It was an open World Cup five weeks ago. It is still an open World Cup going into the quarterfinals thanks to all the fancied teams making the grade. There is only a slight change in the scenario. India were the bookies' favourites on the eve of the competition; the favourites are now South Africa. But to be candid any one of about half a dozen teams has an almost equal chance of winning the cup. The days of one team dominating like the West Indies in the formative years of the World Cup of Australia in the first decade of the new millennium are over. Even during the preliminary stage the strengths and the weaknesses of the eight quarterfinalists were palpable. This has clearly been brought out by the fact that none of the eight teams could maintain an unbeaten record. Some lost one game, others two and the West Indies in fact went down in three before making the grade on better run rate.
And so to the quarterfinals. The pairings are intriguing to say the least. The most entertaining would seem to be the first one. Pakistan against West Indies pits two temperamental sides against each other. Each can match the other when it comes to being mercurial. It would be easy to list Pakistan as favourites on the basis of the performances in the league stage. After all West Indies did not win a single match against the top teams the three victories coming against Bangladesh, Netherlands and Ireland whereas Pakistan lost only to New Zealand while registering five wins and topping the group. They also ended Australia's 34-match unbeaten run in the World Cup. Both teams though have the capacity to self destruct and it would be foolhardy for a punter to back his shirt on any one side. It must be said however that whatever the batting merits or demerits of both teams Pakistan have the better bowling attack.
An important match between India and Australia generally gets started with mind games and the Aussie coach Tim Nielsen has fired the first salvo. He has said that the pressure will be on India before their vast home crowds since the expectations are sky high and this would play on the minds of the Indian team. Besides he has termed the quarterfinal as a 'mini final'. Going by past record both in India and in the World Cup it appears that such mind games are unnecessary as Australia have won nine of the 15 matches they have played in India over the last five years. Moreover in the World Cup Australia has won seven of the nine games including the last five in a row. On current form though there is little to choose as both had identical records in the preliminary games winning four and losing one and finishing with nine points and though Australia finished third to India's second there is little doubt that group A was tougher. In any case any battle between the No 1 and No 2 ranked sides is bound to be close and this could well go down to the wire with little mistakes deciding the outcome. It would be absolutely impossible to pick the winner at this time.
Winner spotting might be a bit easier though in the other two quarterfinals. Sri Lanka holds a distinct edge over England both on team composition and current form. England just about squeaked through and their record has been distinctly mixed. Losing to Ireland and Bangladesh but being the only team to beat South Africa their mercurial form almost resembles Pakistan and the West Indies. It's not easy to make up for players like Kevin Pietersen and Stuart Broad though they still have two of the highest run getters in the competition in Jonathan Trott and Andrew Strauss. Sri Lanka on the other hand have the highest run getter in the tournament in Kumar Sangakkara, a balanced line-up consisting of strokeplaying and experienced batsmen and a good mix of pace and spin in the bowling. They should start firm favourites and emerge winners despite England coach Graham Gooch's belief that his side have it in them to win the title.
Much the same can be said of South Africa. In almost everyone's book they are the team to beat at the moment. The loss to England can be taken as an aberration while their commanding displays in other games is typical of the manner in which they have approached the tournament - determined and confident, eager to put the choker's tag behind them once and for all. There is no better way to do that than to win the World Cup. South Africa's has been a thoroughly professional performance so far and they have got the better of five opponents with methodical efficiency. They have an array of in-form batsmen, are arguably the best fielding unit in the game and the bowling line-up is headed by the best fast bowler in the business and includes a fascinating mix of spinners. They should get the better of New Zealand who will be keen to put the bridesmaids tag behind them. Five time semifinalists the Kiwis have the batting firepower but the bowling inspires little confidence and the manner in which they went down to Australia and Sri Lanka does not augur well for them even if they have more than a crumb of comfort in having defeated table toppers Pakistan.