- Peter Della Penna, Cricket
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Even though the U.S. is not one of the 14 teams competing in the Cricket World Cup, it doesn't mean that sports fans in America should completely ignore the event. Just as soccer has seen its non-American stars like Pele, Beckenbauer, Maradona, Ronaldo and Zidane turn into international heroes and icons at World Cups over the years, cricket has witnessed the same at its own World Cup since 1975. Players like Clive Lloyd, Viv Richards, Kapil Dev, Wasim Akram, Aravinda de Silva, Shane Warne, Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist have all left their stamp on World Cups past to cement their place in the history of the game as all-time greats.
So for any Americans looking to catch the cricket bug and some World Cup fever over the next 43 days, here are five storylines to follow:
1. Can Australia four-peat? The Green and Gold raised the final trophy in the past three World Cups and went undefeated through the entire event in both 2003 and 2007. They also won the World Cup hosted by India and Pakistan in 1987, so finishing on top at this World Cup staged with similar conditions in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh is not beyond them. They enter this World Cup having thrashed England 6-1 in a recent series and are still the No. 1-ranked team in the ODI format. But a slew of key players retiring since 2007 and, more recently, injuries in the months leading up to this event, have severely dented Australia's chances of defending its crown.
2. Can Pakistan overcome off-field distractions? Two weeks ago, three of its leading players -- Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir-- were suspended from all forms of cricket for 10, seven and five years, respectively, for their roles in a spot-fixing scandal. They intentionally underperformed during segments of play without throwing the match altogether, kind of like point-shaving, so think 1978-79 Boston College or 1950-51 CCNY college hoops to envision what the Pakistani players got themselves mixed up with. Pakistan was also supposed to host 2011 World Cup matches, but a March 2009 terrorist attack in Lahore that targeted the Sri Lanka team bus on the way to a match ended those plans. Pakistan has had numerous black eyes to deal with, so turning in positive results in this World Cup would help the healing process.
3. How will Sri Lanka's flair fare? This side brings the most eye-catching talent to the event. Tillakaratne Dilshan, Lasith Malinga, Muttiah Muralitharan and Ajantha Mendis defy conventional textbook teaching to attract fans, while stylish batsmen Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene satisfy purists with their silky-smooth batting touch. The last time the event was held in the Asian subcontinent in 1996, Sri Lanka walked away with its first and only World Cup title. It has the right mix of players to do it again.
4. Will there be a Cinderella from the associates? There are 10 full member (elite/professional) and four associate member (semipro/amateur) teams competing in the World Cup. At the last World Cup in 2007, it was 10 and six, respectively, but after associate nation Ireland stunned Pakistan, the ICC (cricket's FIFA equivalent) slashed two teams from this year's event and also voted to trim the 2015 World Cup to 10 teams. Imagine if the NCAA had reacted to Butler's reaching the national championship game against Duke last year by eliminating the automatic bids for all conference tournament winners and reducing the number of teams to 48 rather than expand from 65 to 68. Ireland is at the same stage Gonzaga was a decade ago and if it and its fellow associates -- Canada, Kenya, the Netherlands -- can produce more upsets this year, they might force the ICC to change tack regarding the format for future World Cups.
5. Will there be a fairytale finish for Sachin Tendulkar? He is cricket's version of Wayne Gretzky, a child prodigy who was never physically imposing but used his mind, vision and surgical precision to become the most prolific scorer in the history of his sport, doing so with total elegance and grace along the way. Tendulkar has never won a World Cup and at 37, this is probably his last chance to do it for India. Winning this event on home soil would be the icing on the cake of a historic career.
Peter Della Penna is an American-born and raised cricket journalist who writes for ESPNcricinfo.com and DreamCricket.com. His work has also appeared in "The Wisden Cricketer" and "Wisden Cricketers" Almanack.