Big four drawing clear of rank pack as race for Cricket World Cup title heats up

LOOKING GOOD: New Zealand has the best captain and the best new ball bowlers in the World Cup. Is it enough?
Iain McGregor/Fairfax NZ

LOOKING GOOD: New Zealand has the best captain and the best new ball bowlers in the World Cup. Is it enough?

The big four are moving away from the pack. In no particular order Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India are the only genuine contenders for World Cup glory in Melbourne on March 29.

Yesterday was the first lay-day in the cup, a chance to take stock over what has happened in the opening two weeks of qualifying.

They told us there would be upsets, and there have been minor ones, namely Ireland over the West Indies and India over South Africa.

But the clear pattern emerging is that four teams have pulled away from the rest which we won't call a chasing pack because the likes of England, West Indies and Pakistan have brought nothing to this tournament.

Sri Lanka sit between the contenders and the driftwood, a clear fifth thanks to the drive - in more ways than one - of Kumar Sangakkara.

New Zealand's victory over Australia was as good as entertainment as you could wish to see but with it came good and bad.

The good was the belief a win over Australia brings but the bad was a glaring weakness against top quality fast bowling.

Still, the dream of the country lives on and if results go as expected over the next fortnight then New Zealand will meet Pakistan in a quarterfinal in Wellington. Safely through that and it is a likely semifinal date with South Africa at Eden Park.

On the other side of the draw, Australia should host India in the other semifinal. Let's run the rule over the so called "top eight" to see what's working and where it's falling down.

NEW ZEALAND

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What's good: Most settled side in terms of form and off-field issues. Playing the game at breakneck speed with Brendon McCullum to the fore. Best captain, best fielding side, fine new ball pair in Tim Southee and Trent Boult and best spinner in Daniel Vettori. Going great.

What's not: Vulnerability against fast swing bowling was exposed against Australia. Not seen the dirt trackers yet so it's time they had a run, for it will be five weeks without a game if they are pitched cold into a semifinal. Could lose momentum now with lots of downtime and two weak opponents.

AUSTRALIA

What's good: Mitchell Starc, left, is Australia's ace card. A bit like Waqar Younis in his prime, Starc's inswinging yorkers are lethal to new arrivals. Imposing side across the board and with James Faulkner to come back in and with the rest of their games on home turf they are still favourites.

What's not: You get the feeling there is a little bit of tension in the air, with Shane Warne stirring the pot a bit. Their batting meltdown on Saturday was a fair bit their own doing. Generally in good shape.

INDIA

What's good: Shikhar Dhawan is in the runs, the quicks are running in hard, Ravi Ashwin is turning a couple, the fielders are interested, M S Dhoni is interested. If they go up another gear against the West Indies in Perth on Friday then watch out. Seem settled too.

What's not: Soft lead-in games after Friday. Set up for a semifinal against Australia, who they have a mental barrier with.

SOUTH AFRICA

What's good: A B de Villiers is both their strength and their weakness for so much rests on his shoulders. Most of their top six have had a good hit, in fact of all the fancied teams they are probably the most match hardened. On the improve.

What's not: Still almost four weeks to the final so no need to push the panic button yet but fast man Dale Steyn is yet to stamp his mark. Vernon Philander is on the physio's table.

SRI LANKA

What's good: If they only had to bat then everyone's second favourite team would be a force. Kumar Sangakkara was in majestic form against England, scoring his second hundred in the space of a week. The batting is clicking.

What's not: They lack athletes. Too many balls beat their boundary riders and diving seems off the menu. Lasith Malinga is well down on his best. The spinners are being under-bowled. They need to score 300 plus and hope teams implode chasing it.

ENGLAND

What's good: Very little. Joe Root's ton and Jos Buttler's late hitting against Sri Lanka. They need to throw caution to the wind, quicksmart. Bring in Alex Hales for Gary Ballance or take a punt on Buttler opening. They should at least go down in a blaze of glory.

What's not: Ponderous outfit. Still playing the game like it's the 1990s. The big three quicks are flat. James Anderson has lost his swing and if Stuart Broad's bowling arm gets any lower he'll be like Malinga. Steven Finn is predictable. Eoin Morgan is no great shakes as a captain.

WEST INDIES

What's good: Chris Gayle has been good once and when he's on they can sting a top side but you get the feeling this isn't their time.

What's not: Love to be a fly on the wall in this dressing room. Lots of conflict between Gayle and the board and that is a distraction they could do without. Once Sunil Narine was ruled out of the World Cup their hopes plummeted.

PAKISTAN

What's good: The fact they are still alive is good for them. They need to beat Ireland on the last day of qualifying (March 15 in Adelaide) to scrape through to the quarters. The winner of that clash will meet New Zealand in Wellington.

What's not: One of the poorer Pakistan sides to come to a World Cup. Shahid Afridi is a bit like Gayle in that he might sting you once but judging by what we are seeing his star doesn't burn so brightly any more. Umar Akmal wicketkeeping in pink gloves. He flatters to deceive with the bat. They've got injuries, star bowlers back home and off-field issues.

WHO PLAYS WHO?

Quarterfinal draw (based on expected results): New Zealand v Pakistan or Ireland; Australia v West Indies; South Africa v Sri Lanka; India v England.

Semifinal draw (based on expected results): New Zealand v South Africa; Australia v India.

READ MORE:

Opinion: Minnows bring heart to CWC

Atherton, shame of England's loss

* Black Caps climb ODI rankings

 - The Dominion Post

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