Angus Fraser: Let the carnival begin - and here's hoping England come to the party

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The Independent Online

The paint is still being applied, the scaffolding is gradually being removed and the venues are frantically being tidied up in an attempt to make it appear as though all the work has been completed. It is a typical pre-cricket West Indian scene and you would not want it any other way. The final touches will have to wait for another day.

The International Cricket Council knew it was taking a risk when it awarded the 2007 World Cup to the West Indies, yet it could be one of the greatest decisions it has made. Getting nine independent countries to work together was always going to be a logistical nightmare but cricket in the Caribbean was in desperate need of a stimulant and, hopefully, this tournament will give it just that.

Cricket is a richer and far more glamorous sport when the West Indies possess a strong team. The game is played as it should be here - raw and full of energy - but the next seven weeks could kill or cure the sport in the region. If the tournament runs smoothly, with players and spectators arriving at destinations on time and with their luggage intact, and find they are staying in the rooms they booked, it could be the most memorable World Cup of all. If it does not, fewer and fewer people here will want to be associated with the sport.

From a cricketing perspective, there is no better place to play. The noise, the vibrancy of the crowds, the music, colour, sun and stunning locations make the Caribbean a special place to visit. If the ICC allows spectators to behave in their usual way, there will be a carnival atmosphere in these intimate grounds which should bring the best out of the players.

But which team will walk away with cricket's most prestigious prize? A month ago, when Australia were whopping England and New Zealand in the one-day series, it seemed a foregone conclusion. But Australia, humbled by these two opponents, now appear a far more vulnerable outfit. The bowling of the reigning champions looks fragile and opponents no longer fear them, creating the most open World Cup in years.

England's remarkable rise Down Under highlights what can be achieved. Each team will be looking for the quality of the cricket they play to improve as the event progresses but Michael Vaughan's side, sadly, do not have that luxury. Their first game is against New Zealand in a week's time and it is felt that England must win the game if they are to push for a semi-final place.

The composition of the tournament means that points gained against fellow qualifiers from the group stages are carried through to the Super 8 section. Two teams will qualify from each of the four groups and this is where the serious cricket will begin. The top four in the league will go through to the semi-finals and the winners will meet at the Kensington Oval, Barbados, on 28 April.

The presence of minnows has brought criticism because it elongates the tournament but it is a pretty mean-spirited approach. The World Cup is cricket's showcase and by inviting Ireland, Canada and the Netherlands, the game is giving smaller countries a reason to invest and improve. The World Cup begins with a glitzy extravaganza in Montego Bay on Sunday but the real action will start on 27 March when the Super 8 Series kicks in.

The 2003 World Cup witnessed Kenya reach the semi-finals but it is hard to see such a shock taking place this time. To reach that stage a team will need to have defeated four or five major sides, and Kenya, Bangladesh or Zimbabwe are incapable of that. Ireland, one of the strongest Associate member sides, could cause an upset if the West Indies or Pakistan are not in the mood, but the eight major Test-playing nations are expected to move through to the Super 8s.

Who progresses through to the semis could well depend on the type of surfaces the Super 8 games are played on. On hearing it had been awarded the World Cup, West Indian cricket began a massive redevelopment scheme that has resulted in the construction of two new grounds and every other venue being upgraded. In Antigua, Barbados, Guyana and Trinidad, new squares have been laid and nobody can be sure quite how they will play. Groundsmen love to say that their pitches will possess pace and bounce but there is a strong feeling that the surfaces will be slow and low, conditions that may well encourage spin bowling. If this is the case, the Asian countries can be expected to compete well. Batsmen from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are masters in these conditions and the teams they pick usually contain three or four useful tweakers.

The conditions would also suit the West Indies, who are a very competitive one-day side at home. The health of every World Cup needs the host nation to perform well and Brian Lara's side will be a tough team to beat when raucous fans urge them on. And the tournament may well bring out the best in modern cricket's greatest batsman. For the past few years, Lara has had an indifferent approach to one-day cricket but the cocktail of a last World Cup on home soil may just get his juices flowing. If it does, I want to be there.

This World Cup will be the last for many great players. Sachin Tendulkar, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Anil Kumble, Sanath Jayasuriya, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, Shaun Pollock and Glenn McGrath will all wave goodbye during the tournament, and those privileged enough to watch them should enjoy what they have to offer because each has entertained cricket fans regally for more than a decade.

Those cricketers who wish to replace them face a daunting challenge. The modern game contains many talented young men but how many of them will entertain and thrill like those named above? Over the next seven weeks, the next generation have the chance to show their class. Cricket hopes they, along with those leaving, do.

