The 2011 World Cup of cricket begins this weekend, and everyone's got something to prove. At the top of the list is India's Sachin Tendulkar. He is the world's top batsman, the only man ever to score 200 runs in a one-day match, and holds records for the most runs and "centuries," or 100 runs, in both the five-day Test format and one-day international cricket. Still, he has never lifted his sport's top trophy and at 37, he may not have another chance.
The odds are in Tendulkar's favor: India's national team has a strong batting line-up, the home field advantage and is fresh off a warm-up round victory over Australia, another favorite to win. But he might want to take a lesson from the 1996 World Cup, when Sri Lanka was the surprise winner, says Ramachandra Guha, a prominent historian and author of "A Corner of a Foreign Field", a well-regarded cricket history. In that tournament, the last time the World Cup was hosted by South Asia, "India and Pakistan found the pressure of playing at home too much," he says.
There are more than six weeks of matches before the final on April 2. Millions of hardy fans will be analyzing every over; for the rest of us, here are few of the key matches to watch.
Will Bangladesh Knock Off a Goliath?
This year's World Cup is co-hosted by India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, with India and Bangladesh playing the opening match on Feb. 19 in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka. It's a rare chance for Bangladesh to shine in a region that is full of cricket champions India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are all previous winners. Bangladesh is coming into this World Cup as a confident underdog, particularly after trouncing New Zealand 4-0 in a series in October. "We are very much ready and able to beat any one of them," says Moinuddin Khokon, a 21-year-old cricket fan in Dhaka.
The emergence of Bangladesh on the cricket scene has energized fans, but many are still without tickets. The Bangladesh Cricket Board's complex system of distributing tickets people had to collect vouchers first, and then exchange them for tickets, sometimes in another city has sparked widespread complaints. The BCB says it was trying to avoid counterfeits by holding the match tickets back. Nevertheless, the teams playing in Bangladesh are likely to enjoy full arenas, including Ireland, another potential giant-killer to watch.
Redemption on the Field?
The Pakistani team enters the World Cup under a cloud. It was supposed to be a co-host of the 2011 World Cup, but the 2009 attack on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore changed that. The matches planned for Pakistan this year were shifted to other cities in the region.
This time, though, it isn't the fear of terrorism hanging over the team. It's match-fixing. Three of its star players Salman Butt, Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif were banned from the game for years after a tribunal formed by the International Cricket Council found them guilty of "spot-fixing," in a Test match against England at Lord's last August. But don't discount Pakistan yet. With the tainted players off the team, the rest have had time to regroup. They will also have a chance to build up momentum over the long tournament. Pakistan plays the lower ranked Canada, New Zealand and Zimbabwe before its tougher match against Australia on March 19.
Sri Lanka, meanwhile, is hoping to use this World Cup to showcase its post-war recovery. The island nation's 26-year-long civil war ended in May 2009 with the defeat of the Tamil Tigers. "The country has settled down," says Sri Lankan cricket commentator Roshan Abeyesinghe. "This is the big opportunity to promote the nation." It has spent more than $250 million renovating two stadia in Colombo and Dambulla, and building two new ones in Kandy and Hambantota, the home district of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. As recently as November 2010, the International Cricket Council had expressed doubts that the new stadium would be ready in time, but Sri Lanka managed to finish it with the help of Chinese construction labor another sign of those two countries' growing friendship.
The most anticipated match comes on March 5, when Sri Lanka plays Australia in Colombo. In 1996, a truck-bomb attack by the Tamil Tigers sent two teams that were supposed to play in the capital scurrying away. It was a national embarrassment, but Sri Lanka eventually met one of them, Australia, in the final and won. In 2007, the teams met again in the finals in West India, but Australia took the Cup. Australia-Sri Lanka has become one of the great contemporary cricket rivalries, and this year's grudge match is likely to attract a huge audience at home and abroad.
Will India Watch the Rest of the World?
Cricket insiders will be watching to see whether Indian viewers tune in for that match or any other not featuring their own team. The new professional Indian Premier League has transformed international cricket, turning India into the world's most lucrative and powerful cricket market starring cricket players from around the world. But it has also eroded Indian fans' interest in other national teams. They see the same star players from Australia, England, the West Indies and South Africa playing for the Kolkata Knight Riders or the Rajasthan Royals. "The IPL is taking cricket away from the rivalries between nations," says Guha.
That's a shame, because Tendulkar isn't the only legend hoping to secure his legacy. Australia's Ricky Ponting may be playing in his last World Cup, as is South Africa's Jacques Kallis and Sri Lanka's Muttiah Muralitharan. Ponting, 36, Australia's captain and its top batsman since Don Bradman, wants to continue Australia's string of Cup victories. Kallis, 35, is a classic all-rounder, a threat both batting and bowling. Muralitharan, 38, is one of the world's great bowlers and will retire after this Cup. Whoever wins, they'll have the satisfaction of doing so in Mumbai the stage where the genteel pasttime of cricket was transformed into one of the world's biggest, brashest sporting spectacles.
With reporting by Fahad Ferdous/Dhaka and Amantha Perera/Colombo