Johannesburg: The storm clouds which have overshadowed the build-up to the 2003 World Cup grow darker as the ongoing row of whether England will play Zimbabwe in Harare rumbles on towards a bitter conclusion. After months of wrangling over the fixture, the England and Wales Cricket Board's (ECB) latest attempt to have the February 13 match switched away from the strife- torn country failed on Thursday. Now Nasser Hussain's team is left with a final appeal to be heard on Friday when independent commissioner Judge Albie Sachs hears the case, but the signs are that England will be told to play the match in Zimbabwe.
If it refuses, it will be docked four World Cup points and will face a huge fine levied by the International Cricket Council (ICC) for breaking its contractual obligations to play the game. But whatever the outcome of that final appeal, the controversy has completely overshadowed the start of the six-week, 14-nation event which gets underway with the opening ceremony in Cape Town on Saturday and with the first match between South Africa and West Indies at the same Newlands venue on Sunday. The long-running Zimbabwe saga has been just one of the major problems facing the tournament which South Africa was hoping will be a resounding success as the country prepares a bid to host the 2010 football World Cup.
There were also problems in India and Sri Lanka over player contracts for the tournament while New Zealand's decision to pull out of its game in Kenya on February 21, for fear of being a terrorist target, sparked another explosion of controversy. Even South Africa president Thabo Mbeki on Thursday weighed into the argument over Zimbabwe as he questioned the motives behind those countries opposing playing in Kenya and Zimbabwe, saying they had nothing to do with security concerns. "I don't understand what these concerns about security are," he was quoted as saying by the national SAPA news agency. "It is political, it has nothing to do with security." Should England wins its case on Friday, and has its fixture moved, it will infuriate financial powerhouse India, which along with Pakistan, Namibia and the Netherlands is also scheduled to play in Zimbabwe, while Sri Lanka also has a game in Kenya.
However, like their rivals, India's preparations for the event 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 put a resolution off until after the event. But the ICC is threatening to with hold India's $ 9 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.
On the field, South Africa and holders Australia are most people's tips to feature in the final at the Wanderers in Johannesburg on March 23. Playing at home, Shaun Pollock's team has the self-belief to make local knowledge count while the Aussies, eager to cement its position as one of the greatest ever teams, is 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 and its confidence wasn't helped by a defeat to Kwazulu in the last of its warm-up games on Thursday.
On Wednesday, a normally woeful Bangladesh had beaten the same South African provincial side. The West Indies is still seemingly in permanent decline but New Zealand, despite a defeat against its names for refusing to play in Kenya, is an outside tip to be in the final. Of the other contenders, Sri Lanka has the weaponry but the ongoing distractions caused by the legality or otherwise of Muttiah 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.