Crunch time at Cricket World Cup
The group stage at the Cricket World Cup produced several scintillating matches, most courtesy of England. However, an excess of lopsided affairs made for often dull viewing, with the likes of Kenya, Zimbabwe and Canada fodder for the sport's more established nations.
Now it's down to crunch time.
ESPN.com previews this week's quarterfinals, highlighted by two heavyweight clashes -- India hosting Australia and England battling Sri Lanka.
India versus Australia: Some in the domestic media speculated India would consider losing to the West Indies on Sunday to avoid the three-time defending champion. India's display ultimately didn't coincide with the theory, as Yuvraj Singh continued his fine form by smacking 113 in an 80-run victory.
And so the matchup worthy of a final unfolds Thursday.[+] EnlargeWilliam West/AFP/Getty ImagesCan Australia rebound from its 34-match World Cup winning streak coming to an end?
India, and its dangerous batsmen, will probably need to outslug the Aussies, since the bowlers -- with the exception of Zaheer Khan -- have been inconsistent and fielding remains a weakness. The bowlers, mind you, did the job against the West Indies.
Perhaps facing the Aussies instead of Sri Lanka isn't so bad. Australia's impressive 34-match World Cup winning streak came to a grinding halt Saturday. We should have known Pakistan would deliver the result, since the Asians handed Australia its previous defeat.
Australia might have lost against Sri Lanka, too, had rain not intervened. Ricky Ponting has looked irritable throughout, probably because his batting slump continues. Incredibly, Ponting's highest score in this year's World Cup stands at 36 -- and Kenya was the opponent. Pakistan and New Zealand, significantly bigger threats, held the Aussie captain to a combined 31.
Brad Haddin and Shane Watson, though, have delivered for the most part as openers, and Michael Clarke is showing signs of life following a dismal Ashes. "Mr. Cricket," Michael Hussey, lends some stability to the middle order.
Wouldn't it be ironic if veteran Brett Lee, adored in India despite representing a substantial rival, plays a lead role in eliminating the co-hosts? Lee was the pick of Australia's bowlers against Pakistan, accounting for four wickets.
Sri Lanka versus England: England's performance at the World Cup suggests Sri Lanka, second favorite behind India when the tournament began, should be worried. The tougher the opposition, the better England plays.
Further, England won its most recent one-day series in Sri Lanka in 2007, collecting a win at Saturday's venue, the R. Premadasa Stadium in Colombo, in the process. Ian Bell, Paul Collingwood, Ravi Bopara, Graeme Swann and James Anderson, currently in the squad, all featured back then.
Anderson has disappointed in the past month, fatigue no doubt a factor, and Collingwood probably won't start, either.
While England has lacked in having one key player carry the team, an array of characters, several unexpected, have excelled at just the right time. James Tredwell became the latest unlikely hero Thursday, taking four wickets against the West Indies in a must-win game.
Tredwell and Sri Lanka's Ajantha Mendis provide the supporting cast to Swann and Muttiah Muralitharan -- if England utilizes two spinners. But Mendis and his variety shouldn't be overlooked. No bowler has been more economical at the World Cup.
How England wishes Kevin Pietersen, its most explosive batsman, was still around.
South Africa versus New Zealand: New Zealand beat only one solid team in the first round, Pakistan. Even then, Pakistan lent a helping hand, literally, as wicket-keeper Kamran Akmal's drops allowed Ross Taylor to flourish. The Kiwis were humbled by Sri Lanka and Australia.
Reason for optimism lies in Taylor's form and the possible return of skipper Daniel Vettori. Vettori, a prolific all-rounder, limped out against Pakistan, injuring his knee attempting a catch.
South Africa will take some stopping Friday. The Proteas are high on confidence after edging India and finishing atop Group B with a 5-1 record. All-rounder Jacques Kallis, who stuttered at the start of the event, notched half-centuries in two of his past three outings.
If batsman A.B. de Villiers, second in the one-day rankings, recovers from a thigh injury and plays, New Zealand's already tough task becomes more difficult.
Pakistan versus West Indies: This World Cup is going better for ever embattled Pakistan than expected.
When Pakistan fell, surprisingly, to New Zealand to suffer a first reverse in Group A, more than a few suspected a team short on confidence -- and leaders -- would crumble, having little chance against Australia. Pakistan overcame the wobble to not only beat Australia, but do it comfortably, and topped the group standings at 5-1.
And all of a sudden, Akmal is catching everything. Captain Shahid Afridi continues to take key wickets, making up for his lack of runs. The gung-ho approach persists. Fast bowler Umar Gul is on a roll.
The West Indies, at least in the past week, have been the nearly side. In winning positions against England and India, especially the former, they collapsed, devoid of poise in the middle order. Explosive opener Chris Gayle, on the sidelines against India due to a lingering stomach injury, is expected to return for Wednesday's match, a much-needed boost.
Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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