Millennium Post

It's show time!

While Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Co’s prowess to defend the title will be put to severe test, Australia will aim to become only the second country after India (2011) to win the World Cup on home soil with the final scheduled at Melbourne Cricket Ground on March 29. The 14-nation quadrangular championship will also give South Africa a chance to shred its perennial under-achievers’ tag, besides showcasing the fairytale debut of the conflict-driven Afghanistan.

The International Cricket Council (ICC) first organised the ODI world event, Prudential Cup, involving eight teams, in June 1975, ironically just three months after the death of Englishman Neville Cardus, arguably the greatest author to write on the charm of Test cricket. Down the years, not only the number of participating nations have gone up, the game itself went through sea changes, multiplying the thrill, money and appeal of the cricketing extravaganza.

The present edition comprises 14 teams, like 2011 in India, which are divided into two pools of seven each. Each team in a group would play all the others and the top four from each group  will proceed to the quarterfinals. There are 14 venues in total, seven each in Australia and New Zealand.

Loaded with free-stroking batsmen but missing match-winning bowlers, Dhoni’s India will look to chase down, rather than defend the World Cup title they won four years ago. With Rohit Sharma, the only batsman with two 200s in one-day internationals, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Suresh Raina and the explosive Dhoni, India possess destructive batting firepower. But the frail bowling attack remains a worry, as was evident during the recent Test series in Australia where the hosts piled up 500-plus totals in each of the four matches during a 2-0 win.

Former captain Sunil Gavaskar recently lashed out at the present set of seamers comprising Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Umesh Yadav, saying India needed to unearth new bowlers. “You can’t keep them going because they have done nothing in the past few years. They are not penetrative enough and it did not look as if they wanted to take 20 wickets,” Gavaskar said.

The seam attack will feature in the World Cup alongside three frontline spinners in off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin and left-armers Ravindra Jadeja and young Akshar Patel.

India won the title under Dhoni in 2011 with an experienced squad that included seasoned campaigners like Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Yuvraj Singh, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh. The present squad has just four players, Dhoni, Kohli, Raina and Ashwin, who were part of that winning combination, leaving the team short of World Cup experience. The nucleus of the squad is the same which helped India win the Champions Trophy in England in 2013, but a power-packed batting display is needed to succeed again.

Rohit Sharma, who followed his one-day 209 against Australia in 2013 with a scintillating world record score of 264 against the West Indies last year, is expected to fire at the top of the order despite a poor Test series. Kohli, recently appointed Test captain after Dhoni quit the longer format, is one of the finest batsmen in the modern game with 21 one-day centuries in the last five years, a testimony of his hunger for big scores. Dhoni, the peg around whom India’s fortunes will revolve, is a leader and batsman tailor-made for limited-overs cricket whose improvised big-hitting has won many a battle for India. But the current tour of Australia resembles the one in 1992 when Mohammad Azharuddin’s men were thrashed 4-0 in the Test series, lost out in the tri-series also featuring the West Indies and failed to make the knock-out cut in the World Cup. This time, Dhoni’s team has lost the Tests and are in danger of missing the tri-series final, indicating an over-exposure to Australian conditions that could again prove detrimental.

But a win over Pakistan in their first match in Adelaide on February 15, India has never lost to their arch-rivals in the World Cup, will be the tonic Dhoni needs to revitalise the side.

Champions in 1987, 1999, 2003 and 2007, Australia is amongst the favourites to lift the trophy at the end of the six-day event. Australia can boast a strong core of key players, David Warner, Steve Smith, Mitchell Johnson and possibly skipper Michael Clarke depending upon his fitness. Given Smith’s phenomenal form with the bat, three ODI centuries since October, there are those who say Australia may not even miss Clarke’s leadership and batting.

South Africa’s hopes of ending their World Cup hoodoo will rest with some of the finest players currently active. Proteas captain A B de Villiers is the number-one ranked ODI batsman and will arrive at the tournament after displaying dazzling form in a recent home series against the West Indies, including the fastest one-day international century, made off just 31 balls. Hashim Amla has reached a succession of milestones in fewer innings than anyone else, 2,000, 3,000, 4,000 and most recently 5,000 ODI runs. In Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, South Africa have two of the most potent fast bowlers in the world, while new bowler Vernon Philander has the accuracy to exploit any life in a pitch.

Co-hosts Kiwis, meanwhile, are six-time semi-finalists but will fancy their chances of a first final appearance with all of their pool games being played on familiar home grounds. They are also in form. In the 5th ODI in Dunedin on Friday, Luke Ronchi and Grant Elliott shared a world record of 267-run and six wicket stand. It won’t come as a surprise if New Zealand goes all the way this time around.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni (capt), Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane, Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina, Ambati Rayudu, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Akshar Patel, Ishant Sharma, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, Stuart Binny

Coach: Duncan Fletcher

Fixtures (Pool B)
Feb 15     vs Pakistan, Adelaide
Feb 22     vs South Africa, Melbourne
Feb 28     vs United Arab Emirates, Perth
Mar 6       vs West Indies, Perth
Mar 10     vs Ireland, Hamilton
Mar 14     vs Zimbabwe, Auckland

Past World Cup records

1975        First round (won 1, lost 2)
1979        First round (lost 3)
1983        Champions (beat West Indies in the final)
1987        Semifinal (lost to England)
1992        First round (finished 7th in group stage)
1996        Semifinal (lost to Sri Lanka)
1999        Super Sixes (lost 2, won 1)
2003        Runners-up (lost to Australia in final)
2007        First round (lost 2, won 1)
2011        Champions (beat Sri Lanka in final)

Fab four

Virat Kohli
   All eyes would be on the vice-captain considering the form he has shown all through the Australian summer. If he gets going, India can very well go the distance
Rohit sharma
  A fit Rohit Sharma could be India’s X-Factor. Rohit is a class player and if he gets going at the top of the order, he can single-handedly take the match away from any opponent
MS Dhoni
   When it comes to ODIs, Mahendra Singh Dhoni still remains a smart captain and a very important batsman, arguably one of the best finishers in limited over cricket. His knock of 90 in 2011 final says it all
   The in-form right-handed batsman is likely to play a big role in India’s WC campaign. Comfortable both as opener and middle-order batsman, the Mumbai cricketer will also be high on confidence after a successful Test series against a formidable Australian attack
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