Every time Sachin Tendulkar saunters to the wicket, he carries the hopes and aspirations of a billion cricket fans. And rarely has the Little Master let them down.
Now, this Indian maestro faces the Everest of his career ó winning the World Cup in his own backyard. India hosts this 14-team quadrennial tournament with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh starting on Saturday with the final in Mumbai on April 2.
Cricketís World Cup features a staggering 49 matches in 13 venues and will be carried live in its entirety in some 220 countries, including Canada, making the tournament the third most watched televised event behind the World Cup of soccer and the summer Olympics.
The teams are divided into two groups and the top four advance to the quarterfinals.
Group A features Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Canada, Pakistan and Kenya.
Group B includes India, South Africa, England, West Indies, Bangladesh, Ireland and Netherlands.
On paper, those bowing out of the group stage should include Test countries Zimbabwe and Bangladesh along with minnows Canada, Kenya, Ireland and the Netherlands. Bangladesh, though, could make the last eight at the expense of the West Indies.
With the added advantage of home turf and a well-balanced lineup, oddsmakers have made Mahendra Singh Dhoniís Indian team hot favourites to lift the trophy. And, of course, Dhoni and the rest of his teammates are determined to give the 37-year-old Tendulkar a fitting farewell present in his final appearance in cricketís showpiece.
Tendulkar made his international debut at the age of 16 and cricketing experts paid little attention to this 5-foot-5 Mumbai-born batsman because of his diminutive stature. But his combination of grace, power and perfect timing at the crease over the past two decades confirmed he is truly a giant of the game.
He holds every conceivable batting record in one-day and Test cricket and is the only player ever to score 200 runs in the 50-over version of the game. This stupendous unbeaten knock came against South Africa, a nation packed with world-class bowlers, at Gwalior, India, in 2010.
As Wayne Gretzky did, Tendulkar carries the unparalleled weight of a country where cricket is what hockey is to Canada. Indiaís first and only triumph in the tournament came in 1983 when Kapil Devís 100-1 outsiders stunned the red-hot West Indies in England. Tendulkar was just 10 at the time.
Now India goes into this 10th edition of the competition favoured at 7-2 and rightly so as besides Tendulkar, India has an explosive batting lineup that can keep that scoreboard ticking briskly. At the top of the order it has prolific scorers Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambir and power-hitters Dhoni, Suresh Raina, Yuvraj Singh, Virat Kholi and the irrepressible Yusuf Pathan to follow.
Zaheer Khan will spearhead the pace attack with Pravin Kumar, Harbhajan Singh and Piyush Chawla providing the spin. India also has the luxury of calling on Sehwag, Yuvraj and Pathan. Indiaís selectorsí decision to include three spinners could pay huge dividends as the wickets in the subcontinent are and have always been conducive to spin.
Ranked joint-second at 4-1 are holders Australia and Sri Lanka followed by South Africa 5-1, England 6-1 and Pakistan 8-1. Canadian fans can place their loonie on our team listed at 1,000-1.†
Australia has won this trophy on four occasions, including the past three and even though it was embarrassed by England in the Ashes series a couple of months ago, it bounced back to demolish the visitors 6-1 in the one-day internationals.
The Aussies have been hit hard by injuries, but you can be sure Ricky Pontingís men will not surrender their crown easily. The one glaring deficiency in the squad is the absence of a top-flight spinner after Nathan Hauritz was ruled out through injury. Instead Australia has loaded up on pace.
Brett Lee returns from injury to share the new ball with Mitchell Johnson, Doug Bollinger and Shaun Tait and this four-pronged attack can and will create havoc. Ponting, also returning from injury, Michael Clarke, Shane Watson and David Hussey will shoulder the batting burden for the Aussies.
Sri Lanka will be looking to repeat its success of 1996 when Arjuna Ranatungaís islanders surprised the Aussies to prevail in the last tournament played on the sub-continent.
Sri Lanka hasnít commanded much attention leading up to this competition as all the hype has been about India. But beware the islanders. Kumar Sangakkara, Tillakaratne Dilshan and Mahela Jayawaradene have, over the past few years, destroyed opposing bowlers with their swashbuckling stroke play.
Their bowling is as exhilarating as their batting with openers Lasith Malinga and Nuwan Kulasekera. Their strength, though, lies in their wily spinners Muttiah Muralitharan and Ajantha Mendis.
Just as Tendulkar is the Maharajah of the bat, the 38-year-old Muralitharan is the wizard of bowling. He has teased and bamboozled batsmen with his magical fingers to become the highest wicket-taker in both formats of the game ó 800 in Tests and 517 in one-day internationals.
Muralitharan, a member of the team that won in 1996, bows out from the sport altogether at the conclusion of this tournament.
Then we have South Africa and England who have often in the past threatened to run away with the competition only to fail miserably.
South Africa cannot be underestimated, but then again we have said that before. It has classy and exciting batsmen in skipper Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, all-rounders Jacques Kallis and J.P. Duminy. Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel are two of the best speed merchants in the business. The addition of uncapped leg-spinner Imran Tahir gives the team an added edge.
England was tipped as a potential winner a month ago after its Ashes triumph in Australia, but that euphoria vanished with the one-day thrashing that followed. In fact, I wouldnít even consider England a contender.
Why? Well, its management must have had a collective brain cramp to get the team to play in Australia for two months just prior to the World Cup.
Can England rebound? Doubtful, even though Andrew Strauss, Jonathon Trott and Kevin Pietersen will be piling up the runs.
Englandís bowling, with Tim Bresnan, Jimmy Anderson and Graeme Swan is formidable and so is its fielding, but the long exhausting trip to Australia and the injury to Eoin Morgan will have taken its toll mentally and physically.
One-time winner Pakistan is an enigma. Last month three of its players were banned following a corruption probe and it was also stripped of co-hosting rights as a result of a terrorist attack on visiting Sri Lanka in 2009.
But this is a young and immensely talented team led by the brilliant all-rounder Shahid Afridi who thrilled fans in Toronto when Pakistan played India in the Sahara Cup series some years ago. Pakistan has experienced pacemen in Shoaib Akhtar, Sohail Tanvir and Umar Gul and a battery of fine spinners. Younis Khan will anchor a batting line-up that has depth.
Two-time champs West Indies have, in the past two years, simply not been able to mesh together as a unit because of on and off-the-field distractions. Regardless, it could pull surprises along the way. Ramnaresh Sarwan and Shivnarine Chanderpaul are experienced campaigners and, in opener Chris Gayle, the West Indies have one of the most attacking batsmen in the world.
Canada will be lucky to advance out of a tough Group A. The team is led by wicketkeeper Ashish Bagai and it could surprise Kenya and Zimbabwe. The batting will be led by veteran John Davison, who has his name etched in the World Cup record book for his blistering 100 from 67 balls against the West Indies in 2003.
firm support from Bagai, Rizwan Cheema, 19-year-old Ruvindu Gunasekera and Jimmy Hansra. Henry Osinde and Khurram Chohan are the picks of the bowling attack. Canada starts its campaign against Sri Lanka on Feb. 28.
After the dust has settled from preliminary play expect India and Sri Lanka in the final.
On April 2 at Mumbaiís Wankhede Stadium can Tendulkar get his hands on a trophy that has eluded him? A billion Indians at home and hundreds of thousands around the world will be cheering the little maestro.
NOTE: Asian Television Network president Shan Chandrasekar has purchased the Canadian broadcast rights and viewers can obtain the entire World Cup package from their local provider. Chandrasekar adds that for the first time live telecasts will also be available on your mobile telephones.