Caribbean kings: Predictions for the 16 nations dreaming of glory

Group A: St Kitts & Nevis

Australia

Best finish: Won 1987, 1999, 2003

Despite a calamitous run that has seen them lose their last five one-day matches, Ricky Ponting's side begin the World Cup as favourites. Injury has deprived the reigning champions of Brett Lee, and they will miss him. Matthew Hayden and Andrew Symonds enter the tournament with injuries and the bowling lacks experience. It all makes them look more vulnerable than they have for quite some time.

Player to watch: Ricky Ponting

The Australian captain is the best batsman in the world and he always seems to rise to the occasion.

Prediction: Winners

South Africa

Best finish: Semi-final 1992, 1999

Having replaced Australia at the top of the world rankings, Graeme Smith's side can feel confident - and if the tournament was being played in South Africa, England or New Zealand, they could be favourites. But West Indian conditions do not suit their seamattack. The abilities of Kallis, Pollock, Hall, Kemp and Boucher give South Africa innumerable options but can they take the pressure? History suggests not.

Player to watch: Justin Kemp

Possibly the biggest hitter in the world. The slow, low nature of the pitches should suit him. The sightscreens could be peppered.

Prediction: Super 8s

Scotland

Best finish: 1st Round

Cricket in Scotland is coming along nicely. They continue to benefit from playing against county sides in English domestic cricket and have claimed several decent scalps in the last three or four years. Scotland qualified for the World Cup by winning the 2005 ICC Trophy and are the best Associate member side in this winter's competition. Playing Australia and South Africa, though, will be tough.

Player to watch: Ryan Watson

Watson has scored a 43-ball hundred against Somerset in the National League and has been in good form this winter.

Prediction: Group stages

Netherlands

Best finish: 1st Round

The Netherlands scraped into their second successive World Cup by finishing fifth in the ICC Trophy. Interest in the game continues to grow, and English cricket, by inviting them to play in domestic tournaments, has done its bit to help - but progress is slow. Edgar Schiferli, the team's strike bowler, is out of the tournament after picking up a hamstring injury.

Player to watch: Ryan ten Doeschate

Ten Doeschate has impressed everyone at Essex in the past couple of years and he scored a sackful of runs against the other Associate sides this winter.

Prediction: Group stages

Group B: Trinidad & Tobago

Sri Lanka

Best finish: Won 1996

Many experts are predicting big things from Mahela Jayawardene's side, and understandably so. The conditions should suit their bowlers and in Sanath Jayasuriya and Upul Tharanga they have a formidable opening pair. Several capable batsmen follow and they have the ability to chase down any score they are set. They also have a certain Muttiah Muralitharan. No more needs to be said.

Player to watch: Upul Tharanga

Sanath Jayasuriya's days may be numbered but Tharanga seems set to continue the legend. Bowlers beware.

Prediction: Losing finalists

India

Best finish: Won 1983

Rahul Dravid's side are poor travellers but the conditions in the Caribbean could suit their cricket. India have the players to be serious challengers but do they have the nerve? When in the mood they are an irrepressible force but these periods are too often surrounded by underachieving lulls. Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly, in their last World Cups, will be keen to impress. The tournament needs India to do well.

Player to watch: Mahendra Singh Dhoni

The Indian wicketkeeper hits a very long ball and pitches in the Caribbean will suit his style. Stay alert in the crowd.

Prediction: Semi-final

Bangladesh

Best finish: 1st Round

Bangladesh will be boosted by last week's victory over New Zealand in a warm-up match but it would be a major surprise if they qualified for the Super 8 section of the tournament. As a cricket nation, Bangladesh continue to make progress, albeit more slowly than many would like. As with other sub-continental sides, they should enjoy the nature of the pitches - but India and Sri Lanka, two of the other teams in their group, will too.

Player to watch: Mohammad Ashraful

Remember the little batsman wearing green who slogged the Aussies all around Cardiff in 2005? It was this fella. On his day he is dynamite.

Prediction: Group stages

* BERMUDA

Best finish: First time

Cricket is the national sport of the country yet they are considered to be the weakest team in the tournament. Bermuda qualified for their first World Cup by finishing fourth in the 2005 ICC Trophy. The island contains just 10 grounds that provide cricket for 2,000 players. Glamorgan's David Hemp is the team's star player but the waistline of the 20-stone spin bowler, Dwayne Leverock, is sure to grab most attention.

Player to watch: Dwayne Leverock

The policeman is hard to miss but he bowls more than useful left-arm spin. He may well get pitches to help him too.

