Star spotting

Call them match-winners, game-changers or whatever, but they are, without doubt, players capable of making the ICC World Cup 2011 their own. They are the key members of their team, all immensely gifted. They have the propensity to turn a match on its head, change the course of a game in a matter of a few deliveries or a single spell. Sportstar takes a look at these stars.

INDIA

Zaheer Khan: He is the leader of the pack. A match-winner of the highest calibre, this left-arm fast bowler holds the key to India's progress in the tournament. There is no doubt that Zaheer will have to play the dominant role as skipper M. S. Dhoni places his faith on the team to repeat the 1983 feat of Kapil Dev and his boys.

For Zaheer, such responsibility is nothing new. He has served Indian cricket for more than a decade with distinction.

The disaster of the 2003 final against Australia still rankles Zaheer. He erred in trying to be too aggressive even before settling down. He lost his rhythm early and that cost him and the team dear. Zaheer is essentially a rhythm bowler and an early wicket often inspires him to produce incisive spells that can change the course of a match. He does not like comparisons and insists he is a bowler of a different style. An aggregate of 252 wickets in 182 matches establishes Zaheer as one of the key bowlers in the Indian attack. His partners, especially Ashish Nehra and Harbhajan Singh, look up to him for motivation. Zaheer has plenty to offer and this World Cup could well be the high point of his career.

Yusuf Pathan: His biggest fan is Virender Sehwag. “I just love his range of shots,” says Sehwag, the most feared batsman in world cricket. For Pathan, no praise can be greater than this.

Pathan commands a following of his own in Indian cricket. His fearless approach makes him one of the most exciting batsmen to watch. If the first ball deserves to be hit, trust Pathan to smack it out of the ground.

“Oh, he is too good! I have not seen many batsmen who can hit the ball so clean and hard,” says Kapil Dev, who admits he does not leave his seat when Pathan is at the crease. After some disappointing stints in the beginning, Pathan has now come to be accepted as an integral part of the Team India. The 28-year-old is strongly built, can bat and bowl and has a strong arm and very safe hands.

In short, he is an all-round cricketer worthy of his place in the World Cup squad. He has the capacity to turn a match in the course of an over and that makes him a very special player to have in the team. Dhoni believes Pathan can play a very significant role and he is not at all off the mark.

SOUTH AFRICA

AB de Villiers: He is a batsman for all seasons. Conditions don't matter when de Villiers takes charge. He is a superb athlete and brings his agility into play when batting or fielding. At 26, he is known to perform like a veteran and often South Africa relies on him to take the game forward. And more often than not he does it.

Six years of international cricket have helped de Villiers establish his place in the team. He is known to adapt quickly and his decent performances on Indian pitches make him the batsman to watch out for. During South Africa's last visit to India, he distinguished himself with two back-to-back centuries, in Gwalior and Ahmedabad. The conditions would not be very different during the World Cup.

The placid tracks suit his style of play and de Villiers should lend solidity to South Africa's batting. Nine centuries in 114 ODIs reflect his capacity to play the big knocks and this is the quality that skipper Graeme Smith admires in de Villiers. He will lead the South African campaign on the strength of his form. The fact that he is at ease with spin and pace makes him an exciting batsman to watch.

Dale Steyn: A champion bowler — that's how most batsmen look at Steyn. At 27, he is at the peak of his career. Bowling fast and accurate, he loves to rattle the batsmen and nothing pleases him more than a battle in the middle. He would appreciate a good shot and also show respect to the batsman for his abilities. But he is at his best when the skipper looks for a breakthrough.

Steyn is not known to compromise his pace and that makes him a special bowler. Forty-eight ODIs in six years may not showcase his talent but he is a different bowler. He has the class and is game for any challenge. Not just pace, but even his skill to move the ball away can put the best of batsman in a trance at the crease. He made a sedate start to his career but has emerged as South Africa's strike bowler. Like Allan Donald, Steyn too looks at taking wickets and not containing the batsmen. There are not many bowlers like him who study the batsman and plot his downfall.

PAKISTAN

Wahab Riaz: The 25-year-old left-arm fast medium bowler has impressed even Wasim Akram, who is probably the best left-arm seamer after Alan Davidson and who was the Man of the Match of the final of the 1992 Benson & Hedges World Cup in Melbourne. During a recent visit to Mumbai, Akram expressed happiness at the way Riaz bowled in New Zealand. The Pakistan selectors have picked the right squad for the World Cup and the bowling bench strength is good, he said.

