Preview: 2011 Cricket World Cup
Sachin Tendulkar has achieved just about every individual accolade in cricket and holds an almost divine status in India, where the TV audience soars every time he goes out to bat.
However, his 21-year international career is missing one notable achievement: a World Cup title. That adds to the pressure on India, which is co-hosting the tournament with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and will stage the April 2 final at Mumbai, Tendulkar's home town.
"Every time I go out, the country needs me," Tendulkar said recently, adding that it only made him hungrier to keep scoring runs. He already has amassed more centuries and more runs in both test and limited-overs cricket than any other batsman, and leads all runmakers at the World Cup heading into his sixth edition of the tournament.
Skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni doesn't think the extra burden will hurt India's chances, and there is a determination to help Tendulkar complete his resume by delivering the country of 1.2 billion people its first World Cup title since Kapil Dev's squad shocked the all-conquering West Indies at Lord's in 1983.
The first challenge will come on the opening day, when Dhoni and co. travel to Dhaka to take on Bangladesh, which in 2007 produced a group-stage upset that played a large role in India's early exit.
Tendulkar is not the only big-name veteran travelling to the World Cup with strong personal motivation.
Just as Tendulkar has been the master batsman of the modern era, Muttiah Muralitharan has been the supreme bowler in the sport, taking more wickets than anyone else in both test and ODIs. Unlike Tendulkar, Muralitharan has a World Cup medal, but is just as eager to depart the international stage with a gift to Sri Lanka: a second World Cup trophy.
Muralitharan was a young member in the team when Sri Lanka upset the cricket establishment to claim the 1996 title, the last time the quadrennial event was held in Asia.
Then there's South African allrounder Jacques Kallis, desperate to help the Proteas shake off their unwanted tag of World Cup underachievers, and Ricky Ponting wanting to guide Australia to a fourth consecutive title.
Both Kallis and Ponting, along with Tendulkar, are going to be returning from injuries at the World Cup.
Ponting was a junior member of the Australian team beaten by Sri Lanka in that 1996 final at Lahore. He's been an integral part of the team that has won all three World Cups since, as captain in the last two. The 36-year-old batsman has recovered from a broken finger just in time to lead the defending champions again.
His return was a boost for the Australians, who face a broadranging performance review following a deflating, lopsided Ashes series loss. Ponting hasn't played this year — he missed the last test and the seven-match limited-overs series against England, which Australia won 6-1 to regather some composure and self-belief to go with their No. 1 ODI ranking.
Australia's injury update wasn't as good elsewhere, however, with veteran batsman Mike Hussey (hamstring) and first-choice spinner Nathan Hauritz (dislocated shoulder) both ruled out on the eve of the squad's departure Wednesday for India. With other candidates Shaun Marsh and Xavier Doherty also injured, batsman Callum Ferguson and Jason Krejza were drafted into the Australian squad. The 28-year-old Krejza made his ODI debut on the weekend and has only played two tests — although he took 12 wickets in India in 2008 in his first.
Ponting wasn't concerned about the lack of slow bowling options in his Australian squad, which contains part-timer spinners Steve Smith, Cameron White and Michael Clarke.
"The one thing we've learnt the hard way on the subcontinent, particularly with India and Sri Lanka, is that they play spin so well and so often it is counterproductive using too much spin against their batsmen, even despite the conditions," Ponting wrote in an Australian newspaper column Wednesday. Besides, he expects pacemen Brett Lee and Shaun Tait to offer something different.
"We'll be unleashing Lee and Tait at 150 km/h to unsettle their batsmen," he said.
'Intoxicating and very motivating'
The previous World Cup was criticized for being too long and unwieldy and ended in near farcical circumstances with Australia beating Sri Lanka in the dark in the final at Bridgetown, Barbados. The tournament was also overshadowed by the suspicious death of Pakistan coach Bob Woolmer the morning after his team was ousted in a shocking loss to Ireland in the group stage. Jamaican police started a murder investigation, but medical authorities later ruled the England-born Woolmer died of natural causes.
Responding to the criticism, the International Cricket Council had reduced the number of teams in this tournament and the round-robin second stage was scrapped in favour of quarter-finals.
The 14 teams have been divided into two groups, with the top four in each pool advancing to the knockout stage.
Australia is with Sri Lanka, Pakistan, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Canada in Group A. Pakistan's chances have been eroded by a tumultuous buildup which included the suspension of three key players after a betting scandal and the stripping of its status as World Cup co-host after a terror attack on the Sri Lanka team's convey en route to a test match at Lahore in 2009.
India is in Group B with South Africa, England, West Indies, Bangladesh, Ireland and Netherlands.
England captain Andrew Strauss returned to London this week for the first time in 3½ months, saying his squad would be bolstered by the return of key bowlers for the World Cup and that the lost ODI series in Australia was not a true indication of form.
England has been consistently near the top of the betting markets for the World Cup, with only India and Sri Lanka consistently at shorter odds.
"The atmosphere at the World Cup is going to be very intoxicating and very motivating." Strauss said. "We would have liked to have won the one-day series in Australia as preparation, but some of our players who have not been involved have had an opportunity to have a little bit of a rest through the fact that they were injured.
"They are going to come back into the fold and add a huge amount of impetus."
England has lost three World Cup finals, including the seven-run defeat to Australia at Calcutta in 1987, but lifted their curse in major limited-overs tournaments by beating Australia to claim the World Twenty20 crown last year.
'Excited about our opportunity'
South Africa has never reached a cricket World Cup final, stopped in the semifinals twice by Australia and once by a cruel rain-interruption which cost them an almost certain win against England in 1992. Skipper Graeme Smith will be relieved that the Proteas aren't going into the tournament as favourite this time.
The rate of Kallis' recovery from a niggling right side injury is the biggest question mark over South Africa's bid for its first major ODI title.
Team management says Kallis, South Africa's leading runscorer and fourth-highest wicket taker in ODIs, will be ready to play "a full role with both bat and ball from the start of the tournament." But others are concerned. Without the world's leading allrounder in top form, South Africa's batting and bowling suffers.
South Africa was inconsistent in its most recent ODI series, at home against India, and rode batting collapses and bowling struggles before a come-from-behind 3-2 series win.
"It's been hard cricket and we needed to be at our best to win," Smith said. "I really am excited about our opportunity to go to the World Cup and play."
Bangladesh has been cleaning and preening its streets and stadiums and has expectations of its own.
Now ranked No. 8 and playing all its group matches at home, Bangladesh is aiming for a quarterfinals spot at least.
Bangladesh caused some major upsets by beating India and South Africa in 2007 and Pakistan in 1999, but perceptions of the team at home and abroad have shifted.
"Things are now very different to what it was in 2007," said veteran Mohammad Ashraful. "In that World Cup, we were hoping for an upset or two, but this time around we are firmly aiming for the quarter-finals. There is a significant change in mentality."