Prediction: Group stages

Group C: St Lucia

New Zealand

Best finish: Semi-final 1975, 1979, 1992, 1999

The Black Caps seem to start every one-day tournament as dark horses but, with the exception of the 2000 Champions Trophy, they are yet to reach a final. Under the guidance of Stephen Fleming and John Bracewell, the side will be well prepared and led but do they have the players to win big games under pressure? Probably not.

Player to watch: Ross Taylor

Taylor is one of the most exciting young batsmen in world cricket. He has all the shots and this tournament provides him with the stage to show them.

Prediction: Super 8s

England

Best result: Runners-up 1979, 1987, 1992

Michael Vaughan's side arrived in the Caribbean with confidence high following their one-day success in Australia. But four consecutive wins should not overshadow an appalling previous sequence of 24 defeats in 31 matches against Test-class opposition. England remain outsiders and their first match against New Zealand is crucial. If they win it, the semi-finals could be reached.

Player to watch: Kevin Pietersen

The biggest stage brings out the best in the best and Pietersen is set to be a major force in this and possibly two more World Cups.

Prediction: Super 8s

Kenya

Best finish: Semi-final 2003

Corruption and uncertainty has dogged Kenyan cricket since their remarkable achievement in 2003, when Steve Tikolo's side qualified for the semi-finals of the World Cup. The current team contains many of the same names but it is much weaker. Collins Obuya, a star four years ago, has all but given up leg-spin. Kenya are usually too good for the minnows but they struggle to compete against Test nations.

Player to watch: Ravi Shah

After a two-year self-imposed exile, the gifted right-hander returned to Kenyan cricket and scored a maiden ODI hundred.

Prediction: Group stages

Canada

Best finish: 1st Round 1979

John Davison brightened up the 2003 World Cup with the fastest century - just 67 balls faced - in the tournament's history. Davison returns, this time as captain, with a much-improved side. Anderson Cummins, the former West Indian fast bowler, will represent Canada at the age of 40. The vast majority of Canada's squad learnt their cricket in the Caribbean or the subcontinent.

Player to watch: John Davison

He may be 36 and has not played first-class cricket for a couple of years, but the Australian is sure to provide a few fireworks.

Prediction: Group stages

Group D: Jamaica

Pakistan

Best finish: Won 1992

Inzamam-ul-Haq's enigmatic side have had a horrendous build-up to the World Cup. Drug-taking allegations have surrounded their preparations and three key players have been lost to injury. Other teams would be in turmoil but for Pakistan it is just another day at the office. Despite these setbacks they remain an unknown force. Highly talented youngsters will replace those missing and anything could happen.

Player to watch: Younis Khan

Younis is a majestic player and he has been in wonderful form this winter. As Pakistan's captain-in-waiting he will be keen to impress.

Prediction: Super 8s

West Indies

Best finish: Won 1975, 1979

The hosts may be ranked as the eighth-best side in the world but they will be highly competitive on home soil. Brian Lara's side know how to play here. His well-balanced side contains three or four match-winners. The West Indies can also draw confidence from the fact that they have reached the final of the last two Champions Trophies, beating England in 2004 and losing to Australia in 2005.

Player to watch: Jerome Taylor

The West Indian conveyor belt of fast bowlers came to a halt when Ambrose and Walsh retired. Taylor has the potential to be a high-class performer.

Prediction: Semi-finals

Zimbabwe

Best finish: Super Six 1999, 2003

Whenever the Zimbabwe cricket team is mentioned, sadness descends on the conversation. Cricket in the country is still in turmoil and this World Cup is unlikely to bring any happiness to Zimbabweans who love the sport. They will field an energetic side containing talented youngsters but they have little chance against hardened men. It is three and a half years since Zimbabwe beat a major Test-playing nation.

Player to watch: Elton Chigumbura

A talented all-rounder who made a positive impression when England toured Zimbabwe in 2004. His batting is strong.

Prediction: Group Stages

Ireland

Best finish: First time

Irish cricket is a success story and interest in the game continues to grow. The problem is they lose their best players to England. Ed Joyce, the man who guided Ireland to the World Cup, has gone and Eoin Morgan, the team's most gifted batsman, is soon to go. Niall O'Brien and Boyd Rankin have contracts with English counties too. Pushed South Africa close in a warm-up match and the game against Pakistan could provide an upset.

Player to watch: Eoin Morgan

Impressed at Middlesex last summer where he is highly rated. The left-hander is well organised and can bat for long periods of time.

Prediction: Group stages

Angus Fraser

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