It's doubtful if Riaz would have found a place in the 15-member squad had Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir not been banned following spot-fixing charges. Though Pakistan skipper Shahid Afridi will look to the experience and craft of Umar Gul and Abdul Razzaq for the breakthroughs, Riaz, on the basis of his recent performances, would get the nod for the third seamer's slot.

Riaz has the credentials to make a strong claim. As a left-hander he offers variety by way of change of angles to a right-hand batsman.

Riaz made his ODI debut in Sheikhupura against Zimbabwe three years ago. Only once has he gone wicket-less after his 8-3-19-2 performance in his first match for Pakistan. He was the highest wicket-taker (eight at 18.13) in the recent one-day series against New Zealand.

Misbah-ul-Haq: The Pakistan Cricket Board ended the suspense by naming Shahid Afridi as captain of the World Cup squad. Perhaps Misbah-ul-Haq may have entertained hopes of leading Pakistan in his first World Cup, but it did not happen. However, the Mianwali-born batsman ought to be happy with the fact that he is in good form now. Misbah had his best one-day tournament in eight years, against New Zealand recently. He made 203 in four innings (50, 35, 93 not out and 25) for an impressive average of 67.67. Misbah, who missed his maiden ODI century at McLean Park, should be looking forward to a fruitful World Cup.

In ODIs, Misbah has scored 1757 runs with 11 half-centuries, and Pakistan has won 41 of the 63 matches he has played. He has been most successful at No. 5, scoring 756 runs at 58.15. He has scored 320 at No. 4, 502 at No. 6 and 179 at No. 7. Pakistan's middle-order would largely revolve around Misbah and Younis Khan, although the 1992 World Cup-winning captain Imran Khan is of the view that Umar Akmal has the potential to make the World Cup his own.

Pakistan would hope for Misbah, with his calm demeanour, to absorb the pressure and show the way for a gifted stroke player like Umar.

AUSTRALIA

Shane Watson: Ever since Shane Warne made the shrewd move to induct Shane Watson into the Rajasthan Royals team for the inaugural IPL in 2008, the Queenslander has progressed by leaps and bounds in international cricket. The 29-year-old has been Australia's best bet in the opener's slot in all forms of the game. Facts and figures prove that he's been a super success — in 123 ODIs Watson has scored 3353 runs at 40.89 with five centuries and 19 half-centuries and has taken 127 wickets at 28.09.

Traditionally, the Australian openers such as Alan Turner, Andrew Hilditch, Geoff Marsh, David Boon, Mark Waugh, Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden have been a success in the World Cup. So it could be the turn of Watson to shine in his second World Cup. In the 2007 World Cup in the West Indies, he scored 145 runs and remained not out five times in six innings.

Ever since he moved up from No. 7 (482 runs at 40.17) to the opener's slot, Watson has shown remarkable improvement by lifting his average to 45.18 (2575 runs in 63 matches). He's been more comfortable facing the fast bowlers straightaway and has scored all his five centuries at the start of the innings. Even in the recent Ashes defeat Watson was one of the few Aussies to have stood up to England's new ball attack. He aggregated 435 runs. He was Australia's top scorer in the seven-match one-day series; he began with a blazing 161 off 150 balls and aggregated 306 runs in six matches. He was rested for the last match in Perth.

A vital fact is that Australia has won 71.54% of the matches when Watson has been in the playing XI. Without him (from the time he played his first match against South Africa at Centurion Park in March 2002), it's 70.29%.]

David Hussey: He has acquired nicknames such as ‘Huss', ‘Bomber' and ‘B.O.M', but the Indians got to know of Michael Hussey's younger brother only when Shah Rukh Khan's Kolkata Knight Riders bid for him at $625,000 in the IPL. David has played 30 one-day internationals, scoring 834 runs (Ave. 32.07). He made 235 runs in Australia's 6-1 victory against England in the recent one-day series. He was in the news even before the one-day action began in Melbourne — thanks to Michael Bevan, Kings XI Punjab decided to bid for him at $1.4 million, the highest for an Australian at the IPL auction in Bangalore.

David Hussey, over time, has gained reputation as a big hitter and a game-changer. He bowls off breaks. Most crucially, the Australian selectors think he can be used as a floating middle-order batsman (he has scored 252 runs at No. 4, 247 at No. 5, 235 at No. 6 and 100 at No. 7) and also for the fact that he's played two IPL seasons in India.

