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The 2015 ICC World Cup is a painfully long tournament — lasting almost as long as the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games combined — but it has all the ingredients for being an exciting one. The conditions do not excessively favour one team over the rest, while no one side has been dominant. Much joy awaits, writes Shreedutta Chidananda.

So much has changed in the space of a couple of months. India arrived in Australia at the end of November full of hope and ambition. It was a tour not just important in itself but also of great value as a preparation for the World Cup. At the end of the Carlton Mid ODI series in the last week of January, India still sounded confident but crashed out of the tournament a bruised, beaten outfit. There had not been a single victory on the tour — for the third time in four overseas trips — and all the optimism generated by the rout of a hapless Sri Lanka at home has suddenly evaporated.

Shikhar Dhawan has had a horrid tour; Murali Vijay, one of India’s best batsmen in the Test series, is not in the squad for the World Cup; Rohit Sharma’s hamstring injury has limited him to one match (albeit one in which he scored 138) in the last month; Suresh Raina has lasted a total of 75 balls in his last five innings in international cricket; and Ravindra Jadeja is still recovering from a shoulder complaint.

The less said about the bowling attack, the better. It wears the look of a ragged, weary band. Ishant Sharma, with a knee injury, has been ruled out and Mohit Sharma is his replacement; Bhuvneshwar Kumar has an ankle complaint and struggled in the Test series when the ball wasn’t swinging for him; Umesh Yadav and Mohammad Shami have been woefully inaccurate; and R. Ashwin needs to be given a decent run in the side for him to develop any sort of confidence.

In two months, the holder of the World Cup has fallen from eminent favourite to outsider to retain the trophy. M. S. Dhoni will be comfortable with reduced expectations — in as much as that is possible in India. The pressure can never fully be off, but the format of the tournament gives India time and breathing space. With four teams to qualify from each group, the major sides are guaranteed a free ride to the quarterfinals barring a monumental debacle. The knock-out stages begin only on March 18, giving India more than a month to get things right.

The prevailing ODI rules mean that India’s outfielding — where the team hasn’t covered itself in glory previously — will have to be excellent. The pitches are less of a worry than is made out to be. Five of the seven knock-out matches will be played on drop-in pitches, and the other two in Sydney, which has traditionally favoured spin bowling. India will play only two matches in Perth and neither the UAE nor the West Indies can be called quality opposition.

Bowlers will have to be disciplined, though, and the approach of packing one side of the field will only work to staunch the flow of runs if the execution is good. A good game in the quarterfinal will send India into the last four, from where composure under nerves will dictate results more than mere skill. It must not be forgotten that Dhoni has led a team to the World Cup before — a qualification no other captain in the tournament can boast of. It will hold India in good stead in crunch situations, although only two other players remain from the bunch that played the final in 2011.

India will begin its campaign with a high-octane clash with Pakistan in Adelaide on February 15. The team from across the Wagah border has issues of its own. Saeed Ajmal, ranked the world’s number one bowler by the ICC, has been suspended from playing by the same body, for the illegality of his action. The left-arm fast bowler Junaid Khan is also injured, meaning that Pakistan will have to rely on Wahab Riaz, the giant Mohammad Irfan, and the medium-pace of Ehsan Adil and Sohail Khan. Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan have lasted longer — and on merit — than anyone would have predicted. The batting looks flaky but one good game in the quarterfinals can give Pakistan tremendous momentum.

Also in Group A is South Africa, in most eyes the favourite for the title. The ODI series in Australia last year ended in a 4-1 loss and prompted much soul-searching, but the West Indies arrived to provide the most pliant opposition for players to work themselves back into form. South Africa won the Test series 2-0, and the one-dayers 4-1.

AB de Villiers smashed the world record for the fastest hundred (31 balls), Hashim Amla battered 413 runs from four matches, while Rilee Rossouw helped himself to two tons. A fearsome batting line-up and a bowling attack of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and Imran Tahir will worry any side in the world. South Africa owes it to itself to win its first World Cup here.

Over in Group B, the hosts Australia and New Zealand have both been in daunting form. Given Michael Clarke’s injury issues, it is still not clear who Australia’s captain is going to be but, otherwise, the team looks settled. An explosive batting group is complemented by good fast bowlers in Mitchell Johnson, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc. Australia’s only other worries will be over James Faulkner’s fitness and the abilities of its spinner Xavier Doherty. The pressure of playing at home could get to Australia, like it did in 1992, and it is here that Clarke’s nous will matter.

Across the Tasman, New Zealand has only burnout to fear after a remarkably positive run in series against Sri Lanka and Pakistan. The team has mastered its own conditions, has big hitters, a delightfully sound batsman in Kane Williamson, capable all-rounders and good seam bowlers. It will take something to beat the Kiwis, who could play at home till the semifinals.

Sri Lanka endured a difficult time in New Zealand, but Lasith Malinga was absent after ankle surgery and Angelo Mathews played only four of the seven matches. Their presence will lend the side a different look. Kumar Sangakkara has been on a sensational run-scoring spree, aggregating 773 runs from his last 13 matches at an average of 77.3. Victory will be a great way for him and Mahela Jayawardena to bow out.

England has not been convincing, while the West Indies has been reduced to a laughing stock, omitting Dwayne Bravo and Kieron Pollard and handing Jason Holder — with all of 26 ODIs under his belt — the captaincy.

It is a painfully long tournament — lasting almost as long as the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games combined — but it has all the ingredients for being an exciting one. The conditions do not excessively favour one team over the rest, while no one side has been dominant.

Much joy awaits.