Rob Steen weighs the strengths and weaknesses of the leading contenders and offers his predictions

At the end of January, the favourites won their 10th consecutive one-day international and appeared on course for a third consecutive World Cup triumph. Cue a string of losses to England and New Zealand compounded by injuries to Matthew Hayden, Brett Lee and Andrew Symonds. Led by Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist and the Michaels Clarke and Hussey, the batting remains muscular, if lean beyond number six. Conversely, the bowling, shorn of Lee’s hostility, inspires scant confidence. Glenn McGrath is finally showing signs of mortality. Unless Mitchell Johnson and/or Shaun Tait can turn speedy promise into wickets and Symonds recovers in time, an era’s end might be in sight.
Prediction: Super Eight

More one-day cricket is played in the shires than anywhere else, yet the national XI has yet to win a World Cup: blame a snooty attitude to ODIs and a reluctance to adapt. Yet post-Ashes optimism might be justified. Monty Panesar is the best one-day spinner England have produced; Kevin Pietersen matches Pakistan’s Shahid Afridi for fearless batting; all-rounders Andrew Flintoff, Paul Coll-ingwood and Jamie Dalrymple have the range of a crack jazz trio; and Liam Plunkett and James Anderson both swing the ball at pace.
Prediction: Semi-finalists

Nobody underachieves like India – but then no team has to bear such a burden of expectation. With seven of the 2003 runners-up remaining, reinforced by belligerent wicketkeeper MS Dhoni, it might be reasonable to suppose the prize was within compass. The obvious rider is that they are lamentable travellers, losing nine of their last 10 away matches. Sachin Tendulkar has recently been a far cry from the genius who scored a record 673 runs at the last World Cup, while Virender Sehwag’s decline also needs to be arrested. Irfan Pathan’s left-arm swing has faded just as alarmingly, though the rise of Munaf Patel and Sri Sreesanth has made this ­easier to bear.
Prediction: Super Eight

The Kiwis always punch above their weight. Determination courses through the team, exemplified by Jacob Oram, ace among a full house of all-rounders. Stephen Fleming is the event’s most astute captain, Shane Bond the swiftest bowler and Ross Taylor the most boisterous emerging batsman. Craig McMillan and Brendon McCullum can revive improbable run chases, at which New Zealand excel. Yet while Daniel Vettori and Jeetan Patel are estimable spinners, the attack may be too reliant on Bond.
Prediction: Super Eight

Following the Oval Test forfeiture and Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif’s failed drug tests, nothing would be more typical of this erratic team than a robust challenge for the trophy they won amid similarly discouraging circumstances in 1992. But whereas Imran’s “cornered tigers” numbered Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram, the withdrawal of Shoaib and Asif has robbed the attack of a cutting edge. No team travels better: 15 of the last 22 away fixtures have been won. Umar Gul unsettles with his bounce and Danish Kaneria is the most accomplished young leg-spinner around. Batsmen Yousuf Youhana and Younis Khan are in their pomp and the explosive Shahid Afridi is likely to supply imperishable memories.
Prediction: Semi-finalists

Having just toppled Australia from the top of the world rankings, Graeme Smith’s men should fancy their chances of atoning for the near-misses of 1992 and 1999, and their failure on home soil four years ago. It would be unwise to discount any side boasting a batting line-up capable of chasing down 435, as they did when mugging Australia last year. Moreover, the seam attack of Shaun Pollock, Makhaya Ntini and Andre Nel is the event’s best. But spin remains a flaw; likewise their form out of Africa.
Prediction: Super Eight

For all England’s frailties, last summer’s 5-0 series walloping by the touring Sri Lankans installed the latter as strong outsiders. In most respects they are better than their predecessors who bucked all odds by taking the 1996 trophy. Of the three survivors, Sanath Jayasuriya, Muttiah Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas, only the first is in decline. Upul Tharanga and Chamara Silva are the young thrusters in a deep batting order, and nor is the bowling support for Muralitharan and Vaas negligible. And their fielding is a cut above.
Prediction: Finalists

Few would begrudge them becoming the first in World Cup history to make home advantage count. Nothing less than the trophy itself might suffice if the game is to retain an emotional pull on these disunited isles. In Chris Gayle, Dwayne Bravo, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Ramnaresh Sarwan and Brian Lara, this team has a steely spine, hence nine wins in the last 10 home games. Gayle’s off-breaks will be as handy as his imperious strokeplay, and Jerome Taylor could be a world-beating strike bowler. Bets should be led by the head but who can resist the occasional concession to the heart?
Prediction: Winners

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