The third ICC event in less than a year is upon us and a fourth one waiting to happen in , guess what, less than a year again.
All talks of acclimatisation and fatigue will crop up, once the men in blue slip up. Till then the media and 'experts' would have us believe, that the boys only have to turn up to bring the cup home. I am not so sure. Endless IPLs have ensured that whatever surprise element they had is now lost and there are teams more desperate than ours. Hence India to me, seem rank outsiders. Needless to say, I will be more than happy to be proved wrong.
That said, here is a look at the teams. Call them by any name - associates, minnows, whatever - I don't see Afghanistan, Ireland, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh making it to the last 8.
Bangladesh will play Australia, after Australia play Pakistan. Meaning - if Pakistan beat Australia (they have done it in T20WC2007) Bangladesh can expect a fearful thrashing.
Ireland are a handy side and appear the most accomplished of the four and in a group with England and West Indies, it could become interesting. But I think both England and the Windies carry enough ammo this time around. The same goes for Zimbabwe too.
Afghanistan will take on India to ensure that India 'eases' into the competition and the sponsors are kept interested till the last 8. Expect some mushy romanticism from Harsha B and others - stuff like Khyber Pass, British Raj, Durand Line, guns being replaced by cricket bats, and shells by balls - all that hogwash. South Africa will suffer from none of this and as is their wont, give the minnows a hiding in the group stage and move on before their eventual (and imminent) choke.
Right then, so it will be Pakistan, NZ,SA and England in Group E and Australia, Sri Lanka, India and West Indies in Group F with two from each group onto the semis.
It has been Pakistan's good fortune and NZ's ill fortune that the two run into each other often at ICC multinationals. When the tournament is being held in the Caribbean - people will rush to say - ' slow & low' and point to Daniel Vettori. Let me then point to Saeed Ajmal and his madcap captain, both of whom are backed by a vastly better pace attack than NZ can put up. In any case Vettori and Bond can bowl only 8 overs max. The rest will be cannon fodder. Especially for a line up such as SA. Batting will rise and fall with McCullum. Talented as Ross Taylor and Ryder may be I don't see the spunk or big match temperament in either of them. Will be lucky to get past the Super 8s.
Pakistan have had little cricket, several problems, enough distraction - all the right ingredients for a soaring comeback or a depressing exit. Don't rule out a humiliating loss to Bangladesh in the Group Stage, before they do their 'cornered tigers' routine. They will brush aside NZ and England and therefore their result against South Africa would be somewhat irrelevant. Once they get into the last 4, they would become very strong contenders.A middle order with AB, Duminy, A Morkel and Boucher leaves SA enough firepower, but is there the will to use it and the daring to take their chances? That could well decide their fate. Last time around, they were content 'to stay in the hunt' and eventually missed out by 7 runs. I mentioned last year they had missed out on promoting Albie Morkel and giving him a chance to take them home. This time, Van Der Merwe could get the nod ahead of Johan Botha for his batting skills, which means they have adequate depth (not always used in this format) but handy when needed to scatter the bowling. Will they break the mould is the big question. Until they do, World Cups will remain a dream.
What about England - a line up with Collingwood, KP, Bopara, Luke Wright, Morgan looks strong on paper, but their general indifference to all things that aren't Ashes and the thin bowling resources will haunt them. While a win against NZ in the Super 8 is not beyond them, getting past Pakistan and South Africa would be close to impossible. The former possess all the flair and the latter are better at the percentages game.
So it is Pak and SA from Group E - with E1 and E2 being dictated by who wins in their encounter.
Group F is arguably the tougher group and the progress to the semis is not as clear cut.The humiliation of being seeded below Bangladesh (whom they will overcome to become A2), the fact that this prize is missing from their collection and the injury to Brett Lee (which means their weakest link in T20 is now missing) will make them top contenders in a Tournament where their best result till date is a Semifinal loss. Powerhitters Warner, White and David Hussey , backed by Michael Hussey and Watson can put the fear of god in any bowling. Nannes, Johnson, Harris, Watson and Tait are as good as any. The key to beating them (as always) in any format is early and sustained aggression. Such a task may be beyond India without Sehwag, SL with an indifferent Dilshan. WI have done it last year and therefore all stars and planets need to be properly aligned if they are to do a repeat act. Australia will progress, in all possibility as F1.
