Ponting’s men looking red hot to maintain their world dominance

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The Cricket World Cup, 49 matches, 43 days, one question - can anyone stop Australia?

Their aura of invincibility may have diminished in the Test format of the game thanks largely to two Ashes series’ victories for England in the last 18 months, but when it comes to the traditional short format of the game, Australia have no equal.

They have won the quadrennial 50-over World Cup, which begins in Bangladesh today, the last three times and are undefeated in 29 matches in the competition.

That is a staggering statistic when all the factors of how a cricket match can be won or lost, are considered.

Co-hosts India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh will have already opened their campaigns by the time Australia commence their defence against Zimbabwe on Monday, with the former two genuine contenders to end the Aussie monopoly, particularly in the heat of the sub-continent.

Yet it would be a fool who backs against Australia, given how quickly they transformed England’s post-Ashes momentum with a 6-1 one-day series win Down Under recently.

Warmed up? Ricky Ponting’s men are practically red hot.

So the task is on for the other 13 teams in action over the coming weeks to pour cold water over the seemingly invincible Australians.

Do not expect that to happen in the group stage, where Australia’s stiffest test looks likely to be provided by Sri Lanka, the team ranked third in the current ICC world rankings, and the last team to fall to Ponting’s men in the 2007 final in Bridgetown.

Pakistan at No 6 and New Zealand at No 7, can not be discounted, but with four teams qualifying for the knockout stages in a group that also consists of Canada, Kenya and Zimbabawe, Ponting really should pack his bags and head to the comfort of the commentary booth if his side cannot negotiate their way out of Group A.

If Australia’s route to the quarter-finals looks comfortable, England’s is a little more tricky.

India and South Africa, as the second and fourth ranked teams respectively, are the strongest teams while No 5-ranked England have at least shed their global tournament fear-factor by winning the World Twenty20 in the Caribbean last May.

The West Indies may not be the force of the 1970s - when the sides of Clive Lloyd and Sir Viv Richards won the first two Cricket World Cups - and are now ranked ninth as their fall from grace shows no signs of abating. Yet they retain the knowledge, flair and guile to cause teams trouble.

Bangladesh have ousted the West Indies from the top eight and make Group B look like a squeeze of four from five. With home advantage in all six of their group games, the Tigers might prove difficult to tame.

Ireland and the Netherlands - who England open against in Nagpur, India, on Tuesday - also, can not be overlooked.

Who will ever forget Ireland’s journey in 2007 when they shocked the world by eliminating Pakistan with a famous victory?

Bangladesh also accounted for India to progress to the Super Eights four years ago.

To render the next 29 days of group action worthwhile, the Cricket World Cup needs a few more of those shocks, a few more lapses in concentration, or over-confidence, from the traditional powers.

If the top-eight ranked teams are the ones who progress, what will the first month of the tournament have given us, other than an unnecessarily long reminder of the status quo in the international one-day game?

Mercifully this year the Super Eight/Six concept in the wake of the group stage has been abandoned in favour of a straight knockout.

No longer do teams get a second chance after a marathon round-robin stage to still lose games and progress via a second group phase.

This time it’s straightforward, knockout cricket. You lose, you go home.

Granted, the earlier group stage has doubled in the amount of games a country plays, but it does mean the lesser lights of the one-day game have a bit longer to enjoy their moment in the humidity of the sub-continent’s sun, and have a better chance of causing an upset that could go a long way to promoting the game back in their homeland.

But scheduled to last six weeks, with just one game per day on most days, the tournament is as big a slog as hoick over long-on.

Thirteen grounds will stage the matches, with India providing the tournament’s heartbeat. Eight cities will host games; Mohali, Bangalore, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Nagpur, Ahmedabad and Mumbai, where the final will be played, at the 45,000 Wankhede Stadium, on Saturday, April 2.

Colombo, Hambantota and Kandy are the Sri Lankan venues while Bangaldesh’s growing stature in the international game is recognised by their co-hosting of the tournament, and the fact that at Dhaka’s Shere Bangla Stadium today, the action gets underway when the home side face India. Chittagong is the other Bangladeshi host city.

Pakistan had been originally scheduled to join their sub-continental rivals in staging games, but were stripped of the right in April 2009 due to ‘ongoing security concerns’.

The hope over the coming weeks is that the players, officials and fans are safe, and that the cricket is exciting.

The 50-over format may have lost a little of its lustre since the advent of the Twenty20 game, yet a strong selection of matches with tight finishes, dramatic run-chases and memorable knocks, can thrust it back into the conscience.

No matter how long the tournament may be dragged out for, at the end of the day, one nation will be crowned champions of the world - an accolade that should ensure all 14 competing countries put their heart and soul into winning the Cricket World Cup.

England, for one, are World Twenty20 champions and recent Ashes winners. A World Cup would complete the set for Andy Flower, Andrew Strauss, Paul Collingwood and company.

And anything can happen over 100 overs of cricket.

It is a mantra that will hearten the 13 nations whose task it is to stop Australia’s World Cup juggernaut.