and infrastructure across the nine scattered venues, the West Indies begin the dress rehearsal phase of the World Cup in one of four warmup matches Monday.

The West Indies, winners of the first two cricket World Cups in 1975 and '79 in England and runnerup in '83, faces Kenya at Trelawny Stadium near Montego Bay.

No. 1-ranked South Africa plays Cup debutante Ireland at Trinidad, England is against Bermuda at St. Vincent and 1996 champion Sri Lanka takes on Scotland at the 3Ws Oval in Barbados in Monday's other matches.

Australia, seeking an unprecedented third consecutive World Cup title, had a boost Sunday with allrounder Andrew Symonds hitting a dozen cricket balls in a net practice.

Although Symonds will miss Tuesday's warmup match against Zimbabwe at St. Vincent and is still unlikely to return to action at least until Australia's March 24 Group match against South Africa.

India also features in warmups Tuesday against Netherlands, when New Zealand plays Bangladesh at Barbados and Pakistan takes on Canada at Trinidad.

The 16-match warmup stage finishes March 9 and the tournament proper starts March 13 with West Indies against Pakistan at Sabina Park in Jamaica.

Despite the West Indies position as the leading limited-overs team of the 1970s and early 1980s, the Caribbean has had to wait until last among the major cricket markets to host cricket's biggest event.

And the pressure is on the local team, which won the 2004 Champions Trophy tournament but has otherwise been in decline since its domination in the 80s.

No host has ever won the World Cup final, with South Africa eliminated after the first round at the last edition four years ago.

The South Africans are back at No. 1 now, helped by Australia's five-match losing stretch.

With pace spearhead Makhaya Ntini not arriving until later in the week, South Africa coach Mickey Arthur plans to use the Ireland match as a trial for his fast bowlers.

"Makhaya's absence gives an opportunity for Andre Nel, Andrew Hall and Charl Langeveldt to play together," Arthur told South African media. "They are basically vying for two places in our best team."

Although Arthur said the emphasis was still on winning the warmups.

"The way the fixtures have been structured means there won't be room for experimentation," said Arthur. "We want to be as clinical as possible. If we get on a roll and start winning we will take that momentum into the tournament."

South Africa and Australia have both complained about practice facilities so far and are investigating alternatives.

Australia has few options for its lineup in the warmups, with Symonds and opener Matt Hayden (broken toe) unavailable with injuries and vice-captain Adam Gilchrist arriving late following the birth of his third child.

Symonds made an earlier than expected return to practice, though, giving hope he could be fit during the group stage.

Australia has lost six of its seven matches since Symonds, who became an integral part of the XI in Australia's World Cup win in 2003, ruptured his right biceps and needed surgery early last month.

He hit some tennis balls in a brief throwdown session with coach John Buchanan on Saturday and extended that to plastic balls from the bowling machine and a dozen cricket balls on Sunday.

And he wanted every ball to count, yelling out "that one doesn't count" if he got a bad delivery at Arnos Vale.

Team physiotherapist Alex Kountouris said Symonds' rehab was progressing well.

"It's going to be the tricky bit but he has been doing all the right things now and it's looking really good," Kountouris said.

Symonds will start throwing and bowling over the next week or two with a view to returning for the South Africa match.

"We are not locked into that ... If he doesn't make it for the South Africa game, it doesn't mean things have gone badly," Kountouris said. "It's just that we haven't had the courage to push it any harder."

The West Indians will not take Kenya lightly on Monday. Despite not having full test status, Kenya was a surprise semifinalist at the 2003 World Cup and has former West Indies allrounder Roger Harper as coach.

And an upset 73-run loss to Kenya at the 1996 World Cup remains one of the cricket lowpoints for West Indies.

Harper promised the warmup match would be highly competitive, but ultimately the focus would be on preparation for the World Cup.

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