SYDNEY: Australia will look to become just the second team to win a World Cup final on their own soil when a tournament rich in sub-plots featuring serial under-achievers South Africa and Afghanistan’s fairytale debut starts next month.
Champions in 1987, 1999, 2003 and 2007, Australia are amongst the favourites to lift the trophy at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on March 29 at the end of an exhausting six-week event.
The 14-nation competition gets underway on February 14 and is being played at seven venues in Australia and seven in New Zealand. The top four in each group qualify for the quarter-finals.
Now in its 40th year, the World Cup has only once been won by a team playing in front of a home crowd, with India shrugging off the crushing pressure of mass expectation in 2011.
The Australians have only lost one of their last 11 one-day internationals and accounted for South Africa 4-1 in a home series in November.
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.
Despite their smooth progress to the final of the ongoing Tri-Nations series, there remain question marks over Australia’s on-field behaviour.
Warner has come in for widespread criticism following his oafish “speak English” rant at India batsman Rohit Sharma.
– Dashing De Villiers –
South Africa’s hopes of ending their World Cup hoodoo will rest with some of the finest players currently active.
Proteas captain AB 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 ball bowler Vernon Philander has has the accuracy to exploit any life in a pitch.
With Sharma, the only batsman with two 200s in one-day internationals, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Suresh Raina and skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni, India possess destructive batting firepower.
But the champions’ 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.
– Ajmal absence –
India start their campaign against bitter rivals Pakistan in Adelaide on February 15.
Pakistan, who won their only World Cup in Australia in 1992, have endured a chaotic build-up with match-winning spinner Saeed Ajmal suspended because of a suspect action, while Misbah-ul Haq and Shahid Afridi have vied for the captaincy.
Misbah knows his attack will miss Ajmal but believes giant seamer Mohammad Irfan — the tallest-ever bowler to play international cricket at 7 feet, one inch — could provide the X-factor.
Australia and England will meet on the first day in Melbourne just as New Zealand start their campaign against 1996 champions Sri Lanka in Christchurch.
England’s ODI record has been poor in recent times, with series defeats in Sri Lanka and against India at home.
West Indies won the first two World Cups in 1975 and 1979 and were runners-up in 1983. Since then, their best performance was a run to the semi-finals in 1996.
The Caribbean side will be led by 23-year-old Barbados fast bowler Jason Holder who has taken over from Dwayne Bravo, axed for his role in the abandoned tour of India last year.
Sri Lanka, runners-up in the last two World Cups, go into the event with their confidence battered by a 4-1 series loss to New Zealand.
The 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 fifth ODI in Dunedin on Friday, Luke Ronchi and Grant Elliott shared a world record 267-run sixth wicket stand.
Afghanistan will be many ‘neutrals’ choice to progress out of the pool stages even if that scenario appears unlikely.
Making their debut at the World Cup, it has been an incredible journey for Afghanistan whose players learnt the game as a refugees while their beloved sport was once banned by the Taliban.
As with all major sports events, there will be a focus on security and New Zealand World Cup chief executive Therese Walsh has warned of strict measures.
“There will be security profiling, there’ll be random pat downs, there will be bag searches,” she said.