The winner in Calcutta will face a final against one of the four teams contesting tomorrow's quarter-finals. The first is in Karachi, where South Africa play West Indies; the other a day-night game in Madras, where Australia take on New Zealand.
The Kiwis have never been able to match the Australians for flair, and apart from the under-performing Chris Cairns they have no one to match Shane Warne or the Waugh brothers. Their only hope is to rely on an enviable ability to play above themselves - particularly when they face their trans-Tasman rivals. This is unlikely to be enough to carry the day, however.
Brian Lara's alleged racist comments published in the Indian-based Outlook magazine will have added a certain piquancy to the match in Karachi. South Africa will have noted the batsman's words with interest but they are unlikely to be drawn into an unnecessary squabble. They bring a scientific approach to their cricket and they will be certain to remain focused on cricketing victories. Knowing who to send in against Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh and where to place the field against Lara are more important to them than verbal battles off the field.
In contrast to this efficiency, the West Indies' recent form has been variable, as predictable as the route of a subcontinental auto-rickshaw driver. But all that may be about to change. According to Michael Holding, the TV commentator and former West Indies fast bowler, the loss against Kenya deeply jolted the players and may even have roused the ferocious beast of old.
"After the Kenya game they had a serious meeting in Jaipur before they played Australia," Holding confirmed. "I think everyone suddenly realised what cricket means to the people back home who stay up all night listening to it on their radios.
"Everyone spoke their mind and that must have helped clear the air because they came out and played much better cricket. They also looked more like a team against Australia, encouraging and supporting each other, something that has not been happening recently."
Most of the blame for their decline has been laid at the feet of their captain, Richie Richardson. A man initially praised for welding the team together after their poor showing in the last World Cup, he is no master tactician or man manager.
Like Richardson, Holding feels that the West Indies Cricket Board is far more culpable than the captain or recent management. "The board have been too indecisive and have not supported the people running the team wholeheartedly enough," he said. "When spurred into action, they have only been seen to be doing the right thing, such as targeting youngsters."
Whatever the deeper problems, Richardson has decided to divorce himself from them and retire from international cricket after the World Cup. Walsh will be his successor as captain, though many feel that the job ought to have gone to Brian Lara.
Holding disagrees. "No one can doubt Lara's cricket brain or his ability as a player. But ever since he was a schoolboy, Brian has been spoilt and allowed to get his own way. He has had too many hiccups and he must be able to show people that he has become a better team man and smoothed his own life out before he can lead a nation."
Irrespective of his captaincy credentials, Lara is the one player who can help give Richardson the retirement send-off he deserves. The Trinidadian, above all others, will not be unduly troubled by the slowness of the Karachi pitch, nor the fact that South Africa will probably play both their spinners to deny the batsmen pace on the ball. The outcome of Pat Symcox's excellent off-spin to their many left-handers in the West Indies middle-order could well end up deciding the match.
South Africa cannot boast anyone as talented with the bat as Lara. Even so, the West Indies will be looking to Walsh and Ambrose to put pressure on their middle order.
To combat this, South Africa will shelve the pinch-hitter and open with Gary Kirsten and Andrew Hudson, followed by the solid Brian McMillan at No 3, saving their captain, Hansie Cronje, for a late swashbuckling acceleration in the run rate.
It was only after their unexpected victory in the 1987 World Cup final that Australia really strated their renaissance, and they are still the team to beat.Reuse content