Saturday, March 3, 2007

Too many minnows fill the Cup?

Michael Holding may have spoken the mind of many a cricket fan when he questioned the logic behind having so many non-Test playing nations or the Associate Members of the ICC – the ‘minnows’ - at the sport’s premier event. This edition of the World Cup will see Bermuda, Canada, Ireland, Kenya, the Netherlands and Scotland vie for honours alongside top-ranked teams South Africa and Australia. Test-playing nations Bangladesh and Zimbabwe will also be playing with the ‘minnows’ tag.

The number of teams playing the World Cup has increased from nine at the1992 edition in Australia to 16 in this year’s tournament. The consequence: a World Cup lasting nearly two months, in contrast to a month-long event for the Football World Cup, featuring 32 teams. And cricket is not even half as popular as football.

Coming back to the minnows, one must not belittle their ability to spring a surprise or two. It has happened in earlier World Cups, and chances are that a repeat will occur in the West Indies. The World Cup might be only chance for most players from these teams to rub shoulders with the ‘big boys’, apart from sharing the limelight.

Bangladesh will be leading the pack this time; though like the others they will need a great effort to overcome their sub-continental counterparts India and Sri Lanka to qualify for the Super Eight stage from Group B. However, the team led by batsman Habibul Bashar and coached by Dave Whatmore – the man who succeeded in guiding an unfancied Sri Lanka to the 1996 title- will take inspiration from their upset win over Pakistan at the 1999 World Cup and another over World Champions Australia in the NatWest tri-series in 2005. The Bangladesh squad for this World Cup only has skipper Bashar and wily left-arm spinner Mohammed Rafique from the 2003 squad, and with an average age of 23.6, has some exciting players such as Mashrafe Mortaza, Mohammed Ashraful and Aftab Ahmed to watch out for.

Bermuda is the fourth team in Group B, this being the first-ever appearance at the World Cup for the island nation. Irvine Romaine will lead the side. Key players include English county Glamorgan skipper and batsman David Hemp. The team fared poorly at the recently concluded World Cricket League in Kenya – featuring the top six ICC Associates- and lost all but one of their five matches. The team consists of what many call “unfit amateurs”, surprising for a country where cricket is the national sport. The team has former West Indian cricketer Gus Logie as coach.

Zimbabwe may still play Test cricket, but they are far from the peak that they hit in the 1999 World Cup. A win over India and South Africa saw them reach the Super Six stage, but they missed out on a semi-final berth. Internal strife has plagued the team in recent years, and this team led by 21-year old off-spinner Prosper Utseya lacks the star quality of the Flower brothers, Heath Streak or Henry Olonga. Utseya and Sean Williams are the players to look out for. Coached by former player Kevin Curran – who incidentally played a part in the country’s stunning win over Australia in the 1983 World Cup- will be hoping his young lads can create a amongst the ranks of Pakistan and West Indies, the top sides expected to go through in Group D.

Ireland faces a tough proposition in Group D. The country is the other debutant in this World Cup, and will be hoping that opponents Pakistan, Zimbabwe and the West Indies strike the indifferent form that they are prone to. Their bowlers failed to deliver at the World Cricket League in Kenya, the team ending with one win, though all losses were closely contested. Batsmen hold the key for the side, 22-year old William Portenfield being one of them.

Kenya will consider having done a good job even if they match their semi-final appearance in the 2003 edition. Star batsman Steven Tikolo leads the African side that has Canada, England and New Zealand for company in Group C. Former West Indian off-spinner Roger Harper is coach of the team that boasts of talented players such as all-rounder Thomas Odoyo, leg-spinner Collins Obuya and medium-pace bowler Peter Ongondo. However, the team will miss the services of World Cup stalwarts Kennedy Otieno and Hitesh Modi as well as fast bowler Martin Suji, who is out due to a knee injury. The team’s win over West Indies in 1996 remains one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history.

Think of Canada and one instantly recalls skipper John Davison’s blitzkrieg against the West Indies. Slotted in Group D, Canada will come up against England and New Zealand – two sides on the back of successes against the Aussies- and Kenya, a semi-finalist in South Africa. Vice-captain and wicketkeeper-batsman Ashish Bagai was named ‘Player of the Tournament’ at the World Cricket League, Nairobi. Former West Indian fast bowler Anderson Cummins also figures in the squad.

Scotland will make their third consecutive appearance this World Cup. Scotland lost to eventual winners Kenya in the World Cricket League in Nairobi, and tops the Associate ODI rankings, which does not include Kenya though. The team has to compete in Group A alongside the top two ODI sides of the world – South Africa and Australia. Scotland won the ICC Trophy, the qualification tournament for this World Cup, in 2005. Gavin Hamilton, the all-rounder who was the star of their campaign in 1999 and later played for England, will play for the minnows in this World Cup.

The Netherlands is the other team in Group A and their match with Scotland will be one to watch out for. Batsmen Bas Zuiderant and Ryan ten Doeschate had a good run in Nairobi and will be hoping to replicate that form against quality bowlers like Glenn McGrath and Shaun Pollock. The team is captained by 37-year old Luuk van Troost. The Netherlands’s Nolan Clarke made history at the 1996 World Cup, at 47 years and 257 days he became the oldest player to appear in an ODI when he played South Africa at Rawalpinidi.

Eight ‘minnows’ will be playing this World Cup, in spite of doubts over their ability. However, with so many ‘minnows’ in the fray, it will hardly be a surprise if one or two can pull off an upset.

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