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Shahid Afridi

Punjab Cricket Association Stadium, Mohali

Punjab Cricket Association Stadium, Mohali

Most Scots will probably not even know it is taking place, but today one single event in Mohali is likely to end up being the biggest sporting contest in the world – ever.

India are taking on Pakistan in the semi-final of the cricket world cup and the broadcasters think that as many as one in every six people on the planet will tune in to watch.

India has a population of 1.18 billion and a large majority of these are expected to watch at least some of the game today. Pakistan is much smaller, with only 170 million people – but again, a large majority are expected to follow the game, most on television.

It is difficult to predict with any accuracy what the final viewing figure will be, because so many people will watch on shared television sets, but some experts think the global audience (with ex-pat Indians and Pakistanis the world over tuning in) could top one billion.

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These two countries are the biggest and most passionate cricketing nations in the world. Matches between them always attract big audiences, but this time it is even more important than usual.

This the world cup. At stake is a place in the final against sub-continent rivals Sri Lanka – while, for the loser, there will be something approaching disgrace.

With such a huge audience, it is perhaps surprising that the advertising rates aren’t higher.

It was reported today that ESPN Star Sports, which bought the official broadcasting rights from the International Cricket Council for close to $2 billion, has hiked its rates for ten-second ads in today’s game more than fivefold, to between 1.8 million rupees and 2 million rupees. But that still brings those ads in at between $40,000 and $45,000, which does seem small given the size of the potential audience.

For the record, India batted first and, at the time of writing, after a good start, they are losing their way somewhat. Cricketing superstar Sachin Tendulkar looked to be heading for a century, which would be his hundredth international ton, but he was dismissed for 85 when Pakistan captain Shahid Afridi clung on to a catch after two of his team-mates had earlier dropped chances.

India had looked set for a score in excess of 300, which would have been very hard for Pakistan to chase, but with six overs to go India were 213 for 6 and it was anyone’s game.

While the victors will celebrate long into the night, spare a thought for the losers – and in particular, the losing captain. With such passion and interest in both countries, the loser will have nowhere to hide.

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Shahid Afridi <em>Picture: Harrias</em>

Shahid Afridi Picture: Harrias

Technically, it’s at the six-sevenths stage – 42 matches down, seven to go – but this feels like the pivotal point in proceedings. The tenth cricket world cup, being played across India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, has reached the end of its group stage and the knockout matches – the proper, consequential contests – await.

In the tournament preview, it was argued that the good side / poor side imbalance of the two seven-team groups would lead to “a strong sense of a month having been wasted”. Well, that’s been the case in terms of which teams failed to qualify: Zimbabwe, Kenya and Canada from Group A, Bangladesh, Ireland and the Netherlands from Group B. So far, so straightforward.

Group A was something of a pointless exercise – literally so for Kenya, who plunged from semi-finalist status eight years ago to played six, lost six this time round. The top part of the group was glorified net practice, mere jostling for position.

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Many of the matches were stupidly one-sided: New Zealand twice won by ten wickets (against Kenya and Zimbabwe), Sri Lanka beat Canada by 210 runs. Even the mini Tri-series between the minnows failed to produce any close contests: Zimbabwe beat Canada and Kenya by 175 runs and 161 respectively, Canada beat Kenya by five wickets.

The markedly stronger Group B, however, was a different matter. The predicted qualifiers again made it through, but the group provided almost a tournament’s worth of entertainment in itself – largely due to the efforts of England. Rarely can such a sequence of crazy, umbrella-chewing games have been played in top-level sport – recent Scottish football qualification campaigns had nothing on this. Thus far, almost all the enthralling matches have involved England – winning narrowly, losing spectacularly, or enjoying that rare bird among cricket results, the tie.

As the BBC’s Jonathan Agnew noted after qualification had been secured by the (inevitably tight-squeeze-ish) win against the West Indies, there is no point in Andy Flower, Andrew Strauss and co worrying about the Irish defeat: Kevin O’Brien’s onslaught was a once-in-a-lifetime, force-of-nature innings, against which any team would have wilted.

