London: Australia’s slump and unpredictable conditions in the Caribbean have thrown this month’s Cricket World Cup “wide open,” increasing England’s chances of a first title, captain Michael Vaughan said.
Australia, aiming for a record third straight crown, has lost six of its past seven one-day matches, against England and New Zealand, and recently surrendered its top ranking to South Africa. Six new stadiums have been built in the nine host countries for the tournament, meaning many pitches will be unknown to the 16 competing teams.
“I think we’d all agree that this World Cup is wide open for one of the top eight teams to go on and win it,” Vaughan told reporters at London’s Gatwick Airport yesterday, prior to today’s departure for the Caribbean. “It could be the team that assesses the conditions the quickest that has an advantage.”
Imran Khan, who led Pakistan to World Cup victory in 1992, said several of the new wickets are likely to be slow, handing an advantage to countries such as India and Sri Lanka which have strong spin bowlers. Teams like Australia, South Africa, the West Indies and England tend to build their attacks around pace.
“Conditions in the West Indies are going to make subcontinental teams more competitive because they are not like Australian or South African conditions,” Imran said in an interview in Doha, Qatar, this week.
UK bookmaker Ladbrokes last week lengthened the odds on tournament-favourite Australia to 9-4 from 2-1, while England is among four teams at 8-1.
Even though it hosted the first three editions, England has never won the World Cup and hasn’t even reached a semifinal since finishing runner-up in 1992. The current team, lambasted a month ago following a 5-0 Ashes defeat and several one-day maulings, sets off for the West Indies with renewed confidence after upsetting Australia 2-0 in the final of a competition that also featured New Zealand.
“From where we were six weeks ago, we’re now the dark horses,” Vaughan said. “Since ’92 England haven’t really shown up at the World Cup. These 15 players have got a great opportunity of doing something special.”
Several England fringe players established themselves in the latter part of the Australia tour. Paceman Liam Plunkett emerged as a new-ball threat after finishing joint top wicket-taker with 12 victims, while Monty Panesar cemented the spin bowling berth with some economical spells in the middle of an innings.
Paul Collingwood’s return to form — he scored two centuries and 70 in England’s last three games — has added steel to a batting order that earlier collapsed to totals of 120 and 110 in successive matches.
Vaughan, who led England to a first Ashes Test series win over Australia in 18 years in 2005, is making his latest comeback from injury. He missed the unsuccessful Ashes defense because of a knee operation before a hamstring problem restricted him to three appearances in the one-day series.
Vaughan said he hopes to play some part in the 5 March warm-up game against Bermuda and a fuller role in the Australia tune- up four days later. Andrew Flintoff, who led England in Vaughan’s absence, will be vice-captain in the Caribbean.
“Until I’ve actually played a game of cricket and come off the field feeling fine I don’t want to start singing and shouting too soon,” Vaughan said. “I’ve had a year of injuries. Hopefully I deserve a little bit of luck.”
New Zealand Opener
England opens its campaign against New Zealand on 16 March and faces further group games against Canada and Kenya, a surprise semifinalist at the 2003 event. The top two advance to the so-called Super 8 series from which the four semifinalists are determined. The final is 28 April in Barbados.
England will be boosted by the return of Kevin Pietersen, still ranked the fourth-best one-day batsman even after missing England’s last nine matches with a cracked rib. South Africa-born Pietersen, who will be playing in his first World Cup, has passed fifty 14 times in 36 one-day innings and averages almost a run a ball. Vaughan described him as England’s best one-day player.
“Kevin Pietersen is the kind of person who can have a magnificent tournament and before you know it England are in a World Cup semifinal,” Nasser Hussain, who failed to lead England beyond the opening group phase in 2003, told Sky Sports.