Any team among the 14 teams that wins the World Cup on March 23 at Johannesburg need not necessarily be the best team on the planet. But it will prove to be the strongest in terms of commitment and the will to win at the end of the six-week tournament, which will bring out the best and the worst in players.
As for Pool 'B', I feel South Africa, playing in home conditions and also having selected the venues where they could perform better, would be the team to qualify on top of the pool. On paper South Africa's batting seems to be rather thin. It would definitely depend on players like Herschelle Gibbs, Jacques Kallis, Jonty Rhodes and Gary Kirsten. In my opinion, they have done a mistake in dropping Graeme Smith. Among the batsmen, Rhodes could make a lot of difference.
He is not a great hitter of the ball but he is the best in running between the wickets. He can also urge his partner to convert singles into twos. Plus he is an enthusiastic cricketer who motivates his mates by his sharp fielding. He can make a lot of difference to the side in the middle. The bowling is dependent a lot on Allan Donald. He is not getting younger these days and is also to a great extent injury prone. Given the occasion, playing before his home crowd, he can be a thorn to any team. South Africa also has a useful pinch hitter in Nicky Boje, who has proved his worth on many occasions.
The way the South Africans approach their fielding is phenomenal and it is akin to the Australians. Considering these, South Africa should comfortably head the pool and qualify for the Super Six. As for the Sri Lankans, it augurs well for the team that Sanath Jayasuriya has found back his golden touch in batting. Despite their disastrous outing in the tri-series in Australia, Jayasuriya was back to his old ways -- of scoring runs at will.
The manner in which he scored back-to- back centuries recently was an indication that he was getting back to the top form ahead of the World Cup. With Kumar Sangakkara also showing lot of promise along with Marvan Atapattu, Sri Lankas have a decent batting line-up. Apart from their impressive opening pair of batsmen, Muthiah Muralitharan is the best in the business when it comes to off spin and most of the sides are scared to face him. In One-day games, Murali is much more effective than Shane Warne.
He always comes on to bowl at the death and usually makes a mockery of the tailenders' defence and technique. At present, Sri Lanka has found its feet though it failed to make the final of the tri-series. Since it has been playing well these days, Sri Lanka has a genuine chance to progress to the second round in World Cup. If you look at New Zealand's record in the Cup it has been phenomenal. It has made it to the semi-finals in four out of seven World Cups.
Apart from 1983, the only time it could not make it to the semis was when the tournament was played in the Indian sub-continent -- perhaps, the conditions did not suit it. But the Kiwis have a few injury problems. Their key player is Chris Cairns, a brilliant all-rounder and he is expected to be fully fit by the time World Cup gets rolling. One cannot forget his superb century in the ICC Knockout final in Nairobi, which helped his team win the Cup pipping India. They also have another dependable all-rounder in Scott Styris. Though they have no big names, they are capable of surprising other teams with bowlers like Shane Bond, Andre Adams, Daryl Tuffey and Daniel Vettori.
They have given every side a run for its money and wickets in South Africa should suit them better. The West Indians are seemingly finding their moorings after a prolonged lean patch. Particularly, the seven match One-day series in India, which they won 4-3, must have given them tremendous confidence. Chris Gayle, for that matter, can be as hard hitting as anyone can in the business today. If he is on song, he can be a bowler's nightmare. Mind you, the team has found success even without Brian Lara. Now that Lara is also back the Calypso Kings have a strong batting line-up.
The opening pair of Gayle and Wavell Hinds could pose problems to their rivals providing the team a good start. Next in to the middle are batsmen of the calibre of Lara followed by Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Marlon Samuels and skipper Carl Hooper. I doubt whether the same could be said of their bowling, which is inexperienced. Their best bet is Mervyn Dillon and I doubt whether they would be able to trouble the rival batsmen. To offset this weakness, the team from the Caribbean has to use its batting strength to post a sizeable total making it difficult for the rivals to chase.
The fielding is also not top notch barring a few, who could be considered brilliant. Most of them are lethargic. Fielding is one area WI has to attend to. But at the same time, one cannot rule out West Indies. It will be a contest between, New Zealand and Sri Lanka or West Indies, with two of them joining South Africa in the Super Six.