Johannesburg: Reigning champion Australia enjoyed Monday's rest day at the World Cup, relaxed at the summit as the rest of the pack made a mad scramble to join it. With victories over Asian rivals India and Pakistan in the bag, Ricky Ponting's men are the only ones assured of moving into the Super Six after 15 matches of the 42- game preliminary league. For the other five places at least eight teams are in contention, promising a thrill- a-minute excitement never seen before at cricket's four-yearly showpiece.
Zimbabwe, India, Pakistan and England all have a chance to take the other two super six spots from group 'A' behind Australia. In the other half, host South Africa finds itself on the brink of elimination, but still not out of the race, after New Zealand, Sri Lanka and the West Indies made bold opening moves. Provided the lesser teams do not cause an upset - like Bangaldesh did four years ago by defeating eventual runners-up Pakistan - group 'B' could see the Super Six race go down to the wire. Two key games could determine the three qualifiers from the group. The February 28 clash between the West Indies and Sri Lanka under lights at the Newlands in Cape Town.
Also the March 3 day-nighter at Kingsmead in Durban between Shaun Pollock's South Africa and Sri Lanka where a defeat would knock the host out. New Zealand bounced back into the tournament after a catch offered by captain Stephen Fleming bounced out of South African wicket-keeper Mark Boucher's gloves at the Wanderers on Sunday. Fleming, then on 53, went on to make a career best 134 not out as New Zealand secured a nine-wicket win in the do-or-die encounter. Had the Kiwis lost that match, they would have been knocked out and carried South Africa, Sri Lanka and the West Indies into the Super Six. Now it's an open race with New Zealand and Sri Lanka just marginally ahead of the other two.
Boucher's dropped catch reminded old timers of the fumble Herschelle Gibbs made four years ago which, as the legend goes, prompted the then Australian captain Steve Waugh to say, "You just dropped the World Cup, mate". With easy outings in hand against minnows Namibia and the Netherlands, Waugh's successors will top group 'A' even if they lose to England - or boycott their match against Zimbabwe on February 24. The Australians have insisted they will travel to Bulawayo despite opposition from their government but any signs of further violence in the strife-torn country could force a rethink. England's refusal to play in Harare has already earned Zimbabwe four bonus points.
If Australia too decides to stay away, Heath Streak's men will ensure their place in the super six without working up a sweat. Zimbabwe will also advance if defeats India in Harare on Wednesday which will throw Saurav Ganguly's team out of the World Cup and leave Pakistan and England battling for the third spot. Ganguly had said before the tournament that his team's much-awaited clash against arch-rivals Pakistan at Centurion on March 1 would be of only academic value since the qualifiers would already have been decided by then. That would now be true only if India loses to Zimbabwe.
Otherwise the first match between India and Pakistan since May, 2000, could prove to be the most decisive of them all. But before that, both India and Pakistan must overcome Nasser Hussain's England if they are to stay in the race. That's how thin the line is dividing the victors and losers. The World Cup is too close to call.