O’Brien’s name will be added to the list of extraordinary one-off batting assaults – a list stretching from Ted Alletson to Nathan Astle. It didn’t provide much overall information, but it did add hugely to the atmosphere of what already appears to be a happier, more enjoyable – for players and crowds alike – tournament than the 2007 edition in the West Indies.

The Bangladesh defeat, however, was different. Losing straightforwardly to a team that could only muster 58 against the West Indies and 78 against South Africa really shouldn’t happen. As in the close shave against the Dutch, a tired-looking England outfit seemed uncertain in terms of tactics and friable when things start to go wrong.

Despite all the English brinksmanship and crowdpleasing, the match of the tournament thus far was the South Africa–India encounter at Nagpur. Seen by various pundits (the present writer included) as a trial run for the final, this was a remarkable affair. Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar and Gautam Gambir swaggered through the first 39 overs, racking up 267 for 1, at which stage it was simply a question of how far above 350 they could reach. But nine overs, nine wickets and just 29 runs later, South Africa had a target to chase. And chase it they did, with Robin Peterson – rapidly becoming a real star – thumping 4624 when they needed 13 from the final over.

Now, with just eight teams left and an unfussy knockout format, it’s engagingly open. Australia’s defeat by Pakistan in their final group match not only ended a 12-year, 34-match unbeaten run, but also meant that every team had lost at least once. India and South Africa remain the strongest, best-balanced outfits, but the field has bunched.

All four quarter-finals are intriguing. First – today, in Mirpur – comes Pakistan–West Indies, which has the air of two teams vying for a losing semi-final slot. Chris Gayle, on his day, is the most destructive batsman in world cricket, but his day comes only occasionally. Darren Sammy’s team is the flimsiest of the eight, having qualified courtesy of wins against the weaklings.

Pakistan remain, as ever, an enigma, and could yet march through and win the whole thing. Shahid Afridi’s batting mostly misfires these days, but his haul of 17 wickets, the most by any bowler, has helped greatly. Pakistan are a good bits-and-pieces side, and ought to reach the semis.

There they would meet the winner of India–Australia. On paper – and how strange it is to write this – Australia are very much the underdogs. Their batting, even with Michael Hussey now back in the team, stutters more than Colin Firth. The pace attack, Brett Lee excepted, looks uncertain in the radar department. India, by contrast, have a tremendous top order, with Tendulkar seemingly destined to “do a Boycott” and reach a lifetime landmark – his 100th international 100 – on his home ground in the final.

Yuvraj Singh is having a good tournament, while Virat Kohli is a classy strokemaker. But there are doubts. The lower-order hitters, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Yusuf Pathan, haven’t really sparked, the bowling is insipid at times, and that collapse from a position of huge strength against South Africa might come to be seen as telling.

The construction site that is the Australian team could yet grind out a win – or three – with Ricky Ponting hitting form one last time and the team coalescing around him. Tim Nielsen, the Australian coach, described Thursday’s Ahmedabad game as “a mini-grand final”. But it’s hard to see his team progressing, and an India–Pakistan semi looks likely. That would put Old Firm tensions into perspective: no one at Parkhead or Ibrox has access to nuclear weapons, after all.

The third quarter-final, New Zealand versus South Africa, will also be fascinating. The Proteas have the best attack (Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Imran Tahir, with Peterson proving to be a “finisher” with ball as well as bat), and have moved to overall-favourite status. Their batting is in no doubt: AB de Villiers, averaging 106, was born to play in the world cup, and he is supported by a strong cast. In 11 days’ time the “choker” tag could well have been seen off by sheer skill and strength.

That said, New Zealand were dark horses at the start and are an even stronger outside bet now. Losses to Australia and Sri Lanka were offset by solid wins, and their extraordinary late-innings blitz against Pakistan was the undoubted Group A highlight (but probably said more about Afridi’s team than Daniel Vettori’s).

Then there is Sri Lanka–England. It’s to be played in Colombo, and home advantage could prove decisive. If Kumar Sangakkara wins the toss and helps his team rack up 320-plus, that should be enough. But England – the wayward and currently dropped James Anderson aside – have mostly been a handy bowling unit, with Tim Bresnan, James Tredwell and Graeme Swann performing well. Their having been joined by a bloke named Jade seems curious, however.

