Heavy hitters set for knockout blow at Cricket World Cup

Nigel Reed writes that the Cricket World Cup is unfolding pretty much as expected with the sport's top squads all having reached the knockout stage of the tournament on the Indian subcontinent.

We are where we expected to be. There were one or two hiccups along the way, but cricket's top nations have all made it through the group stages of the World Cup.

Now the competition moves into overdrive, with no second chances. It's win or go home for the eight survivors.

All have a chance to reflect on their efforts thus far and recommit heading into the business end of the tournament. For some, the way ahead appears clear; for others, a marked improvement will be necessary.

The International Cricket Council, meanwhile, can pat itself on the back. The game's governing body, which has already voted to exclude the smaller nations from the next World Cup in 2015, will feel vindicated in its decision to invite only the big hitters.

Apparently, there is no room for an underdog to grab sporting headlines in regions beyond cricket's traditional boundaries. Ireland's incredible victory over England was an upset of gigantic proportions, but the ICC doesn't want the minnows.

It also fails to see the need for expansion.

Here in Canada, a nation of immigrants, there is huge interest, particularly among the South Asian community. There is talent. Yet without the World Cup to aim for, cricket will continue to lack exposure, finance and, most importantly, acceptance. 

No such worries for cricket's elite. For them, the group stages were an opportunity to tinker with batting lineups, fine tune bowling attacks and build up a head of steam in readiness for the quarter-finals.

All eyes are now on the big prize.

Dominance on the wane

Only five nations have ever won the World Cup, with Australia standing head and shoulders above the rest with four championships to its name. The Australians have won the last three World Cups, but their dominance of the one-day game is on the wane.

The new generation is struggling to emulate its predecessors. Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist have all retired, leaving huge holes in the batting and bowling departments. Suddenly, the all-conquering Aussies are no longer invincible.

Their rivals are licking their lips.

India, one of the three co-hosts, senses this could be its year. The Indians have rebounded from a disastrous 2007 World Cup in impressive fashion. Their only defeat thus far was a last-over nail-biter to Group B winner South Africa.

Sachin Tendulkar may well be competing at his last World Cup. He'll be well into his forties when the event goes to Australia and New Zealand in four years time. If this is his swansong, the "Little Master" — all 5-foot-5 of him — intends to go out with a bang.

Worshipped by an entire nation, the Indian legend has not disappointed. Averaging well over 50, Tendulkar has already smashed two centuries and will not be intimidated by Australia.

Few would begrudge him the chance to lift the World Cup on home soil.

India, though, is not a one-man team. Virender Sehwag, Tendulkar's heir apparent, is renowned for piling on the runs in quick time. Down the order, Yuvraj Singh has proved — and not for the first time — how effective he can be in limited-overs cricket.

No extra motivation needed

There is every reason to believe the top four teams from the group stages will advance to the semifinals.

Pakistan will surely be too strong for the West Indies, which limped in the last eight. The Pakistanis, having been stripped of their original co-host status, need no extra motivation. 

Home advantage is a huge plus at this level. Sri Lanka, the runner up in 2007, has carried on where it left off in the Caribbean. Captain Kumar Sangakkara leads the World Cup batting stats, while opponent England will have its hands full trying to score runs off Muttiah Muralitharan.

South Africa has often been a World Cup bridesmaid. The Rainbow Nation is a three-time semifinalist, but perhaps there is an opportunity to go all the way this year. Graeme Smith's team will be a heavy favourite to beat New Zealand, which could lead to a semifinal showdown with Sri Lanka.

Statistics can generally be massaged to tell you anything you want to know, yet cricket can hinge on something as a simple as the toss of a coin. The captain's decision on whether to bat or field first can be absolutely critical to the outcome.

The choices, invariably influenced by weather and pitch conditions, are whether to go out and set a target or to know what's required and chase it down. Cricket involves incredible skill, nerve, bravery and athleticism.

And a bit of luck with the coin toss.