The World Cup has generated tremendous excitement as well as great expectations from the home team. I'm sure Shaun Pollock and his men are seeing the hype that is happening through newspapers, billboards and advertisements, but I'm not sure about the impact all this is having on them.
The South Africans begin their 2003 World Cup campaign in Newlands on Sunday, but the ghosts of the 1999 semi-final keeps cropping up on newspaper pages. Pollock has been at great pains to explain that the team has left that match well behind and is focusing ahead. He's been saying all the right things, but it remains to be seen whether the team has grown since the last World Cup.
Starting Sunday, we will know whether Herschelle Gibbs has matured in the four years, and whether the older guys like Allan Donald and Jonty Rhodes -- for whom this is the last throw of the dice -- are trying too hard. The big question for South Africa in this World Cup is: have they learnt, or are they still vulnerable?
There is another side issue that is worrying me and that is about how the wicket at Newlands will behave. The preparation of the wicket has been affected by the opening ceremony, and there is a side cover across the field. Normally, a pitch is covered overnight and left to dry out in the daytime. The Newlands wicket will be covered for 24 hours because of the opening ceremony and the groundsmen will have no access to the pitch for that period. This does not make me feel too comfortable about the preparation of the pitch. The match on Sunday is a day-night game, so that the ground staff have enough time to get the ground and wicket ready for the opening match. It remains to be seen whether this time might be enough.
The side that has won the toss and batted first has won 80 per cent of the matches played at Newlands, but that statistic might not work this time, since it is a day-night game.
If South Africa play to potential they should prevail over the West Indies in the opener. However, this West Indies team has been given a bit of beef by a couple of players. Jermaine Lawson has added depth to their bowling, while the likes of Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Ramnaresh Sarwan are at the peak of their batting form. Lawson bowled his team to a one-day series win in India, and can be dangerous.
This West Indies unit is more disciplined than they have been for the last few years. A lot of the younger players are coming through, and besides Chanderpaul and Sarwan, Chris Gayle and Wavell Hinds also form a formidable pair at the top of the order.
The West Indian team that came here a few years ago was a little less experienced, with the likes of Chanderpaul yet to come into their own. The side was rife with dissension, and the groupism in that team was there for the world to see. Some of the senior players proved to be poor role models and it was a forgettable tour for them. South Africa is always a tough country to tour, and not many teams have come here and done well, so West Indies were no exceptions.
The World Cup is a different ball game because there are many teams in the fray, and earlier tours will have no bearing on this tournament. Moreover, it must be said that Carl Hooper has engendered some team spirit, and while the discipline in the team can improve, they are getting there. The West Indies fall short often because they are inconsistent, but they are dangerous enough to produce a finish on a good night.
Coming into the opening match, the West Indies are in a no-lose situation -- no one expects them to win, and the pressure to perform is firmly on South Africa. Carl Hooper and his men can play without feeling any tension, and this could be the right tonic for the West Indies since it suits their laidback demeanour.
Once the matches get underway I hope cricket pushes all the politics that has surrounded this tournament right off the front pages. I have been saddened by the events surrounding a few venues, and there is less focus on the players and more on these issues. Such a standoff will be a challenge for the ICC in times to come. Perhaps, they should learn to listen to various schools of thought before arriving at any strategy to deal with it in the future.