Sydney: The Cricket World Cup begins Saturday with New Zealand hosting Sri Lanka in Christchurch and old rivals Australia and England meeting in Melbourne.
After six weeks of wickets, whacks and willow, the tournament will finish with a final at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on March 29.
Here are some things to watch:
In the end, Michael Clarke had the big decision made for him. Medical and coaching staff decided the Australia captain was not quite ready to return from surgery on his right hamstring to play in the opener against England. Coach Darren Lehmann is confident the 33-year-old skipper will start against Bangladesh on Feb. 21.
“He’s very keen to play. But we’ve got to make sure when he gets back he’s ready to go and he will be come Saturday week,” Lehmann said. “He’s respectful of what we’re trying to do to get him right.”
Missing a captain of Clarke’s caliber would usually be a major setback for a team like Australia. But in his absence, Steve Smith stepped up to lead the test team to a series win over India, and George Bailey guided the one-day international team to a win in the tri-series against England and India.
England’s leadership stocks were rocked when Alastair Cook was stripped of the ODI captaincy in December and replaced by Eoin Morgan.
The great Sachin Tendulkar recalled a 2003 World Cup match against Pakistan in his recent autobiography, dubbing it “Battlefield Centurion” after the venue in South Africa. He said he’d waited for the showdown for a full year after the schedule was unveiled, and couldn’t sleep for three nights before the game.
“The nation would brook no failure and for many of our fans this was the true final,” he wrote. “It really did not matter to them what happened in the rest of the tournament.”
India won that match by six wickets but lost the final to Australia, a defeat Tendulkar rated among his big disappointments.
Expect the stakes to be just as high, or higher, on Sunday when the archrivals meet in Adelaide. Local organizers predict the TV audience could be the biggest in history to watch a cricket match.
Pakistan has taken its share of ODIs against India but India has won all five of their meetings in World Cups, dating back to a 43-run win in Sydney in 1992, the year Pakistan won the title.
New Zealand has reached the World Cup semifinals six times, including on home soil in 1992, but has never gone on to the final. Some senior players feel that might change this time.
“My previous four World Cups there has been some trepidation moving into it but this one feels like a good solid squad that is ready,” 36-year-old Daniel Vettori said. “Rather than stumbling into a World Cup like we may have done in the past, we can go into it with all our bases covered and everybody firing.”
The bowling group is tight, and there are power hitters throughout the batting order, starting with skipper Brendon McCullum at the top.
“The guys we have in this squad are very humble and very level in their emotions and that helps you to deal with those expectations and some of the pressures that come on,” McCullum said. “That’s what this World Cup is going to require, and I believe we’ve got the men to do it.”
Blowing in the Windies:
The West Indies won the first two World Cup tournaments in 1975 and ’79 before things starting to turn against the Caribbean team in the 1983 final, which India won against the odds. Since then, it’s been mostly downhill for the nations that combined to bring the Calypso kings to the cricket world.
The West Indies didn’t reach the semifinals in ’87 or ’92 but somehow, after capitulating in a shocking 73-run loss to the amateurs from Kenya in the group stage in ’96, recovered to reach the semifinals before losing to Australia from a strong position. They haven’t been back to the last four since.
There are no great expectations for 2015.
The squad was thrown into turmoil with the ill-judged walkout from a tour of India in October, sparking threats of sanctions and legal action, and was thrashed in a recent series in South Africa. Left-arm spinner Sunil Narine withdrew from the World Cup squad due to concern over his bowling action.
“We are still a bunch of confident guys,” veteran Darren Sammy said in South Africa. “With the amount of match-winners we have in our squad, we could be a force to be reckoned with.”
Jason Holder was made captain – at age 23 – and will have to mature quickly to have any chance of marshaling the squad which crashed to a nine-wicket loss to England in a warmup match in Sydney.
The Afghan national team started almost from scratch a little over a decade ago, and had its first forays in international competition in 2008 in the fifth division World Cricket League. Mohammad Nabi and his teammates will debut in the World Cup next Wednesday against Bangladesh.
Nabi is aiming for some wins over the lower-ranked teams and a possible spot in the quarterfinals.
Fans grab the chance for a photo with Mohammad Nabi and the World Cup, Kabul, September 13, 2014
“If we beat Bangladesh in the first match, then we hope to beat Scotland, and maybe one of the big teams if we happen to win against them, then we will go to the second round,” Nabi said.
Coach Andy Moles said achieving a quarterfinal spot – meaning at least a fourth-place finishing in the seven-team Pool A – “would be like winning the World Cup.”
The Afghanis got a reality check in a warmup match, taking early wickets to have India in trouble at 16-2 before Rohit Sharma put on 150 runs to propel the defending champions to an eventual 153-run win.