Who'll Be Pitch Perfect?

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You've probably never heard of Zimbabwe's Doug Marillier, but chances are it won't be long into the cricket World Cup before you sit straighter on the sofa whenever he walks out to bat. Marillier has invented something called the ramp shot: by angling his bat to form a "ramp," he can send deliveries from quick bowlers soaring toward the vacant space directly behind the wicket keeper. If he can pull it off in the sport's showpiece event, hotheads like Brett Lee and Shoaib Akhtar will want to kill him, but he'll be the talk of every office and playground in the cricket-playing world.

It won't be the first World Cup where a team's arrived with a secret weapon. New Zealand were the hit of the 1991-92 Cup because they used a part-time spinner, Dipak Patel, to open the bowling, and briefed makeshift opening batsman Mark Greatbatch not to see off the new ball but to deposit it in the crowd at every chance. The public loved it. But New Zealand were knocked out in the semi-finals, the farthest they've got at a World Cup despite being the most tactically astute cricketing country.

As people try to predict which of the 14 countries will do well and which won't at the Cup - to be played over the next six weeks in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya - many are factoring in stuff that just doesn't matter. One of the easiest things to do in cricket is to confuse the flashy with the great. It happens in all sports. Andre Agassi once had the best hair, edgiest threads and most gee-whiz strokes in tennis. He was also overrated. At the pointy end of big tournaments, less talented guys found ways to beat him. But over time, the more he shed the frills of his image, the better he became. Today, bald as a stone and usually dressed in retro white, Agassi has a game without cracks. Which cricket team is most like Agassi 2003? There is your winner.

Marillier's ramp shot will be fun to watch, but such gimmicks won't win anyone the World Cup. Some people are convinced that past Cups have been decided by bold innovations or tactical masterstrokes. They cite 1996, when Sri Lanka took aggressive opening batting to a spectacular new level. They used two players in this role: Romesh Kaluwitharana and the supremely gifted Sanath Jayasuriya. Sri Lanka won that year, but it's a myth they did so on the back of blistering opening stands. The tactic came off in lead-up tournaments but mostly backfired in the Cup. In the final against Australia, the decisive contributions were classy, measured innings from Sri Lanka's most senior men.

But many were captivated by their flair. "After Sri Lanka won, there was an outcry to try to emulate their openers, to use pinch-hitters," says former Australian coach Bob Simpson. Selectors in various countries, he says, "were asking people who weren't good enough to be one-day international batsmen to do a job that the batsmen should have been doing. It was an absolute disaster for some teams." Simpson has always favored steady accumulation with a late flurry as the best approach to one-day batting. In the 1999 World Cup, it wasn't until Australia "went back to old ways," midway through, he says, "that they started to look like a cricket team again."

This tournament's signature is predicted to be outre strokes and creative footwork. But none of that is exactly new. At the first World Cup in 1975, the great West Indian Viv Richards was charging quicks, moving this way or that to smash their offerings to whichever part of the ground he chose. The Australian Victor Trumper was doing the same thing in traditional cricket nearly 100 years earlier. More important than method is greatness itself. It's great players who lead teams to World Cup wins: Richards in 1975, Wasim Akram in 1991-2, Steve Waugh in 1999.

Who has the most players that qualify as great? Probably Australia, though they have one fewer than they did when they won in England in '99 - selectors couldn't find a place in the latest squad for Waugh. That leaves Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, with a few others - Adam Gilchrist, Ricky Ponting, Michael Bevan - closing in. Australia has problems, though. Warne, McGrath and Bevan are all carrying injuries, and Australia are in the tougher pool, from which two of heavyweights England, Pakistan, India, Australia and Zimbabwe (whose points tally may be boosted if rivals decide to forfeit matches there in protest against the Robert Mugabe regime) won't make it to the second round. "Whatever's against Australia will make them stronger," says former Australian fast bowler Geoff Lawson. "They play best when things are stacked against them."

South Africa's relatively bouncy pitches won't suit the subcontinental teams - all of which contain great players - though, as Simpson says: "You just never know with Pakistan." South Africa have much in their favor, including a bunch of great or near-great players and home advantage, though not a proven ability to perform when the pressure peaks - the defining trait of a champion team. In the most open World Cup ever, the side that wins will have earned it: there's no ramp to the top of world cricket.