Tight at the top

Viet Nam News - - Front Page - by Nick Mul­ven­ney

With five months to go un­til the World Cup, reign­ing cham­pi­ons In­dia sit atop global cricket rank­ings, yet other coun­tries’ teams could still con­ceiv­ably catch up.

After what at one stage ear­lier this month looked like a vast game of mu­si­cal chairs, reign­ing cham­pi­ons In­dia ended up top­ping the world rank­ings when the five-month count­down to the 2015 World Cup started on Sun­day.

With just three rat­ing points sep­a­rat­ing the top four na­tions, how­ever, the 11th ver­sion of the qua­dren­nial show­piece of 50-overs cricket, which is be­ing co-hosted by Aus­tralia and New Zealand, looks like be­ing one of the clos­es­tever.

We look at how the 10 test­play­ing na­tions (in or­der of world rank­ing) are shap­ing up 154 days be­fore New Zealand meet Sri Lanka in Christchurch to launch the Fe­bru­ary 14March 29tour­na­ment.

IN­DIA

Led by Ma­hen­dra Singh Dhoni and boast­ing some fear­less stroke­mak­ers in their ranks, the top-ranked ODI side in the world look se­ri­ous con­tenders to de­fend their ti­tle.

A much-im­proved field­ing side, In­dia ap­pear to have ben­e­fit­ted from the In­dian Premier League, which has given their play­ers the op­por­tu­nity to play reg­u­larly against the lead­ing bowlers in the world.

Even the most ju­nior bats­man in the In­dian side has faced the likes of Dale Steyn and Mitchell John­son in the Twenty20 tour­na­ment and have gained enough con­fi­dence to hit them out of the park when the need arises.

With their pace bowl­ing un­der­whelm­ing, In­dia will once again build their at­tack around their spin­ners, who made a big im­pact in their World Cup win at home in 2011.

SOUTH AFRICA

Re­cent se­ries vic­to­ries in Sri Lanka and Zim­babwe, where they played a tri­an­gu­lar tour­na­ment in­volv­ing Aus­tralia, have boosted the con­fi­dence of the Proteas, even if both were achieved in con­di­tions they will not find at the World Cup.

Their strong bat­ting line-up has been so­lid­i­fied by the emer­gence of Faf du Plessis at num­ber three, com­ing in after proven open­ers Hashim Amla and Quin­ton de Kock.

In AB de Vil­liers they have ar­guably the best one-day bats­man in the world, but there is con­cern over their one gen­uine power-hit­ter, David Miller, who is out of form.

The South Africans also lack an all-rounder to bat at seven, with this duty shared in re­cent times by Ryan McLaren and Wayne Par­nell with mixed suc­cess.

SRI LANKA

Sri Lanka will be hop­ing next year is third time lucky after be­ing beaten in the fi­nal of the last two World Cups and the 1996 cham­pi­ons seem to have the re­sources to achieve that.

Ma­hela Jayawar­dene, 37, and Kumar San­gakkara, 36, got a fit­ting 20-over farewell when Sri Lanka won the World Twenty20 ti­tle in Bangladesh in April but win­ning the 50-over event in Aus­tralia would be an even bet­ter part­ing gift.

Sri Lanka's com­pact bat­ting side is com­ple­mented by a bal­anced bowl­ing unit which is likely to in­clude the mer­cu­rial La­sith Malinga, whose york­ers, de­liv­ered with his sling­shot ac­tion, can make him almost un­playable on oc­ca­sions.

The rise of This­ara Per­era and Dham­mika Prasad have eased the pres­sure on Malinga but Sri Lanka have been forced to have a fresh look at their spin op­tions after off-spin­ner Sa­chithra Se­nanayake was banned for an il­le­gal ac­tion.

AUS­TRALIA

Aus­tralia re­lin­quished the num­ber one rank­ing, lost cap­tain Michael Clarke to in­jury as well as a match against Zim­babwe on their re­cent trip to Harare but that will do lit­tle to dent op­ti­mism they can win a fifth world ti­tle next March.

With the likes of open­ers David Warner and Shane Wat­son to re­turn to the side be­fore the World Cup, Aus­tralia can af­ford to be cir­cum­spect about the set­backs suf­fered by an un­der­strength and ex­per­i­men­tal side in Zim­babwe.

There re­main con­cerns, not least about whether Clarke's back will be up to the amount of cricket he will be asked to play over the next five months and whether they will ever un­earth another world-class spin­ner.

On the plus side is the prospect of Mitchell John­son and his fel­low pace­men re­new­ing their of­ten lethal re­la­tion­ship with Aus­tralia's hard and bouncy decks.

ENG­LAND

Eng­land go into the World Cup, which they have never won, with min­i­mal ex­pec­ta­tions after a dis­mal run of form in the 50-over game.

The low­est av­er­age net run rate of all test-play­ing na­tions in re­cent times, an out­dated ap­proach to the for­mat and huge ques­tion marks over the cap­taincy and make-up of the team hardly in­spire con­fi­dence.

