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Real cricket begins with the 'Real World Cup'.

The 50-over Cricket World Cup begins today and the cricketing world is excited, except perhaps yours truly. Because, as I have often said, the 50-over World Cup (since the 90s) has two faces -- fake and real. The former appears first and lasts for more than a month while the latter comes and goes in less than a fortnight.

The greatest sporting spectacle, the Olympic Games, is over in less than a fortnight and the soccer World Cup with 32 teams and 64 matches does not stretch beyond a month. Why then does a cricket World Cup with just 14 teams have to be six weeks long and involve 49 matches?

The devil is in the format - 14 teams divided into two groups of seven, each playing the other once with the top eight qualifying for the quarter-finals. From there, it is a knockout - four quarter-finals, two semi-finals and the final on March 29.

Compare this to the first two World Cups in 1975 and 1979 -- just eight teams, 15 matches and over in as many days. Some of the best matches were played in these two editions. Since then that simple format has been mauled and unimaginatively stretched for various reasons -- from appeasing associated countries to dancing to the tunes of sponsors and broadcasters. All these in a sport which had no official World Cup for more than a century after the first Test was played.

By comparison, the first soccer World Cup was played in 1930 in Uruguay. But cricket waited for other sports like hockey, badminton, table tennis, volleyball and some others -- including women's cricket which, yes, had its first World Cup in 1973, and, believe it or not, pea shooting -- to follow suit before picking up the cue.

Returning to the present World Cup, it is being held when the 50-over format is suffering from existential crisis and the World Cup itself, at 40, facing a mid-life dilemma - bad cholesterol, high sugar levels, blood pressure worries, falling eye sight,receding hairline, 'expanding waistline and narrowing mindset' (as famous British philosopher AC Grayling put it in one of his books), just to name a few.

Topping it is the ever-increasing popularity of the smart new kid on the block -- Twenty20 -- and the sustained interest in Test cricket. 50-over cricket is caught at the crossroads, if not in the crossfire, and is quite literally in a Catch 22 situation.

The next six weeks will decide its future, if not its fate.

Finally, my prediction. In tennis, it is said that you cannot win a Grand Slam in the first week but you can certainly lose it. However, in this World Cup, teams can lose more than once in the first four weeks yet go on to crown themselves with glory in the last two.

With four of the seven teams from each group qualifying for the quarter-finals, Test-playing nations can assure themselves of advancing even after losing a couple of matches. It does not matter even if it is against another Test-playing nation.

For example, Sri Lanka in Group 'A' can still qualify after losing to two of the other four Test playing nations in their group - New Zealand, England, Australia and Bangladesh.

The other factor is the duration the teams have to figure out its path into the quarter-finals and perhaps also work out ways to avoid a heavyweight team in the knockout round.

Sri Lanka, for instance, plays its first match today. Their next is on February 22, the third February 26, fourth March 1, fifth March 8 and last on March 11. The other 13 teams have a more or less similar leisurely schedule.

Therefore, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to pick and prod your way into the knockout stage. From there it is only a matter of two victories in a week before you are in the final.

My top three teams for the title are New Zealand, South Africa and Australia, not necessarily in that order, based on present form, recent run of victories and, more importantly, the right mix of players.

West Indies are the perennial dark horses while Pakistan and Sri Lanka can be the giant-killers. England, on the other hand, can either suffer a meltdown, like Andy Murray did in the final of the Australian Open, or soldier on into the final, but I presume even a reckless gambler would be wary of putting his money on them lifting their maiden World Cup.

That leaves India in splendid isolation -- wallowing in self-pity and self-doubt. Though they have been in Australia since last November, they are yet to win a competitive match -- their only victory came over lowly Afghanistan in a warmup match on Tuesday.

But as I said earlier, and Indian captain M S Dhoni keeps repeating, all that it needs is three good matches -- the quarter-final, semi-final and the final -- to be crowned world champions. Or like former South African captain Gary Kirsten said, the World Cup is not about form but the unexpected.

In six weeks time the truth will be known. In the meantime, I will wait for the REAL World Cup to begin on March 18!

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Publication:Gulf Daily News (Manama, Bahrain)
Date:Feb 14, 2015
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