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Toughest test for quick-fix cricket

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IT may now be played with a sophistication and daring beyond imagination at the first World Cup in 1975, but limited-over cricket remains a tortuous game of chance.

Over the next two months pundits and punters everywhere will endeavour to use conventional analysis, science and, no doubt, some wisdom to divine the outcome of the ninth World Cup. It is improbable they will succeed, for this World Cup is a lottery like no other. As this blue riband event of quick-fix cricket has grown in status and popularity, the protagonists have regularly needed to confront greater variables in conditions on and off the field.
Now for the supreme test: a World Cup in the West Indies. From the time the game's governors first took the event out of England - to India and Pakistan in 1987 - there was speculation whether it would be feasible to stage a World Cup in the Caribbean.
While the many pleasures of visiting the West Indies are made abundantly clear in advertising for the region, it has always been a challenging place to play cricket.
Even the travel and associated requirements can be demanding, with the archipelago snaking from Jamaica 772km south of Florida in North America by way of Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana on the South American mainland via Barbados to Antigua 692km north of Venezuela.
Invariably the grounds are small and practice facilities are modest or non-existent. And, historically, pitch and outfields have varied dramatically from sovereign nation to sovereign nation.
Be that as it may, without cricket and, to a lesser extent, the University of the West Indies with its main campuses in Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados, there would be little other than a geographical denotation to identify the region.
Wes Hall, the great Barbadian paceman, politician and priest has long maintained that cricket is the only powerful unifying force in the Caribbean.
It is to be earnestly hoped that by hosting the World Cup, the disparate nations of the region and especially their young people will re-engage with the game. That West Indian cricket stocks have been so depressingly low in recent years has caused the game's governors and devoted followers considerable distress.
Never before will coaches and captains have entered a World Cup with such little knowledge of the conditions on offer, such has been the extent of work undertaken on established grounds aside from the construction of new venues.
The networking and intelligence-swapping among officials, coaches and captains leading up to the opening ceremony is bound to be even more spirited than four years ago when South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya hosted the event or in 1996 when the responsibility fell to India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
So fickle is this form of the game that Australia has, at least on a mathematical calculation devised in Dubai, lost favouritism for the event before a ball has been struck.
That Australia won the past two World Cups and lost the final to Sri Lanka in Lahore the time before apparently does not enter the reckoning. As it happens the game's elite players pay as much attention to the International Cricket Council's points tables as they do the countless meaningless one-day games they are compelled to play between World Cups.
Indeed, so many of these frolics are played now, there is little doubt they have diminished the World Cup. And to have scheduled both the Champions Trophy and World Cup over the past six months is ridiculous and must be changed.
To this end it was interesting on Tuesday night to hear the thoughts of Australia's foremost limited-overs players feted at a function to recognise the success of Allan Border's team in 1987, and to farewell Ricky Ponting and his ambitious party.
While all took great pride in playing for Australia, few had recall of specific matches apart from the World Cup which truly mattered. This is hardly surprising when it is considered Australia has played 648 one-day internationals. And the bulk of these have been played over the past 15 years or so.
There was, of course, no shortage of advice for Ponting and his men.
Foremost among it was the need to forget the misadventures of recent weeks against England and New Zealand and focus on the meaningful matches that lie ahead, and not on the meaningless which had caused so many critics to work themselves into a state.
Ponting conceded the Australians' uncharacteristic lapse in concentration and consequent losses will have significantly buoyed the other teams and especially the three most likely to challenge Australia's superiority: Sri Lanka, South Africa and India.
And, of course, England and New Zealand are still gloating and give themselves a chance that would have been dismissed as foolhardy just weeks ago. Of course, the abbreviated game generally leads to abbreviated thinking and abbreviated judgments.
That Sri Lanka is coached by Tom Moody and India by Greg Chappell brings another fascinating dimension to the lottery. Both have appeared in World Cup finals and it goes without saying that should the fates decree they have the knowledge and nous to expertly prepare their charges against Australia.
With Bennett King in charge of the West Indies and Dav Whatmore guiding Bangladesh, Australians are poised to play a very significant part in the event. Certainly Australia coach John Buchanan, who is retiring at the end of the tournament, and specialist bowling coach Troy Cooley, so ill-advisedly left out of the party that was whitewashed in New Zealand, will have their every strategy analysed and every statement dissected.
At 41, Moody has established an imposing reputation as a coach and in advance of Tim Nielsen's appointment as Buchanan's successor was considered a strong candidate for the position. He has also been mentioned in connection with the England job which so challenged Duncan Fletcher in Australia throughout the summer.
Aside from his tactical nous Moody, who represented Australia at the World Cup in 1987, 1992 and 1999, is an exceptional communicator and, with the help of his skipper Mahela Jayawardene, has refined a team that seriously threatens Australia.
The ageless Sanath Jayasuriya, who is finding it impossible to retire, and the thrilling Kumar Sangakkara provide robust company for Jayawardene while indefatigable Chaminda Vaas, along with the slinger Lasith Malinga, represent a potent and shrewd new-ball attack.
Then there is Muttiah Muralidaran, who may well find some conditions conducive to his craft.
South Africa captain Graeme Smith, the bete noire of most if not all Australian cricketers of recent times, is again at pains to convince the world that the Proteas have lost their tag as "chokers".
There is no doubt that the South Africans have found a new purpose of late and one senses this has had as much to do with the enthusiasm and encouragement of fielding coach Jonty Rhodes as it has with the consistent heroics of the wonderfully robust and brave fast bowler Makhaya Ntini.
It is well known Smith talks a good game but the more discerning critics and punters will be looking for much more before investing in this enigmatic band.
For all the stinging criticism in the press and burning effigies in the streets of Kolkata, Chappell has somehow managed to rehabilitate egocentric Sourav Ganguly and unify the Indian team.
And with the legendary Sachin Tendulkar surely at his last World Cup alongside Rahul Dravid, erratic Virender Sehwag and explosive Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Chappell must have some optimism that India can accumulate sufficient defendable totals and go one better than in 2003.
The prodigiously talented Irfan Pathan and Shanthakumaran Sreesanth will provide enough hostility before making way for the guileful and intensely competitive Harbhajan Singh.
No doubt Buchanan's file notes on these and other mainline competitors make fascinating reading. Hopefully, they will not end up under the wrong hotel doors as the caravans make their way around the Caribbean.
After Australia's stunning success against India in the final of 2003, at Johannesburg, a critic observed: "The Australian team cannot be faulted for its brilliance, but it would be to cricket's benefit if the rest of the world provided some competition."
At the moment it seems this is what the rest of the world has in mind.
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