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Hungry boys begin hunt for Cup of changes

Cape Town, Feb. 7: The flavour of this season, quite clearly, is the World Cup.

Step out of any airport in South Africa and you can’t miss Shaun Pollock’s smiling visage. Nor can you miss South African Airways’ brilliant promo line superimposed on the captain: “Dear Polly, we’ll get them here... It’s up to you to send them back.”

If that hasn’t bowled you over, sample this: “We promise some early departures.” The backdrop, by the way, is a typical Allan Donald portrait — furiously appealing for one more victim.

Actually, you can’t miss anything. That there’s a huge emotional pitch for the South Africans. That the disgraced Hansie Cronje continues to be talked about — reverentially and with disgust, depending on whom you are speaking to. That the after-effects of September 11 are, for the first time, visible in a cricket event.

There’s much, much more that can’t be missed. Indeed, Capetonians are quick to remind, one can’t even afford to miss tomorrow’s opening ceremony, which promises to be ethereal, at bedecked Newlands. The romantic chalets have gone, but the ground has retained its special feel.

Among others, South African President Thabo Mbeki is going to be present. Also in attendance will be his cricket-loving predecessor, Nelson Mandela.

Reputations will surely be made, enhanced and marred during the biggest and longest World Cup ever, yet the Ali Bachers are keeping their fingers crossed for the Newlands show. A hiccup-free launch, after all, will set the tone for the eighth edition. The 1996 event, for example, was superbly hosted by the subcontinent, but people still talk about the opening ceremony gaffe.

First-day-first-show, therefore, is as important for a mega sporting spectacle as it is for the box office.

The build-up, of course, has been anything but controversy free. The row over the patently absurd Player Terms, England’s reservations over playing in Zimbabwe, New Zealand’s refusal to play in Nairobi... And, then, whispers about match-fixers targeting the World Cup, though the International Cricket Council believes it has done enough to “cleanse” the sport.

There’s also been talk about terrorists striking during the event, especially gunning for the many tourists from the UK. If nothing else, that threat has upped the security a couple of notches. Be it in mufti or formal attire, security personnel seem to be all over breathtaking Cape Town, in any case a favoured tourist destination.

Obviously, the team hotels and Newlands remain a prime area of concern. Movement is restricted and every vehicle screened — the boot, bonnet, the seats... Never before has cricket seen such a security-centric focus. Incidentally, September 11 not only forced a review, it made Bacher (the World Cup’s executive director) enhance budgetary allocation appreciably.

Cricket itself has changed in the four years between the last edition and this. While the match-fixing scandal left ugly marks, off the pitch, there has been a more pronounced surge towards professionalism. Even smaller nations, like Bangladesh, have opted for specialised coaching and consultants.

If there’s one constant, though, it’s that champions Australia have kept intact their enviable hold on limited overs cricket. Steve Waugh won’t be leading them, but Ricky Ponting’s men have consistently shown just how much they value the green baggy. On form, they will be hard to beat.

Predictably, the other truly hot side is South Africa. Yet, barring Sri Lanka (a co-host in 1996), no host/co-host has ever won the event. Playing at home can work both ways, but as top gun Herschelle Gibbs pointed out in a signed column, “We’re ready for the big rumble.”

Only, Donald and Lance Klusener will be praying there’s no repeat of the most tragic of all mix-ups, during that 1999 semi-final. It’s not insignificant that the chance to make amends, that too at home, is what has kept Donald going.

On form, not many may root for India. Equally, everybody accepts that, potentially, Sourav Ganguly has a near-unbeatable side. If injuries are avoided and the captain himself fires, at the very top, India can go the distance.

“For a cricketer, there’s no bigger stage... Speaking for myself, I’m desperate to come out tops... The boys too are hungry,” Sourav told The Telegraph, a shade emotionally, promising that yesterday’s appalling show (in a warm-up game) won’t even remotely be repeated.

For now, we’ve got to believe him.

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