At The Wicket... Four Down

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Well, it's gone down to wire--which is no more than you'd expect. (Warning: there will be a lot of confusing numbers in the next sentence.) As the last cycle of first-round games gets under way, only South Africa and Pakistan have qualified for the Super Six, and six other sides are in the race for the four remaining slots. Things look pretty bad for cup-holders Sri Lanka and '87 champs Australia, but they do still have a prayer. The West Indies and India look more comfortable but can blow it in the last game. New Zealand and England may go through, but their fate hangs on other matches in their respective groups.

AUSTRALIA: The ancient Tom Moody justified his surprising selection with a display of all-round competence, McGrath got a couple of wickets and Adam Gilchrist finally came good with 63. But these worthy performances came against Bangladesh, so captain Steve Waugh probably left the champagne in the freezer. Still, at least the Aussies are back to winning ways and have a shot at progressing in the tournament--but they must beat the West Indies, and it will take more than a Moody swing to pull that off.

ENGLAND: The English recovered from the walloping by South Africa to dish out some punishment of their own--on the hapless Zimbabweans. A solid allround performance in the field helped Alec Stewart's boys restrict the Africans to a low total, which Hussain and Thorpe passed with ease. Once again, England's new Botham-in-waiting, Andy Flintoff, didn't get a chance to show his stuff. England is now all but guaranteed a place in the Super Six.

INDIA: A magnificent display of high-class batsmanship by Ganguly and Dravid helped revive India's hopes of qualifying for the next round. The Prince of Calcutta and the Badshah of Bangalore gave the Sri Lankans a hiding few people will ever forget. Robin Singh's commendable five-wicket haul was forgotten in the post-game hosannas for the batting duo. But how's this for irony: even though India has piled up more runs that any other squad in the tournament--and its batsmen account for all the centuries scored thus far--the team is not yet certain of a place in the Super Six! To be absolutely sure, the Indians will have to beat England in the final game and hope South Africa preserves its winning streak against Zimbabwe.

NEW ZEALAND: The Kiwis never looked as if they might trouble the rampaging Pakistanis, but their batsmen folded more quickly than expected. Still, when you're up against the likes of Akram and Akhtar, you can be forgiven for preferring the safety of the pavilion. Nash and Larsen bowled admirably, but that wasn't nearly enough. Still, New Zealand should beat Scotland with ease and make it to the Super Six if the other games in the group go to form.

PAKISTAN: They qualified for the Super Six without really breaking into a sweat, and captain Akram must be relieved to see his batsmen find form at last. The bowling remains as fearsome as ever; young Akhtar terrified the Kiwi batsmen. The Pakistanis' last match, against Bangladesh, is a foregone conclusion. Perhaps that will prompt Akram to unleash his other speedster, Waqar Younis.

SOUTH AFRICA: The Springboks hammered their fellow Africans, Kenya, to waltz into the Super Six. Lance Klusener grabbed another bagful of wickets (plus his third man-of-the-match award in four outings) and the South African batsmen looked at ease. Their final outing, against Zimbabwe, is now a mere formality. Captain Cronje, however, remains miserly with the smiles.

SRI LANKA: With only a mathematical chance of making the Super Six, the islanders are probably packed and ready to go home. The Cup holders never recovered from an early assault by India's Ganguly and Dravid; with 1996 MVP Sanath Jayasuriya practically comatose throughout this tournament, there was never any chance that the Lankans would meet the huge target. And losing five wickets to Robin Singh only added insult to captain Arjuna Ranatunga's injury.

WEST INDIES: Playing at last like the champions of yore, the Windies trashed the Scots to within inches of their lives. All the Caribbean bowlers looked good (mind you, they had plenty of help from the very lame Scots), and the batsmen had very little to do. Despite the weakness of the opposition, this is a helluva win for West Indies--one that may help take them to the next round.

THE MINNOWS: Scotland was butchered; Bangladesh, Kenya and Zimbabwe were hammered. Nothing new there.