At The Wicket ... Tailender

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Even the best sportswriters occasionally surrender to the clichès of their genre, so you'll allow me this one: from here on in, it's anybody's game. The Russian-roulette nature of limited-overs cricket means that any one of the four semi-finalists can win the Cup. Past form--even recent form--is highly deceptive, as we've seen in previous editions of the tournament.

So the following is in equal parts wishful thinking and considered prediction: South Africa beats the Aussies, Pakistan clobbers the Kiwis and the two teams in green meet for an epic final. And the Cup goes to... Wasim Akram.

Before I sign off World Cup duty, here's a quick guide to the form of the four survivors:

AUSTRALIA: Steve Waugh's Kangaroos hit peak form just when required, in the Super Six stage, and fully deserve their place in the last four. Their batting rests too much on the Waugh brothers, however, and their bowlers have been generous with runs. Can they beat the South Africans twice in a row? Not if Jacques Kallis returns from injury to the Springbok side.

NEW ZEALAND: The last time the Cup was staged in England, it was won by an underdog side, India. The New Zealanders have the very quality that worked wonders for the '83 Indians--good seam bowling. But they have the singular misfortune of meeting in the semi-finals a team that eats seam bowling for breakfast. On current form, the Pakistanis should trample the Kiwis.

PAKISTAN: My pick of the four. Wasim Akram's men recovered their balance in the nick of time to make the semis. The good news is that the Pakistani batting, which in the early stages relied overmuch on the ample talents of Inzi ul-Haq, has finally found its footing. The bowling, meanwhile, continues to be impressive.

SOUTH AFRICA: The 'Boks were rattled by the Aussies, bringing back memories of their previous chokings. I think Cronje's men are made of sterner stuff and will waltz into the finals, but they will first have to conquer their own demons. They remain the best all-round squad.

As the Cup enters the home stretch, this is a good time to reflect on the performance of the other Asian teams.

INDIA: Despite producing some of the best batting in the tournament--and one-day cricket is meant to be all about the batting--the Indians never looked as if they'd their triumph the last time the Cup was played in England. Their hundreds of millions of supporters were left to ponder what might have been. How different would have been the outcome if captain Mohammed Azharuddin had sent Robin Singh up the order against South Africa? Or if the bowlers hadn't given away 50-plus extra runs against Zimbabwe? Or if Sachin Tendulkar, the Best Batsman In The World (as Indians never tire of saying), had not taken that juvenile swish at Glen McGrath against Australia?

On the bright side, the Indians did show the world that they were more than Tendulkar plus ten. Rahul Dravid and Saurav Ganguly outdid the Bombay Bomber in the batting department, and bowlers Javagal Srinath, Venkatesh Prasad and Anil Kumble all had their moments of glory. Besides, to some of their countrymen, it was enough that Azhar's boys in blue beat arch-rival Pakistan!

SRI LANKA: When the '96 champions ran into poor form some months before the Cup, many pundits (including yours truly) dismissed it as a temporary slump. The Lankans, we predicted confidently, would shake off their sloth and return to world-beating ways in England. Well, what did we know? If anything, Arjuna Ranatunga's islanders looked even more abject during the Cup than in the run-up. Their predicament was personified by Sanath Jayasuriya, whose explosive batsmanship made him MVP in '96. This time round, he sleep-walked through the tournament.

The lack of quality in the bowling department was thoroughly exposed on English pitches, most brutally by the Indians. In the flat, lifeless subcontinental surfaces, the Lankan batsmen can compensate for the poor bowling by amassing giant totals. But with Jayasuriya out of form, that was never going to happen in England. To add injury to insult, the Lankans returned home to find that the taxman was taking an unusually keen interest in their affairs. Nobody loves losers.

BANGLADESH: The Bengalis surprised everybody, including themselves, by winning two Cup ties. Beating Scotland was important enough, but the victory over Pakistan was probably the upset of the tournament. If the Pakistanis go on to win the Cup, the Bengalis will undoubtedly take special pleasure in saying, "We beat the World Champs."

There were no standout stars in the Bangladesh squad, but they played well as a unit. Their performance will strengthen their demands to be allowed into the Boy Boys club of Test-playing nations.

Super Six Standings

Final Super Six Table

Country P W L T NR Pts Run Rate
Pakistan 5 3 2 0 0 6 0.65
Australia 5 3 2 0 0 6 0.36
South Africa 5 3 2 0 0 6 0.17
New Zealand 5 2 2 0 1 5 -0.52
Zimbabwe 5 2 2 0 1 5 -0.79
India 5 1 4 0 0 2 -0.15

Semi-Final Fixtures
June 16
Pakistan v New Zealand at Old Trafford
June 17
South Africa v Australia at Edgbaston

June 20
Finalist 1 v Finalist 2 at Lord's