MELBOURNE, (Reuters) – For the first time in almost a quarter of a century, the cricket World Cup is back Down Under. For the traditionalists and newcomers alike, it is a long overdue return to one of the sport’s spiritual homes.
The sense of anticipation in Australia and New Zealand is building and the mood is infectious with millions of cricket fans around the world eagerly awaiting Saturday’s opening matches.
The first weekend has all the makings for a blockbuster. On Saturday, New Zealand hosts Sri Lanka in Christchurch, marking the city’s first major international sporting event since the devastating 2011 earthquake.
A few hours later, across the Tasman Sea, Australia face England at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the same sprawling venue where the two great rivals staged the first ever One-Day International, in 1971.
Then on Sunday, South Africa meet neighbours Zimbabwe in Hamilton and India clash with their fiercest foes Pakistan in Adelaide.
“This could very well be the most watched game of cricket in that point of time in the history of cricket,” the tournament’s chief executive John Harnden said.
Fourteen teams have been divided into two groups for the six-week tournament, with the top four from each pool advancing to the quarter-finals.
In Group A, Australia, New Zealand, England and Sri Lanka are the favourites to advance, ahead of Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Scotland.
Group B is slightly more open. South Africa, India and Pakistan should all progress safely but West Indies, a fading giant in the 50-over game, are no sure bet to advance ahead of rank outsiders United Arab Emirates and the improving Zimbabwe and Ireland teams.
For some of the teams, just making it to the World Cup is a dream come true. Afghanistan are competing for the first time. The seeds of their elevation in the sport were sown in 1992, the last time when the World Cup was held in Australia and New Zealand.
Thousands of Afghans who had learnt the game while living in refugee camps in Pakistan were inspired to take up the sport after watching Pakistan win. And now they have a team in the finals, albeit one of the underdogs.
Bookmakers have installed Australia as the early favourites, although host nations have a poor record in the tournament. In the previous 10 World Cups, only India (2011) have won the final on home soil.
The Australians have all the ingredients for a winning team to emulate India.
They have an explosive batting lineup, with opener David Warner and the in-form Steve Smith both capable of turning matches around and a lethal bowling attack led by Mitchell Johnson.
Shane Warne, a World Cup winner with Australia in 1999, is tipping his country to win again but concedes the title is wide open.
“We’ve been favourites a few times,” Warne said on Friday. “But I don’t think I’ve seen Australia go into any World Cup with so many match-winners.
“A lot of teams can win this … Australia’s biggest threat is there are just so many good teams.”