Fri, Feb 07, 2003 - Page 23 News List

Australia, South Africa the favorites to lift cup

TWO-HORSE RACE The two most formidable cricket teams in the world are probably best suited to the hard and fast wickets of the host country, South Africa

AP , JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA

Young performers dressed in meerkat costumes stand behind a fence waiting to take part in the final dress rehearsal for the opening ceremonies of the 2003 Cricket World Cup at Newlands in Cape Town on Wednesday.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Cricket's eighth World Cup looks a two horse race between defending champion Australia and host South Africa.

The bookmakers say so. So do the Australian and South African fans.

And that's despite the impressive track records of West Indies, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, who have all won the title since the competition was first played in 1975.

When the trophy is handed over March 23 at the Wanderers' stadium, Johannesburg, it's probably going to either Australian batsman Ricky Ponting or South African allrounder Shaun Pollock.

The simple reason is that Australia and South Africa are the top two teams in world cricket and both are probably best suited to the hard, fast wickets in the host country.

India, with Sachin Tendulkar still its star player, and Waqar Younis' Pakistan likely will make the semfinals.

West Indies, with Brian Lara back to full fitness and trying to recapture the record-breaking form of nine years ago, is an outside bet for the title. Sri Lanka, winner in 1996, has an experienced batting lineup and mesmerizing spin bowler Muttiah Muralitharan.

But don't expect England to be in the final four.

The nation that hosted four of the previous three World Cups and has been in three finals, has never won the title and doesn't look like doing it this time either.

Outplayed 4-1 by Australia in the recent Ashes test series and then soundly beaten by the Aussies in a one-day competition, Nasser Hussain and his team has arrived in South Africa low on confidence despite some standout batting by Michael Vaughan, the world's top scorer in tests last year.

They also found themselves at the heart of a political wrangle over whether they should play their game in Zimbabwe.

The British government, which has accused the regime of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe of human rights atrocities, called on Hussain and his players not to go to Harare for the Feb. 13 game.

Unfortunately for the players, their employer, the England and Wales Cricket Board, backed the organizers' stand that Zimbabwe was safe to host its six games. While in Australia, Hussain and his players received threats from Mugabe opponents that they would disrupt the game.

With the fear of violence increasing, the players appealed to the ECB to change its mind and yesterday the board requested the technical committee of the game's world governing body, the International Cricket Council, to review security in Zimbabwe.

If the ICC says the game goes ahead in Harare, the England players may boycott the match and forfeit the four points. That would give Heath Streak and his talented but unpredictable team a head start in the competition where three teams advance from each of the two groups of seven.

Australia is also thinking over its game against Zimbabwe in Bulawayo but looks like going. India and Pakistan are also in the tougher of the two groups and have confirmed they will play there. The Netherlands and Namibia are in the same group but are expected to be among the first teams eliminated anyway.

With a star-studded lineup including opener Matthew Hayden, pacemen Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee and legspinner Shane Warne, Australia has no weaknesses.

Backing up Tendulkar on the Indian batting lineup are Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid and team captain Sourav Ganguly while the bowling stars are spinners Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh.

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