Johannesburg: The six-week, fourteen-nation World Cup gets underway in Cape Town on Saturday with the heart and soul of the sport at stake just as much as the trophy itself which will be decided on March 23.
Rows over boycotts, security and contracts have cast a shadow over the tournament with the touch paper lit by England's fears over playing in strife-torn and hunger- ravaged Zimbabwe and by Indians' reluctance to put pen to paper on deals which they argued were a threat to the health of their own personal bank accounts. But it was New Zealand's decision to pull out of its game in Kenya on February 21, for fear of being a terrorist target that finally sparked the explosion of controversy.
Kenyan Vice-President Michael Kijana Wamalwa urged the Kiwis to reconsider. "I am urging them to reconsider because the act of not coming would be interpreted as victory by the terrorists," Wamalwa said. Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network has admitted carrying out two terrorist attacks in Kenya - one in 1998, which killed 213 people, and another on November 28 last year in Mombasa where 18 died. Meanwhile, England's reluctance to play its February 13 match against Zimbabwe in Harare becomes more pronounced by the day with the ICC, the game's governing body, refusing to switch the fixture claiming that Nasser Hussain's team has nothing to fear.
Hussain, weary after another marathon, fruitless Ashes campaign is tired of the controversy. "All we are asking for is an urgent review of the game in Zimbabwe, nothing more," said the skipper who believes the team has made a strong case for switching the fixture, citing "moral, political and safety" issues. The England team has come under tremendous pressure to pull out in protest at President Robert Mugabe's regime. Its only consolation is knowing that the match could still be switched up to four days before the scheduled date.
But if the game was moved, it would ignite another costly row as it would involve India, the financial power that drives the world game, which insists that the game should go-ahead. India, along with Pakistan, Namibia and The Netherlands are also scheduled to play in Zimbabwe, while Sri Lanka has a game in Kenya. "The playing conditions should be the same for all teams," a source at the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) said. "All the other group 'A' teams have to travel to Zimbabwe. Why should England and Australia be exempt?" Like their rivals, India's preparations too have been far from ideal.
Only last week, the ICC announced a truce in the contracts row that had threatened to result in an Indian boycott. The ICC's executive board approved a compromise deal that effectively puts a resolution off until after the event. But the ICC is threatening to withhold India's $ nine-million cut of World Cup proceeds in the event it is sued for compensation as a result of the Indian players decision to unilaterally alter their contracts. The ICC confirmed it had received "signed but amended contracts" from the Indian players.
The BCCI and the players strongly oppose two clauses which are designed to ban commercial rivals of the official tournament sponsors using their pre-existing deals with individual players to gain publicity, before, during and after the World Cup. Many Indian stars, including Sachin Tendulkar, enjoy lucrative deals with non- official sponsors, which they would have had to forego if the original World Cup contracts were enforced. Meanwhile, in South Africa itself, the authorities are taking no chances with a tournament, which, if trouble-free, will bolster the country's bid to stage the big one - the soccer World Cup in 2010. Security will be tight.
Every player will be assigned bodyguards, while fans will be met by metal detectors and security personnel and will be deterred from running onto the playing area by a 1.7m moat. South Africa and holders Australia are most peoples' tips to feature in the final at the Wanderers. Playing at home, Shaun Pollock's team has the self-belief to make local knowledge count while the Aussies, eager to cement their position as one of the greatest ever teams, are strong in all departments. Runs will come from the likes of Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist while the fast, bouncy wickets will be a dream for the likes of Brett Lee and Glenn McGrath.
England is low on self-confidence after another Ashes trouncing while India could lack the attack to exploit South African tracks. The West Indies is still seemingly in permanent decline while New Zealand, already with a defeat against its names for refusing to play in Kenya, will find itself without the depth to go the extra step. Of the other contenders, Sri Lanka has the weaponry but the ongoing distractions caused by the legality or otherwise of Muthiah Muralitharan's bowling action could prove crucial. Then there's Pakistan - world-beaters one day, in-fighters the next. The possibilities are many. So are the pitfalls.