World Cup dark horses have potential to thwart dreams of higher ranked teams

2011-02-16 00:00

YOU probably wouldn’t be far off the mark if you listed India, Australia, South Africa, England and Sri Lanka as leading contenders for the 2011 ICC World Cup. In terms of class and present form these teams should be the ones battling it out for a semi-final berth come the end of March.

But in my opinion it would be an oversight to ignore the challenges of tournament dark horses Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Unpredictability and inconsistency have become Pakistan’s trademarks, but then so have moments of brilliance and an impressive record in the knockout stages of ICC tournaments. You’re never completely sure what the Pakistanis will dish up on the day — their erratic performances have caught many a team off guard.

Should Pakistan be allowed to settle into the tournament, they will be a force to be reckoned with. The Pakistanis have a history of performing well while all around them chaos reigns. The recent sentencing of three of their team-mates for match fixing would probably be enough to decimate most team’s World Cup campaigns, but not Pakistan. Controversy and drama appear to galvanise them and to sharpen their focus.

They have a powerful batting line-up as well as super strikers in captain Shahid Afridi, and Abdur Razzaq. Right-arm quick Shoaib Akhtar has the ability to change games almost single-handedly with his variation of pace and wicket-taking abilities. Their coach, World Cup veteran Waqar Younis, also has an impressive depth of spinners to call on.

The prospects of the other subcontinent hopefuls, Bangladesh, are bright. Playing at home with massive support could boost them towards a surprise semi-final berth. In Shakib Al Hasan, Bangladesh are blessed with the world number two-ranked all-rounder. This left arm orthodox spinner and hard-hitting batsman is a class act.

Bangladesh play well in their own conditions, their batsmen are natural strokemakers and they have a plethora of spinners to exploit the low, turning wickets of the subcontinent.

My biggest concern is the potential threat Bangladesh could pose to South Africa’s path to the semi-finals. The Proteas find themselves with Bangladesh in the tougher half, group B, of the World Cup draw. Graham Smith and his men will be keen to erase the memory of their last World Cup encounter with Bangladesh at Providence in the West Indies, where Bangladesh were victors by 67 runs.

I’m not sure that Bangladesh have the ability to win the tournament, but they have the potential to raise a few eyebrows and to thwart the World Cup dreams of higher ranked teams, and this is a real worry for South Africa.

The 2011 World Cup race is wide open and the accompanying pressure on teams is huge. With the revised format every country will be keenly aware that one mistake could see them packing before the semi-finals, sans the silverware. Pressure and the Proteas have proved uncomfortable World Cup partners in the past, but this tournament could finally provide South Africa with the opportunity to shrug the monkey off their back once and for all.

• Neil Johnson is a former Natal, WP and Zimbabwe all-rounder who lives and coaches in Pietermaritzburg.

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