A World Cup of rare evenness

Australian Captain Ricky Ponting at a press conference in St. Vincent. His team will be the most feared in the World Cup.-AP

There is nothing obvious to this edition of the Cup, there are favourites but no chosen one like Australia was in 2003. Every team, sometimes it seems just to reassure itself, is bleating: this is anyone's cup. It also means no one has an excuse to fail, writes Rohit Brijnath.

So let's make a pact to fight as only we can And show the ANZAC spirit where it all began It will be a time we'll never forget And one where can all say I've got no regret.

So there, in 1999, at a sun-brushed Lord's, amidst Ponting and Warne and Moody and Bevan, stood the captain. It must have been an unlikely picture, the huddled, sweaty heads of cricket's one-day bards on whose heads rained the words of Steve Waugh the poet.

Waugh wanted his team inspired, months earlier he'd got fitness trainer Dave Misson to quote Longfellow and Churchill to his players, he'd pushed his players at the World Cup to scratch out poetry and recite it on game day, any device that would lift his team a little higher, any glue that would bond his side a little tighter.

On the morning of the final itself, Waugh awoke early to write his poem. On the morning of the final three years earlier, in the feverish heart of Lahore, another captain, an engaging, cerebral Buddhist whose dislike for the Australians seeped from many pores, was surprised that some of his players were so "relaxed" they spent the morning at a carpet exhibition. In the evening, Ranatunga's Sri Lankans proceeded to play with magnificent design.

Raring to go... Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly watch their teammates practising in the nets at the Trelawny Cricket Stadium in Jamaica.-AP

In 1983, on the final day, as the Indians prepared to exit the dressing room, nervousness crawling through their veins, some defiant hope must have flared, too, as Sunil Gavaskar, not captain but senior man, told them: "Chalo jawano chalke ladenge" ("C'mon young men, let's go and fight"). Nine years later, in 1992, Imran Khan, his walk feline, his T-shirt emblazoned with a predator, would provoke his team, and warn the world, by comparing them to "cornered tigers".

What wins this cup? Skill, practice, belief, hope, prayer, luck. And inspiration. A big innings, a small word, a Kapil-esque 175 and a Gavaskar verbal prod, Waugh's passion and Ranatunga's tranquillity. Small things, seemingly irrelevant things, which give a team an edge, which forge men into an unbeatable unit, which calm them on the eve of their most formidable day, which inspire them to press beyond themselves.

Now, in the West Indies, land of glittering old names and newer ones straining to shine, we look again for those signs, something that will push a team in a World Cup of rare evenness beyond their rivals, something that will convince a side that their day has come.

In 2003, the robust Australians stole unpredictability from the cup, their genius impeccable, their nerve unbreakable. Of all teams, only two, the Windies first, then Australia, have removed the lottery cliche from one-day cricket, skilful enough to minimise luck's influence. In the five cups from 1987, Australia has won three, lost one final and flopped in 1992 in Australia. The West Indies will have heard, read, been told that no home team has taken this prize, but will shrug it off as another annoying statistic.

Unlike 2003 there is nothing obvious to this cup, there are favourites but no chosen one like Australia was. Every team, sometimes it seems just to reassure itself, is bleating: this is anyone's cup. It also means no one has an excuse to fail.

Four years have passed since 2003 in the neon blur of a million one-dayers, or so it seems. For four years we have been speaking of this cup, so have coaches, as every batting experiment and bowling selection is explained as "looking at the World Cup", as if teams are not playing for the present but the future, jigsaws assembled, disassembled, with new pieces drawing a different picture. Now it is too late. If a team is not ready now, it never will be.

Cricket's World Cup is unusual because it cannot be the game's holy grail, yet there is no other. Test cricket is still the sterner examination, but cricket's one-day Cup is the game's only real gathering, its only collective test. To not win a World Cup does not subtract, at all, from the legend of Lara, of Tendulkar, but their longing for that trophy tells its own sweet story.

What cup will this be? A slower cup perhaps, for it is littered with men whose faces, and tired muscles, reveal the winkled passage of time. It will also, thus, be a romantic cup, brimming with nostalgia, a cup of last looks, of final, fading hurrahs. Gilchrist, Jayasuriya, Pollock, Kallis, Muralitharan, Fleming, McGrath, and so many more, are girding for a final flourish.

For India, this moment is especially wistful as a grand generation yet an unfulfilled one is bidding farewell. In the vast cupboards of their memory, Tendulkar, Kumble, Ganguly, Dravid will retain the images of the heroics of their peers, Inzi's barrage in 1992, Jayasuriya's windmill impersonations in 1996, yet they, themselves, have always been a wicket short, a run too little, and these desperate men want this one last roll of the dice.

It will be a cup, perhaps, of bold invention and fresh strategy. Just when we believe one-day cricket has exhausted its options, an idea is given birth to. How did the Sri Lankans imagine such violence at the top of the order, who gave the ball to off spinner Dipak Patel in the opening overs? No one knows what so many new wickets in the West Indies will bring, bounce, or turn, or both, or a river of runs, or a trickle, and these flat, untidy strips of earth could be an integral part of the triumph of this distant cup. It will be a cup where the scabs that sit on barely healed psychological wounds will be picked off and new injuries to the mind inflicted. Pakistan will remember it has never bested India in this event, South Africa will be reminded of the fragility of its resolve, New Zealand will flex its emerging muscle, yet all will quietly fear Australia.

It is a cup too long, too bloated, and the wait for serious cricket can be excruciating, but by the end the beginning is often forgotten, for by the end either our despair is too deep or our joy too boundless. This cup everyone wants.

Sourav Ganguly admitted recently the World Cup was his target for comeback, else retirement beckoned. Jacob Oram is willing to amputate a finger to play. A Kolkata fan is agreeable to selling a kidney to attend. Madness is afoot.

Every team has a compelling reason why the cup should belong to it. England has never owned it. The West Indians pray their penance is over and greatness again awaits them. The Kiwis will believe a blow must finally be struck for cricket's lesser warriors. In 1983, victory was vital for India, a nation not gifted at team sports beyond hockey, a nation whose ardour for cricket had not translated into any prize. The cup gave us identity, it emboldened us. Now the cup will be long-awaited proof that we can play cricket as well as we can sell it.

Four years has become the established waiting period in sport, for world championships, Olympics, World Cups, a period considered sufficient for renewal, for older men to decide if their bodies can survive another go and for younger men to arrive. It is a time not so short that the cup seems to arrive too often, nor too long that the wait turns unbearable. It is a time that must be bided for the greatest prizes demand patience.

Now we are ready, the senses sharp, the anticipation almost painful. Soon the first ball will be bowled, an appeal screamed, a catch fumbled.

Alarm clocks will ring across the world, and for one team a new day is about to dawn.