The batting has just been on the healthy side of curate’s egg status, with the ultra-consistent Jonathan Trott and the patchier-but-classier Strauss nos.2 and 3 behind Sangakkara in the tournament run-scorers list.

England, though, need to get their batting and bowling departments having good days together, not alternating like weather-house figures. Just as significant, however, might be their battle-hardened status after the run of tight games. Writing in the Guardian before the final group matches, former England coach Duncan Fletcher had this to say: “If they qualify England will be a dangerous team to come up against. They can take a lot of confidence from the fact that they are used to playing under the pressure of knowing that they will be knocked out if they lose. Other sides are going to have to readjust to that change of pace, which is a sharp switch to have to make when you have been playing soft games in the group stages. England have quite an advantage because of that.”

That seems a reasonable assessment. Although England might quietly regard pre-tournament expectations as having been met were they to lose in Colombo, just now they are in a remarkably strong psychological position. Whether they have it in them to push on and win the trophy for the first time remains to be seen.

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criccup1For some people it’s the FIFA world cup or the rugby equivalent. For others, poor souls, it’s the grand final of Strictly. But for many – and more in Scotland than tends to be acknowledged – the set-piece occasion to really set the anticipatory juices flowing is the cricket world cup. The tenth edition gets underway this Saturday (8:30am GMT) when two of the three co-hosts, Bangladesh and India, face each other over 50 overs in Mirpur.

Having said that, the past couple of tournaments (2003 in South Africa, 2007 in the West Indies) haven’t quite done the trick – due to a combination of no free-to-air live TV coverage, the bloatedness of the schedule compared with the lean days of yore, and the sustained period of Australian hegemony.

The TV problem is pretty much unavoidable these days: the stay-at-home cricketista’s choice is to pay the Murdoch shilling or settle for the nightly BBC highlights package. For live non-Sky coverage there is always the Cricinfo text feed (the modern version of Ceefax-watching), or trusty old TMS.

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As for the bulking-up, the 1975 and 1979 tournaments each involved just eight teams, 15 matches and 15 days. There was almost a festival air to proceedings – helped by the Caribbean-cavalier dominance of the period – and much of that has been lost with increased commercialism.

The 2011 version will be shorter (just) than the 51-match, 47-day drudgery of 2007, but the slow start remains a problem, especially at a time when – as Sharda Ugra notes in an excellent Cricinfo preview – the 50-over format is under threat from Twenty20.

The tournament will be 30 days old before the group stage slouches to its close – at which point six of the 14 teams will be eliminated. If – as seems very likely – these six prove to be Zimbabwe, Canada and Kenya from Group A, and Bangladesh, Ireland and the Netherlands from Group B, there will be a strong sense of a month having been wasted. The real 11-day shootout starts with the first quarter-final on 23 March.

As for the Australian reign, one doesn’t have to be expressing Antipodean antipathy to argue that it would be for the general good if some other outfit gave them a right good stuffing. In both 2003 and 2007 they played 11, won 11, and their last defeat was against Pakistan at Headingley on 23 May 1999 (when they went on to win the tournament anyway). The Australians have had, as the saying goes, a good innings. Now it’s someone else’s turn.

So who will lift the trophy in Mumbai on 2 April? Too hard to call, really – this is the most open tournament for some time. Subcontinental pitches and conditions will be a big factor, such that three of the four “local” teams – sadly not Bangladesh, despite their recent improvement – will expect to do well (and each of the last five finals has featured a team from the subcontinent).

Although the 1992 winners Pakistan are always unpredictable, this surely won’t be their year. Shahid Afridi and co will entertain, but too many top players have been sent to the naughty step.

By contrast, India are favourites to repeat their 1983 triumph. With Virender Sehwag blazing away, the great Sachin Tendulkar enjoying what shouldn’t really be termed an Indian summer, and Mahendra Singh Dhoni aspiring to be an Indian version of Adam Gilchrist, there won’t be any shortage of runs. If Zaheer Khan, Sreesanth and Harbhajan Singh (who has also recently discovered how to make Test centuries) stay fit, the bowling looks good, too.

