The favourites for the World Cup

THE ICC Champions Trophy is an important event, especially in the run-up to the World Cup. It is here that the sides can test their strengths and weaknesses and chart out their strategies.

In this column, I will go beyond the Champions Trophy and discuss the prospects of some of the teams who could be a major threat in the World Cup early next year.

Australia has to be the favourite. It is a team that has almost everything. An explosive opening pair in Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist who can put to sword any attack, and a wonderfully balanced middle-order where someone like Michael Bevan comes at No. 6. The fact that Gilchirst, who can walk into most teams as a batsman, is also the specialist wicket-keeper in the side provides it with enormous depth. The side has so many match-winners. Hayden, Gilchrist, captain Ricky Ponting, Damien Martyn, Michael Bevan, they are all capable of swinging a contest with their willow.

And Australia has the best bowling attack with Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Brett Lee, forming a fearsome pace combination. The Aussies appear to have found a genuine all-rounder in Shane Watson. He bowls at a lively pace and seems a clean striker of the ball. Then, of course, there is Shane Warne, a fantastic bowler to have, especially during pressure situations. The leg-spinner is bowling particularly well at the moment.

Above all, the side has an attacking captain, who believes in going for it like he often does in batting. The Aussies are aggressive and are such naturally gifted fielders.

Australia's commanding victory over New Zealand in their Champions Trophy Pool game is a case in point. They just steamrollered the Kiwis, who are a group of combative cricketers. Irrespective of the outcome of the Champions Trophy, the Australians are the most complete one-day side at the moment. The batting is exceptionally good, the bowling is incisive, and the fielding, often brilliant.

The South Africans have a lot of depth, and despite not being the same force that they were a couple of years ago, are still a side to reckon with. As we saw in the game against the West Indies in the Champions Trophy, the South Africans have problems at the top of the order. My feeling is that the side will need the experience of Gary Kirsten in one of the opening slots.

The all-rounders continue to give the side depth, and if a game runs close, the South Africans have the players to clinch the issue. With men like Lance Klusener, Mark Boucher, Nicky Boje and Shaun Pollock in the lower half of the line-up, you can never really count the South Africans out of a game. And then there is one of the two leading all-rounders in contemporary cricket, Jacques Kallis, in the upper half of the order!

The same reasoning applies to their bowling. There are so many options. If Kallis has a bad day with the ball, Klusener might fill in for him. It's a versatile side. The good news for the Proteas is that Allan Donald appears to have another year left in him and he has been bowling well in the last two months. And Jonty Rhodes, that mercurial fielder, is still proving to be invaluable in crunch situations, with the bat. Mentally, the side appears to have a block against Australia, it is against this formidable opponent that South Africa has to believe in itself more.

The Indians have a wonderfully attractive batting order, and the world's best batsman in Sachin Tendulkar. It's not Tendulkar alone who is firing in the Indian batting line-up. Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, Virender Sehwag, Mohammed Kaif and Yuveraj Singh are all contributing in style. There is a healthy balance of youth and experience in the Indian team now. Batting is India's strength.

The idea of getting Rahul Dravid to keep wickets has worked till now, but whether India can take the risk in a big competition like the World Cup remains to be seen.

India has some work left in bowling though. Only Zaheer Khan in the Indian attack has bowled consistently well over the past few months and, both Ajit Agarkar and Ashish Nehra have been erratic. There is a definite case for the inclusion of Javagal Srinath, who is such an experienced customer, and who was bowling so well when he announced his retirement from Test cricket. He wants to play ODIs for India, and I can assure you that having him in the side will certainly strengthen the attack.

The Sri Lankans are the last of my favourites for the World Cup. Again I repeat, I am not basing my judgment on the performance of the teams in the Champions Trophy alone.

The Lankans, like India, have firepower in batting, and Sanath Jayasuriya, Aravinda de Silva, and the rest are perfectly capable of taking apart most attacks. The side has a number of stroke-makers, and it also has someone who can play the sheet anchor role in Marvan Atapattu.

If the talented Mahela Jayawardene and Kumara Sangakkara find their bearings then runs shouldn't be a problem. However, the Lankan batting has faced problems away from the sub-continent, when there is seam movement. However, in one-day cricket, they can still overcome the problem. There are only 50 overs to survive, and if the Lankans find the right mix of attack and defence, they could be a distinct threat.

The Lankans have reorganised their pace attack and the induction of Pulasthi Gunaratne has added teeth to the bowling. Chaminda Vaas is still operating well, while Dilhara Fernando seems to have a future in this game. However, Sri Lanka's trump card will always be Muttiah Muralitharan, on any pitch, in any condition, in any country.

Among the other sides, New Zealand is a competitive unit, but I doubt whether it has the firepower to knock over big teams in major competitions; the Kiwis are missing Chris Cairns, such an inspirational cricketer for them, as well.

Shifting to a different topic now, I would like to ask the International Cricket Council (ICC) how it could allow key Kiwi cricketers like Craig McMillan, who made himself unavailable for the Champions Trophy due to security reasons, to get away scot-free. Or rather New Zealand should have been hauled up. While ICC, on the one hand, insist that all top players should take part in the Champions Trophy, how come they have made an exception in the case of the Kiwis? This smacks of double standards.

Coming back to team prospects, Pakistan's attack on its day can match that of Australia, but then the batting is suspect, and there are reports of infighting in the side. The side has an uneasy period ahead.

England is an improved side, but as in the case of New Zealand, I cannot see it emerging triumphant in the World Cup. Nor can the West Indians or the Zimbabweans do it. An odd good performance yes, but progressing into the final and winning it? There is a huge question mark.

Yes, I know this is an early prediction, yet, I will stick my neck out and say this: When the World Cup begins in February 2003, Australia, South Africa, India and Sri Lanka should be battling it out for the ultimate prize in ODI cricket.