Melbourne, Feb 13 (IANS) Sandwiched between the faster and more appealing Twenty20 and the traditional long drawn Tests, the ODI format, struggling for sustenance not long ago, is set to take centrestage when the ICC World Cup gets underway at the Antipodes Saturday.
The tournament’s return to Australia and New Zealand evokes a strong sense of familiarity with the co-hosts, together with the highly-fancied South Africans and under-pressure title holders India expected to present serious claims to become the world’s best One-Day International (ODI) team.
Since the trans-Tasman neighbours first co-hosted in 1992, the competition has grown into a monster event with television viewership and commensurating revenue filling the coffers of the International Cricket Council (ICC).
The trend shows no sign of abetting with traditional rivals India and Pakistan braced up for an early battle that is expected to declare the tournament up and running.
The championship may provide 14 teams a level-playing field till March 29 to win the highly-coveted trophy but performance in build-up matches have separated the men from the boys, as against the earlier speculations that consigned fans to believe how evenly-matched so many of the leading nations were.
Boasting a world class attack, a strong leader in A.B. de Villiers and a formidable of batting line-up, South Africa, perennial “chokers”, possibly have their best chance to break their Cup duck.
They possess a squad not only intimidating on-field, but, crucially, judging by past experiences, devoid of Cup baggage as none of the members were party to the semifinal disaster at the 1999 edition or their painful first-round exit in 2003 on home soil.
Australia, by far the most successful team with four titles, failed to make the knockout phase in 1992 but circumstances have changed remarkably since that disappointment.
They have built a reputation of near invincibility at home, backed by ruthless form of formidable teams under the leadership of several forceful individuals but are feeling the pressure of expectations to win in familiar conditions.
Reigning champions India also have no shortage of quality batsmen but have traditionally struggled on southern hemisphere pitches without penetrative seam bowlers.
Their immediate form also intensifies the pessimism around them having won just a single match during their near three-month stay in Australia and plagued by a host of problems, accidental or long term.
With six semifinal appearances in 10 World Cups, New Zealand have traditionally punched above their weight. But it is for the first time they relish a realistic chance of going all the way.
Apart from the 10 Test-playing nations the contest also has four Associate teams — Ireland, Afghanistan, the United Arab Emirates and Scotland.
The teams have been divided into two groups consisting seven teams each playing round-robin matches to determine the top eight sides who would advance to the quarterfinals, starting March 18.
Twice champions but fallen giants, the West Indies are not in the pink of health affected by administrative chaos and baffling squad selections.
They, along with Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, two hopeless teams very much down in the dumps, are expected to make early exits.
Sub-continental powerhouses Pakistan and Sri Lanka have both a reputation of being unpredictable performers at the biggest stage of the game.
While Pakistan, saddled with familiar problems and depleted by several injuries have been weakened further by withdrawal of key figures due to suspect bowling actions, seek comfort from their only tournament success in 1992 here.
Sri Lanka have no such worries and aided by strong recent performances at recent ICC events they would fancy their chances.
Providing added motivation to the Islanders would be the swansong of legends Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara and a possible last hurrah for pace spearhead Lasith Malinga and batting mainstay Tillakaratne Dilshan.
The game’s inventors, England have never quite cracked the ODI puzzle having been beaten finalists on three occasions.
A last-ditch captaincy change, dropping Alastair Cook and appointing Irishman Eoin Morgan and a decent performance in the tri-series against India and Australia have, however, lifted their morale for a respectable performance.
As in earlier editions, the round-robin matches are likely to be be decent tune-up games for the big teams with the “real action” beginning from the knockout rounds.
Organisers expect more than a million spectators to attend the 49 games at 14 venues and a television audience of over a billion viewers, making it cricket’s biggest advertisement to the world.