F2 is where the tournament opens up - if we can call it that.
SL have played India enough times in the recent past and their brains trust have seen enough of the IPL to know the Indians inside out - and vice versa. Expect a tight match between them.
Hence, the key to this group lies with the West Indies, or rather which among India and SL beat the Windies. With Kulasekara supporting the 4 Ms - Murali, Mendis, Malinga and Mathews and India's recent lousy record at multilaterals, I would put SL as favourites. Recent form of Jayawardene is encouraging and has ensured he would pair with Dilshan at the top. SL would do well to get Jayasuriya in at No3. This would serve two purposes and balance the line up. A) It would give the old timer freedom to play his game - he clearly does not relish the middle order, although he started at No7. B) It would free up Sanga to guide the lower middle order - where they have traditionally lacked the firepower of say, the Aussies or India. Mathews , Perera to support Sanga rounding off the innings would be right for them.
The hosts have a line up that reads Gayle, Bravo, Chanderpaul, Sarwan and Pollard. Enough said. Ian Chappel does not see them progressing to the next round. That may or may not happen. But with a tired Zaheer, now on now off Nehra and Grumbler(Jr) Praveen forming the bowling 'attack' one can foresee a brutal hammering if Gayle wakes up from his stupor.
Media men and sundry pundits will say 'spin attack' when they talk up India. Where is this spin attack? Viru is out with injury. Raina is a part timer, so is Yu Pa. Jadeja is a better bowler, but it is a toss up between him and Yu Pa.
Last year, I called him a 'game-breaker' and argued for him to be given some space. Whatever little I have seen of him in the interim does not suggest he has improved, but in fact regressed. So what does Yu Pa bring to the table - at best 15 runs in 4 balls in 1 out of 4 innings. Nought in the other 3 digs. RJ can do 15 runs from 10-12 balls every time. Yu Pa bowls with an offspinner's action - no turn, between 96 and 102 kph, aims for the batsmans legs and would finish with 4-0-30-1. Oh wait, we have got Durby. He can do the same, plus he can run to the outfield after taking that one wicket and spew filth at everyone around. No competition here. It will be Jadeja, Durby, Zak, Nehra and PK. So where is this 'spin attack'? Surely not with the Men in Blue.
Batting is the stronger suit,which in itself is no cause for optimism. After the disaster last year, they may not open with Rohit - although it was not Rohit's fault alone. MV and GG pick themselves which leaves Raina, Yuvi and MSD in the middle. Indian totals might depend upon how well Raina leaves the bouncer alone. Nehra for Ishant and Vijay for Viru. The rest of the squad is the same - which failed to do us proud last time around. Hence, any optimism from Indian supporters is misplaced. The selectors have been criticised for leaving out Uthappa - and it is fair criticism. Uthappa should have made it - not for Vijay but for DK or even Yu Pa. DK won DDD a game or two in the IPL with his batting but he tapered off. If DDD failed to make the last 4, DK was as culpable as Viru and GG. DK is a spunky and spirited cricketer and RU is a similar character with big match temperament, plus RU is also a keeper these days. Almost invariably he walked into a situation and came out swinging like a prize-fighter- Lee, Durby, Albie Morkel, Appam C, Balaji, Mendis - all suffered at his hands. In leaving him out, India have missed a trick it seems.
To make it past this tough group and face off against Pak and S.Af, India would have to bowl out of their skins and I do not see the drive and desire in this bunch.
So F2 would likely be Sri Lanka or West Indies depending on who wins more. If Windies make it and face off against Pakistan there is the likelyhood of the hosts even making it to the final and then who knows. However, if the opponents are S.Af, then it could be end of the road for them.
Favourites - Australia, Pakistan. Dark Horses - WI and SL.