Stars must come out shooting to save bloated but unpredictable event

Although it's too long, a lip-smacking array of talent has gathered for the World Cup and, for once, it's difficult to predict the winner
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When the Cricket World Cup began it was small but perfectly formed. Eight teams competed in two sun-kissed weeks in an English June.

Intermingled with a sprinkling of tight 60-over contests which kept the bodily juices flowing, were some one-sided affairs, though not enough to create drought. In all there were 15 matches. The end was always in sight.

The inaugural tournament produced a gripping semi-final between the two oldest enemies, with Australia narrowly prevailing against England in a low-scoring match. It was capped by an imperishable denouement on a glorious summer's day at Lord's when at around 8.45pm, West Indies finally won by 17 runs.

Ah, the innocence of youth. That was 36 years ago and the World Cup has now come wretchedly of age. The lovely competition of 1975 has led to the 10th version which starts today. It is a beast virtually out of control. There are 14 teams playing 49 matches in three countries over 43 days. Already the end seems as though it will never come.

The formative stages – that is until the quarter-finals are reached – will take more than a month. In the participating countries, the fear is that other sporting matters will take such precedence that some forgettable cricket will be consigned deeper into the waste paper bin of the mind.

A bigger concern still is that India, the senior host of 30 of the matches including the final, will see the World Cup only as a curtain-raiser for the Indian Premier League, the Twenty20 competition that really matters and follows immediately afterwards. The IPL is increasingly a tinpot showbiz affair of dubious standards matched only by its riches and the fervour of its supporters.

With all this in mind, the responsibility on the players in the next six weeks is huge. Although the game's administrators make much of their pride in promoting and protecting three forms of the game, the 50-over version remains in grave danger of becoming the poor relation in spiritual if not financial terms. The International Cricket Council have already conceded the ridiculously bloated nature of this tournament (and the two that preceded it) by agreeing to change the structure for Australia in four years' time.

But, as the political saying de nos jours has it, we are where we are. What we are about to witness in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh ought to be a glorious celebration of the original limited-overs game.

To ensure it, the players of all the senior countries have to take this tournament by its scruff. In the group stages, which have been formulated, almost rigged, to ensure they progress, they must play unselfishly, boldly and without fear. If excitement cannot be manufactured to order, the players' deeds can do something to instil it.

And players there are to do so. The lips smack as always at the prospect of Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Tillakaratne Dilshan and Tamim Iqbal. They barely stop resonating when it comes to Hashim Amla, Shane Watson and AB De Villiers. The hairs on the neck stand to attention thinking of Dale Steyn and Brett Lee bounding in and bristle still at Lasith Malinga, Zaheer Khan and the clever slow stuff of Saeed Ajmal, Daniel Vettori and Piyush Chawla, whose time might have come.

The competition appears to have one important factor in common with its distant forebear of 1975, a facet crucial to all sport. Anybody could win it. The last three World Cups have all belonged to Australia in a period of breathtaking hegemony and only the first of the trio was ever in any doubt.

Australia defend their title still as No 1 in the world rankings and their continuing record, not least in beating England 6-1 in the recent one-day series, suggests they will not succumb easily. If that is in the Aussie nature, it is also true that they are not the Australia of yore.

In no particular order, India, Sri Lanka, South Africa, and England all have viable claims on the title. Nor should Pakistan, apparently getting their act together yet again just in time, or Bangladesh, coming up on the rails, be lightly dismissed, although sustaining a level of performance may tell against both.

The obvious home advantage to be gleaned on slow, low pitches may dissipate as the tournament progresses. The World Cup has been played twice before on the subcontinent and in neither did India or Pakistan reach the final. In 1987, they both astonishingly went out in the semi-finals, to England and Australia respectively. In 1996, after India beat Pakistan in the quarter-finals they themselves were eliminated by a Sri Lankan side who changed the face of the game with their unfettered willingness to attack.

Nothing in the preliminaries has hinted at anything so revolutionary this time, though in a late move that may come to be seen as inspired, England have promoted Kevin Pietersen to open the innings. Inspired or reckless, and definitely delayed in the planning, it shows that England are prepared to take a risk.

It is more England's controlled, intelligent bowling and starkly improved fielding as anything in their fitful batting that gives some gentle cause for optimism. They could win the World Cup for the first time, they probably won't. Before writing off the team and their estimable captain Andrew Strauss, however, it would be wise to recall their splendid and unfairly unsung victory in the World Twenty20 last year when they became better with each match and won going away from the field.

India, as twice before, have all the pitfalls brought by expectation. The IPL may be the cricket competition of choice these days but as the finishing line of the World Cup draws closer – and it will – the fever will start to rise if India are still there are thereabouts. South Africa somehow tickle the fancy but will bow to the history which prescribes their choking.

Across in Colombo, Sri Lanka will merely be allowed to get on with it. They are certain to play in their own country (unless they come up against India) as far as the semi-finals. But it is still a long six weeks. It is much easier to say who will not win it than who will. India and Tendulkar against England and Pietersen in Mumbai on 2 April is an irresistible image.