1996 winners Sri Lanka could well make quiet progress – not for nothing do some bookmakers have them as second-favourites.  Murali would like nothing more than to wrap up his career with a win, the batting triumvirate of Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara and Thilan Samaraweera would play for Barcelona if they were footballers, while Tillakaratne Dilshan will have days when his crazy shovel-scoops pay off.

Then there are the Australians… The batting behemoth of recent years has left the building, and the loss of Michael Hussey through injury is a major blow. And yet, and yet. The baggy greens know how to win like no other team, and semi-underdog status might suit them. Shane Watson has become a tremendous one-day all-rounder (witness his recent wonderful 161 against England),  and Ricky Ponting, like Tendulkar, will not want to see a great one-day career fizzle out.

The bowling is a worry, though, and if they do get flayed on the flat pitches then the batting won’t be able to repeatedly savage attacks and salvage games as it did in the days of Matthew Hayden et al.

New Zealand are the dark horses. No team has a greater claim on world cup overperformance – something that tends to be forgotten due to their failure ever to reach a final. Five losing semis is a remarkable record, and with the retro-bespectacled Daniel Vettori in charge and Brendon McCullum capable of trashing any attack, they should again reach the knockout stage. A place in the final? Probably not – but no one could begrudge this most pragmatic of teams an unexpected win.

What to make of the West Indies? Once so dominant, then so dismal. Chris Gayle will wage a private mayhem war with Sehwag, Shivnarine Chanderpaul is much more than a stodgy nurdler, and there are useful bits-and-pieces players. But think of the eleven that took to the field for the 1979 final – Greenidge, Haynes, Richards, Kallicharran, Lloyd, King, Murray, Roberts, Garner, Holding, Croft – and it’s clear why the current crop won’t win the cup.

Which leaves the two teams who really really want it: South Africa and England. The Proteas have played in only the five most recent tournaments, and have lost in the semis three times. Their reputation is for bad luck and innumeracy with regard to rain-delays – the absurd recalculation that left them needing 21 runs off one ball against England in 1992, and Shaun Pollock’s tragi-comic misreading of Duckworth-Lewis against Sri Lanka in 2003. This is allied to overconfidence and carelessness in crucial situations, most notably the Herschelle Gibbs “You’ve just dropped the world cup” incident in the 1999 semi against Australia.

South Africa will have learnt from all that hurt, and Graeme Smith’s team could bulldoze everything in its path, with AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla and the relentlessly efficient Jacques Kallis leading the batting, while Dale Steyn has become a bowler to be feared.

The English failure to win one of the early competitions looks ever more curious as the decades pass. Gary Gilmour’s spell of 6 for 14 in the 1975 semi was seismic at the time, and there’s an argument to be made that the natural born winners have never come as close to the trophy since then, three losing finals notwithstanding.

The English batting remains fickle. Kevin Pietersen is more oh-my-god than demigod, but the weird idea of sticking him in to open might just work. Ian Bell has a great tournament in him but might be drifting out of form after an impressive Ashes. Andrew Strauss has been reinvented as a Watsonian belter, while Matt Prior dropping down the order to sort-of fill the gap left by the injured Eoin Morgan (who must be even more gutted than Hussey) feels like the right decision albeit for the wrong reason. And the return of Ravi Bopara, again for Morgan, might just be timely. But England are capable of 391 for 4 in one match, 93 all out in the next.

More than with any other team, the English bowling is key. This will be a batsman’s cup in a batsman’s era, so a decent collection of medium-pace wobblers, reverse-swingers and quirky spinners could build frustration, slow the scoring rate and win tight matches. That could mean England.

The Caledonian Mercury prediction? Ahead of the Ashes series, your correspondent correctly suggested Australia 1 England 3 to his across-the-street neighbour, then stupidly omitted to mention this in the preview piece.  So it’s time to be bolder – and in all probability wrong – for the world cup. India to beat South Africa in the final, with the losing semi-finalists comprising any two of England, Australia and Sri Lanka.

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