Asia’s finest descend on Australia and New Zealand over the next six weeks, with dreams of lifting the 2015 World Cup.
Conditions, form and injuries may be against India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, but there’s still plenty of class among their ranks to mount a decent run at the title.
Defending champions India know they will be up against it in the seamer-friendly conditions of the southern hemisphere, and the fact MS Dhoni’s side have been woefully out of form just adds to the uncertainty of their challenge.
After losing the World T20 final to Sri Lanka last summer, India looked back to their one-day best, winning 2-0 in Bangladesh and 4-1 in England, before 2-1 and 5-0 victories at home to the West Indies and Sri Lanka respectively.
But since then, including the Test series in Australia, the boys in blue haven’t won in 11 matches (at the time of going to press) and were thumped by the co-hosts and England along the way.
Being away from home, particularly Down Under where India have historically struggled, is thought to be the biggest reason as their spinners and slower bowlers can’t influence the game in the same way they do on subcontinent pitches.
This fact has put extra pressure on India’s inconsistent bowling attack, and lately they have been a lot more miss than hit, hence the results.
An injury to frontline seamer Ishant Sharma has ruled him out of the tournament, putting even more responsibility on Mohammad Shami – the leading ODI wicket-taker in 2014 – to come up with the goods. Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Umesh Yadav will also carry the new ball duties.
Dhoni has hinted at a four-man seam team so all-rounder Stuart Binny may get the job. R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja’s contribution may also be pivotal in the knockout stages.
India’s strength, as always, is in their batting. Opener Shikhar Dhawan’s recent slump is a concern but Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina, Ajinka Rahane and Dhoni will all fancy their chances of regularly surpassing the 300-plus mark on run-friendly grounds.
Finding star man Kohli’s best spot at three or four will be crucial. The odds may seemingly be against them but the format of the World Cup ultimately means whoever plays their best cricket on the three knockout days will win. And that is well within India’s capabilities.
Pakistan have definitely been the unluckiest of the teams when it comes to injuries and high-profile absentees.
All-rounder Mohammad Hafeez and pace spearheads Junaid Khan and Umar Gul miss out through injuries, while spin king Saeed Ajmal’s inclusion was still up in the air after just getting his suspect action cleared. Even this week, quickie Sohail Khan picked up a knock to add to the worries.
Recent form has been poor too; a 2-1 series defeat in Sri Lanka and a 3-0 loss to Australia was followed by 2-0 and 3-2 reverses by New Zealand.
As a result, Misbah-ul-Haq leads a young side, many of whom haven’t played any competitive cricket in Australia.
For the great unpredictable’s to fire, the likes of Misbah, in-form Younis Khan, Umar Akmal and Shahid Afridi must perform with the bat, and Mohammad Irfan, Wahab Riaz and Yasir Shah must show up with the ball.
Ahmed Shehzad and Sarfraz Ahmed (in for Hafeez) are expected to open with Younis at three and Misbah at four. If the quartet can give Akmal, Afridi, Sohaib Maqsood and Haris Sohail enough time to hit out late on, there could be some big scores for their passionate fans to enjoy.
Keeping everything together over the long duration of the event might well be a problem though for the 1992 champions.
Sri Lanka, the final cog of Asian cricket’s big three, are aiming to break their World Cup hoodoo after losing the past two finals to India and Australia.
They got back to major title winning ways when they won the WorldT20, and all the experience of years gone by return for one last crack at history. Veterans Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara, Tillakaratne Dilshan and the fit-again Lasith Malinga will again be the go-to-guys in Angelo Mathews’ well-balanced starting XI.
Admittedly, finding a partner for Dilshan at the top of the order has been hard work for the selectors ahead of their campaign. Dimuth Karunaratne, Dinesh Chandimal and Lahiru Thirimanne have all failed to make the grade, leading to speculation that Jayawardene will get the nod.
Sangakkara has been in sensational knick of late, leading the ODI scoring charts over the past 12 months with 1,256 runs in 28 innings at an average of 46.51, and will excel at three.
Mathews, who scored nine 50-plus scores in 2014, will have a huge role in the lower middle-order, as will fast-bowling all-rounder’s Thisara Perera and Nuwan Kulasekara.
The final word though goes to Malinga. If ‘The Slinger’ can recover adequately from ankle surgery and is anywhere near the best, he could add the x-factor needed to emulate their 1996 triumph.
His combination with Kulasekara and Rangana Herath is up there with the best. It may be one tournament too far for the golden oldies, but they’re certain to give it their best shot.
Bangladesh always seem to flatter to deceive when it matters most, and despite never being one of world cricket’s super powers, their report card eternally reads ‘Should do better’.
Mashrafe Mortaza has been talking up his team’s chances of beating either Australia, England, New Zealand or Sri Lanka to progress from the round robin stage, but turning talk into action will be a lot more tougher.
They did beat Pakistan in 1999, and India and South Africa in 2007, though the Tigers haven’t progressed much since. Mainstays from eight years ago Shakib Al Hasan, Mushfiqur Rahim, Mahmudullah and Tamim Iqbal are still key men, but the usual fears about their consistency and ability to crack under pressure remain.
Bangladesh have lost 12 of their 13 ODIs, with a loss to Afghanistan in the Asia Cup the biggest low, before a 5-0 drubbing of the hapless Zimbabwe restored a little confidence.
During that slump, young left-arm spinner Taijul Islam has been the only shining light, becoming the first Bangladeshi bowler to take eight wickets in a Test innings and the only man in ODI history to take a hat-trick on debut.
His three spin tandem with Arafat Sunny and Al Hasan could restrict the opposition. There is also high hopes on leg-spinner and slogger Sabbir Rahman to come up big. Expect more early heartbreak all the same.
Afghanistan complete the Asian contingent with an objective of stunning one of the lesser countries in Group A like Bangladesh or Ireland.
In 2008 the team was in world cricket’s fifth tier, so their development to even get this far has been truly remarkable.
They have no intentions of slowing down just yet, and in Shahpoor Zardan, Dawlat Zadran and Hamid Hasan have three of the quickest bowlers around who can give even the best in the business a run for their money.
Skipper and top man Mohammad Nabi, Nawroz Mangal and Asghar Stanikzai bring knowledge and know-how to an otherwise inexperienced line-up.
Nabi’s ball striking and off-breaks will be important; he is the only Afghan player to score over 1,000 runs and is their third-highest wicket taker.
Shappor Zadran’s economic bowling will be needed too, but in all reality Afghanistan are there just for the occasion.