For­mer spin­ner Graeme Swann said re­cently the team have "no chance" of win­ning the tour­na­ment and there is a strong case for re­plac­ing Alas­tair Cook as skip­per due to doubts about his lead­er­ship style and lim­i­ta­tions with the bat.

Eng­land do have tal­ented one-day play­ers. Alex Hales is a de­struc­tive open­ing bats­man, Eoin Mor­gan a spe­cial­ist finisher, wick­et­keeper Jos But­tler a flam­boy­ant mid­dle­order player and Harry Gur­ney a po­ten­tially im­pos­ing death bowler.

PAK­ISTAN

A bunch of tal­ented but un­pre­dictable play­ers with a ten­dency to im­plode in­ex­pli­ca­bly, Pak­istan suf­fered a huge blow to their prepa­ra­tions when spin­ner Saeed Aj­mal was banned for an il­le­gal bowl­ing ac­tion ear­lier this month.

Aj­mal has about five months to cor­rect the ac­tion and seek a re­assess­ment but whether he will ever again show the form that has made him the top-ranked ODI bowler in the world is some­thing only time will tell.

The 1992 cham­pi­ons are also grap­pling with a cap­taincy dilemma. Mis­bah-ul-Haq has re­mained a rare sta­ble fig­ure in a volatile dress­ing room but his mod­est sub-74 strike rate is no longer tai­lor-made forthe for­mat.

After last month's ODI se­ries de­feat in Sri Lanka, the clam­our has grown to re­place him with all-rounder Shahid Afridi, whose bat­ting and per­son­al­ity are the po­lar op­po­site to Mis­bah's.

NEW ZEALAND

New Zealand's bat­ting has been set­tled for a num­ber of years with Martin Gup­till, Kane Wil­liamson, Ross Tay­lor and cap­tain Bren­don McCul­lum likely to fill four of the top-five po­si­tions.

The big­gest is­sue is find­ing a new open­ing part­ner for Gup­till with few ex­pect­ing hard-hit­ting bats­man Jesse Ry­der to be re­called to the side due to his be­havioural is­sues.

Tim Southee, Kyle Mills, Trent Boult and Mitchell McCle­naghan are likely to be the main pace bowlers with young quicks Adam Milne and Matt Henry vy­ing for the fifth spot.

For­mer cap­tain Daniel Vet­tori, who is still one of the most eco­nom­i­cal bowlers in limited overs cricket and a handy lower-or­der bats­man, is also likely to be in­cluded, if fit.

WEST INDIES

West Indies are with­out a coach after the sud­den de­par­ture of Ot­tis Gib­son last month and care­taker Richie Richard­son could still be in place when they warm up for the World Cup with trips to In­dia and South Africa.

A se­ries of top-or­der col­lapses in re­cent limited overs matches mean the fit­ness and avail­abil­ity of the of­ten bril­liant opener Chris Gayle would ap­pear to be vi­tal to the hopes of the twice cham­pi­ons en­joy­ing any suc­cess at the World Cup.

Like­wise, per­suad­ing mys­tery off-spin­ner Su­nil Narine to put West Indies be­fore lu­cra­tive Twenty20 con­tracts would fur­ther bol­ster an oth­er­wise solid bowl­ing unit.

BANGLADESH

The 50-over for­mat re­mains Bangladesh's best chance to im­press at the world stage but their growth as a force in world cricket has stag­nated in re­cent years.

The team rely heav­ily on spin­ners, who might find it dif­fi­cult to ply their trade ef­fec­tively on the seamer-friendly con­di­tions in Aus­tralia and New Zealand.

Bangladesh also have had their prob­lems with all-rounder Shakib Al Hasan over dis­ci­plinary is­sues but the for­mer cap­tain re­mains their best bet to sur­prise a higher-ranked op­po­si­tion and cause an up­set dur­ing the World Cup.

ZIM­BABWE

Zim­babwe showed they can be com­pet­i­tive in the re­cent home tri­an­gu­lar se­ries against South Africa and Aus­tralia where they de­feated the lat­ter and came close to up­set­ting the Proteas.

The bat­ting line-up could be de­scribed as flakey at best but they do have de­cent hit­ters and in Bren­dan Tay­lor, who re­lin­quished the one-day cap­taincy to El­ton Chigum­bura last month, a player to build an in­nings around.

Con­sis­tency in per­for­mance with both bat and ball has been elu­sive and that is not some­thing likely to change be­tween now and the World Cup.

Con­grat­u­la­tions: Karn Sharma of In­dia and Am­bati Rayudu of In­dia are con­grat­u­lated for get­ting Joe Root of Eng­land wicket dur­ing the In­ter­na­tional Twenty20 (T20) match be­tween Eng­land and In­dia held at Edg­bas­ton Cricket Ground in Birm­ing­ham, Eng­land on Septem­ber 7. Photo bcci.tv

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