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India have that World Cup favourite tag

Trevor Chesterfield

Updated: January 19, 2011, 10:39 PM IST
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Unlike Sri Lanka's Sanath Jayasuriya, England's ICC World T20 winning captain, Paul Collingwood, knows how to retire gracefully. Likewise former West Indies captain, Brian Lara, who used the 2007 World Cup stage as a farewell backdrop to his own career and its achievements.

Now both have lined up their semifinalists for this 10th edition, offering the same four countries to play in the semifinals with India heading the favourites parade. South Africa, England and (wait for it) - Australia the three remaining teams.

What? No Sri Lanka? Well, they do give the former title-holders a cursory mention in dispatches; or as it were an outside chance. The view is how, as with Jayasuriya, they are unlikely to make a major impact on this year's event. India though have it over most others.

For those of you who follow such things, Jayasuriya is still clinging to a faint hope of inclusion through injury to one of the key Sri Lankans, by playing in a domestic series instead of attending to his duties as an elected MP. Quiet weird as it seems to have official approval.

So far, though, there have been no howls of indignation spewing from minds of those inhabiting the portals of most Colombo's media, pumping out their calumny over the Collingwood/Lara predictions of the sides with the best chances. There has though been major indignation expressed on websites where columnists and what-have-you have yapped like mongrels chewing over a bone with their comments. All of which brings a wry smile.

Arjuna Ranatunga, of course, is quite dismissive of such comments by two non-Asians. What would they know? All forgetting of course, how the burdens of expectation have been a serious harbinger when it comes to hopes. England failed in the four occasions it has been held there. Australia, title-holders, failed in 1992 when losing to New Zealand and then South Africa and failed to recover.

In 1996, India reached the semi-final only for Mohammed Azaharuddin to blunder on winning the toss by asking Sri Lanka to bat first. A riot ensured and some of us were partly manhandled as a result when vacating the media centre at Eden Gardens. Security for the game provided by Pilcom officials was inadequate and the police had to step in to ensure the safety of media members.

This time around, India, will of course hope there is no repeat of 2007 when they lost to Bangladesh by five wickets with nine balls of their Port of Spain game remaining. This after the pre-tournament wall-to-wall hype surrounding the Rahul Dravid led side ended in an embarrassing first round exit. So much for predictions.

Several attacks on the house that Mahendra Singh Dhoni was building at Ranchi, along with the need for additional security to protect the properties of Dravid, Virender Sehwag, Anil Kumble and other players, was an over-reaction. The nation was in a state of shock over that result but players didn't deserve such treatment.

Mind you, Bangladesh made the super eights along with Ireland who shook up the pre-tournament predictions by beating Pakistan in a game where the Irishmen, largely amateurs, outplayed Pakistan. The aftermath of that result shook the tournament.

It became a major public relations disaster with the investigation into Bob Woolmer's death or possible murder. That singular sinister event overshadowed whatever followed. The pall of doubt and indecision and police probe gained major unwanted headlines ahead of the cricket being played. That is Pakistan for you. From spot fixing at Lord's to terrorist attacks on visiting teams, Pakistan have their own agenda.

Woolmer's death meant there has been no World Cup like it. Not even the result of Australia dominating the final yet again and winning their third successive title earned the plaudits it should have. Ricky Ponting led the side to an efficient victory and as such, wiped the smirk off the faces of Sri Lanka's supporters. All this was too much for Ranatunga and most others to take. They didn't like it at all.

This year's build up has been full of ponderables. India are playing well in South Africa, creating an image in support of the Collingwood/Lara prediction that India are front-runners. Mind you, despite this being disputed by Indian supporters, South Africa have again managed to contrive to lose the last two games in a way only they can. It happens. Poor cricket and bad performances in the field.

Or, as a West Indies colleague and former fast bowler, Ian Bishop smiled when explaining his comments to two other commentators recently, "Even the best can lose to what looks to be a lesser side. It's a game and the ball is round - accept it."

England and Australia are involved in a series that may, or may not mean anything as Collingwood has been axed as even an ODI player.

Then of course, there is the typical Australian bravado. Shaun Tait expostulating critics by suggesting in Australian media how they currently have the "world's best bowling attack" forgetting that they are playing a World Cup with one recognised spinner Nathan Hauritz and three-fillers. Not even England and South Africa are that stupid in their selection.

As the convener of selectors, Andrew Hudson, who was part of the 1996 side that lost to West Indies in the quarterfinal in Karachi, would know, it is important to have balance in spin when touring the subcontinent. How different to the hard and fast seamer first policy that has all too often been part of South Africa's past strategies.

A lot more thought has gone into this South African selection. Leg-spinner Imran Tahir, a prolific wicket-taker at domestic level in South Africa and England, is someone whose love earned him a World Cup place through naturalisation for South Africa and not Pakistan. In time, he could become the country's leading spinner and a challenge to Johan Botha to develop his all-round talents.

To their credit and that of the coach Gary Kirsten and his support team, India are negotiating this series without three of their top players who are injured. But as was pointed out by Woolmer in 1996, playing a World Cup on the subcontinent creates its own mind games and it is not an ODI series but a tournament with other teams involved, not only the host nation(s).

As for Sri Lanka, the burdens of history and 1996 with such expectations, and repeating the 2007 success, is something that needs to be looked at before they can argue how good they are. After all, forgotten is the result of their last ODI, against Australia in Brisbane. It was where Clint McKay collected five and Sri Lanka were dismissed for 115 in 32 overs. Maybe that is telling us something we don't know.

First Published: January 19, 2011, 10:39 PM IST

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