It will be David Hussey's first World Cup and he is almost assured of a place in the playing XI.

Australia has more reputed players in the line-up to get into the playmaker's role, but David Hussey's all-round ability, especially his off-spin would be extremely useful for Ricky Ponting to reply upon on the season-ending pitches in India and Sri Lanka.

ENGLAND

Kevin Pietersen: At his best, he is like a master actor who can manipulate props and prosthetics to turn the spotlight on himself. How he essays the part of the ‘daredevil' will play a pivotal role in England's performance at the World Cup. KP has befriended sub-continental surfaces in the recent past during international engagements and the IPL. The small grounds in this part of the world will collude with his propensity to treat the ball with bellicosity.

The mercurial beefcake came up trumps over his poor form with a double century during the Ashes. This resurrection comes at a critical juncture ahead of the quadrennial spectacle. KP's relish for the big stage is as pronounced as his penchant for “surprising the opposition”. Revisit the footages of England's famous T20 World Cup triumph last year and you will find Pietersen with the man-of-the-series award. The enigmatic right-hander also bludgeoned his way to two centuries in the previous edition of the 50-over World Cup. England will count on him to annex the key moments of a game.

Under the Flower-Strauss combine, ‘The Ego' is more in harmony with the rest of the cast. KP has already fired his first salvo by slamming the tournament's scheduling. England's faithfuls and cricket lovers would, however, want more of the switch-hitting on the field.

James Anderson: The name has a lingering resonance in tune with his chocolate boy appeal. Anointed as a wonder kid, Jimmy Anderson found himself in the cauldron of international cricket at the age of 20. The Lancashire lad sizzled when he got the ball to swing extravagantly but struggled on other occasions. Such Jekyll and Hyde behaviour prompted some to christen him ‘daisy'.

In the last three years, however, the paceman has begun to live up to the promise he showed during his salad days. Trading spurts of brilliance for consistency, Anderson has gradually assumed command of the bowling group. He now has a good stockpile of in-duckers and out-swingers besides a potent slower one.

Anderson provided a glimpse of his terrific form bagging 24 wickets in England's recent Ashes triumph. Playing in his third World Cup, the 28-year-old's ability to reverse the old ball will be a huge impetus on slow wickets in the sub-continent. But what is more significant is his quiet air of authority, always a reflection of self-assurance. The soft-spoken Anderson is the brain behind England's bowling plans, formulating strategies and setting fields, in a role similar to Zaheer Khan's in the Indian team. The English, will no doubt, look to him to inflict killer blows on the opposition.

WEST INDIES

Chris Gayle: For all his buccaneering lifestyle at the crease, Gayle is remarkably laidback elsewhere. It is an unlikely marriage of Zen-like tranquillity with devastating batting. Like rich prose, the tall Jamaican's batting has a sense of uncluttered finesse to it. A steady head, economical footwork, and use of the willow like a truncheon describe his modus operandi as an opener. Gayle's surge in the powerplay overs at once fuels his team's momentum while scuppering the adversary's tactical machinery.

With a high backlift complemented by a strong bottom hand, the laconic southpaw privileges the arc between point and long off. Professing similar love for the on side, Gayle frequently clears his front foot and sends the ball screaming into the orbit. An enviable arsenal of strokes — the gunshot straight drive, reflexive pull and sashay-out-and-hoick — will embolden the former captain in his sub-continental peregrination.

His cyclonic 333 against Sri Lanka in the first Test in Galle recently and blitzkriegs in the KFC Big Bash down under are positive signs ahead of the World Cup. Gayle's off-breaks are, however, an underrated commodity. The lazy saunter to the crease doesn't say much but his accurate ‘darters', besides tying batsmen down, have yielded wickets. Skipper Darren Sammy will only be too happy if Gayle's notorious lethargy takes the backseat in the mega event.

Ramnaresh Sarwan: He is a batsman for the purists with an array of strokes that are straight out of the textbook. Driving on the up or pulling in front of square, the talented Guyanese does it with ease and grace. Sarwan is capable of shifting gears with a judicious blend of offence and defence. The elegant batsman has the knack of playing the spinners late and that will keep him in good stead at the World Cup. Sarwan also doesn't shy away from using his feet to the slow bowlers.

The right-hander has been recalled into the side primarily for the experience he brings to the table. Batting in the middle order, he is also an efficient finisher of an innings. This attribute of Sarwan comes to the fore especially during tense chases. Sample his unbeaten 67 against New Zealand in Christchurch two years ago. Sarwan's comeback against Sri Lanka in the recent three-match one-day series has been fruitful. The back-to-back half centuries will do his confidence a lot of good.

NEW ZEALAND

Jesse Ryder: The ability to link the sublime with the ridiculous has often derailed Jesse Ryder. The maverick New Zealander has the talent to make bowlers cower, but a past history of indulging in the merry glass and temper tantrums meant that the selectors were often forced to ignore him.

Ryder initially caught the eye with his century and double century at home against India in the Tests during 2009. But injuries soon laid him low and excess weight and alcohol issues haunted him. In the recent past, New Zealand too suffered a free fall with skipper Daniel Vettori cutting a forlorn picture in post-match press conferences while trying to explain the reasons behind successive defeats.

The latest tumble was the 2-3 loss to Pakistan in the ODI series at home but a glimmer of hope was offered by Ryder's fiery 107 (93b, 7x4, 6x6) that helped his team eke out a face-saving victory in Auckland.

Earlier, the same week, Ryder's reckless side was displayed on Twitter as he tucked into an errant partner who got him run-out in a domestic match. Hopefully for New Zealand, Ryder the aggressive batsman and handy bowler will be more on view in the World Cup.

Brendon McCullum: Some numbers become synonyms for cricketers. Like 175 for Kapil Dev, Brendon McCullum is associated with 158, an innings of audacious power and awe-inspiring shots that provided the fireworks at Bangalore's Chinnaswamy Stadium during the Indian Premier League's inaugural match in 2008.

McCullum has often been saddled with the weight of expectations following that knock but there is no disputing the x-factor that he brings to the New Zealand table. Attacking opener, accomplished wicket-keeper and an energetic presence on the field, McCullum has been a talisman for the Black Caps. The numbers too hint at a rich talent as McCullum has 3781 ODI runs at a strike-rate of 88.50 besides 206 catches and 13 stumpings in his kitty.

Sadly, just like his team, McCullum too has struggled over the past few weeks and his 151 runs from his last 10 ODI innings is a poor reflection of his ability.

The dapper batsman, however, had a better run in Tests and coming to the Indian sub-continent for the World Cup will surely gladden his heart.

SRI LANKA

Lasith Malinga: It is a tribute to the Sri Lankan spearhead's speed and skill that he is now considered a bigger threat than other acclaimed toe-crushers like Brett Lee and Shoaib Akhtar, who will also be seen in action during the World Cup. Sri Lanka has this uncanny ability to nurture rich but quirky talent in its pristine glory.

Muttiah Muralitharan, Ajantha Mendis and Malinga have all prospered thanks to a system that just polishes the rough edges while nurturing the inner-core.

With 114 wickets in 77 ODIs and the trauma of injury firmly behind him, Malinga will be Sri Lankan captain Kumara Sangakkara's go-to man in moments of crisis on the field. Malinga's sling action and his ability to bowl those searing yorkers would mean that batsmen will never feel settled against him.

The 27-year old had a dream run in the last World Cup in the West Indies in 2007. Malinga bagged 18 wickets and was a key figure in Sri Lanka's journey to the final. The speedster's acme was his four wickets off four successive deliveries against South Africa in the same tournament. Sangakkara surely would prefer a similar effort from his strike bowler.

Angelo Mathews: In the last three years, Sri Lanka has grappled with problems following the exit of Chaminda Vaas, a World Cup hero during its triumphant run in 1996. Thankfully for the fans in the Emerald Isle, Vaas' walk towards twilight was masked by the arrival of an all-rounder who has truly lived up to his talent. Angelo Mathews provides many options for Sangakkara in the rapid-fire world of ODIs.

Mathews is a rugged customer with the bat, and his handy pace, which ironically thrives on the slow bouncer, makes him an asset for the team. Ever since he burst on to the international scene in 2008, Mathews has carved a niche for himself in the team. His 702 runs at a strike rate of 83.07 and 27 wickets at an economy rate of 4.63 are numbers that offer hope to Sri Lanka.

That Mathews has an unflappable temperament was obvious during his unbeaten match-winning 77 against Australia in Melbourne in November last year.

The knock set the tone and Sri Lanka eventually won the ODI series 2-1. Mathews might be called in to replicate such efforts when the World Cup heats up over the next few weeks.

— Vijay Lokapally, G. Viswanath, Arun Venugopal & K. C. Vijaya Kumar