While India, Australia and South Africa are making confident strides in the run-up to the 2015 World Cup, it's a race against time for England, writes Ian Chappell
As teams enter the home straight in preparation for next year's World Cup it seems that three of the big names are in an advanced state of readiness and a fourth is primed for an early exit.
Leading from the front: Despite MS Dhoni's obvious flaws as a Test captain, he's an excellent leader in the shorter forms of the game. Pic/Getty Images
Alistair Cook may well believe that Graeme's Swann's assertion: "England doesn't have a cat in hell's chance of winning the World Cup," is not helpful but that doesn't mean the comment isn't as accurate as one of his probing off-breaks.
While India, Australia and South Africa are at an advanced stage of preparation, just tinkering with line-ups, England is in disarray. Firstly, they seem unsure of their strongest line-up and secondly, they stubbornly adhere to an outdated approach to ODI batting. Against India, the style they produced revolved around avoiding eating a late dinner.
Exercise in futility?
Far from being unhelpful, Swann's comments could result in the shake-up England needs, if the selectors are prepared to take heed. However, one of Swann's proposed changes was Alistair Cook and it's rare that a leader is demoted at this late stage in proceedings.
Not noted for their adventurous exploits, the England selectors are unlikely to make drastic alterations and as long as Cook remains captain, the team is stuck with their current batting approach. In other words, Swann's prediction is unlikely to be proved wrong.
Meanwhile, two of the leading teams — India and Australia — are in good shape partly because of strong leadership. Despite M S Dhoni's obvious flaws as a Test captain, he's an excellent leader in the shorter forms of the game. Nevertheless he'll have to overcome some of the team's perceived shortcomings to win back-to-back World Cups.
Despite being the defending champions, there are lingering doubts about India's ability on bouncy pitches. Is the batting up to it and do they have the pace bowling firepower to utilise these conditions?
The seam bowling will suffice in New Zealand's more friendly conditions but in Australia they may be found out. If India can survive long enough they might be rewarded with a semi-final against Australia at the SCG; that would be their best chance of consecutive final appearances.
Australia will be desperately hoping Michael Clarke can remain fit for the competition. His dodgy back is now causing him regular problems and coming at the end of a tough season, the World Cup will stretch his resilience as well as his hamstrings.
Australia has an explosive batting line-up but a weakness on turning pitches that was exposed by lowly Zimbabwe.
If Australia's fearless stroke makers in David Warner, Aaron Finch, Shane Watson, Mitchell Marsh and Glenn Maxwell fire, then three hundred will be standard fare. There's no other team in the competition with that amount of firepower [especially up front] and Australia shouldn't have to worry about pitches that are spin friendly during a home World Cup.
SA missing Kallis
South Africa is a good side, although not surprisingly they're missing the monumental dual contributions of premier all-rounder Jacques Kallis. His absence has tilted the balance slightly and there is now an unwieldy reliance on AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis to score heavily and Dale Steyn to strike regularly.
Bowlers like Morne Morkel and Wayne Parnell can be wildly inconsistent and a bad day in a knockout match can spell doom. And it's in the knockout stages where South Africa still has a lot to prove in big tournaments.
Under the more relaxed leadership of de Villiers this may yet happen but it didn't eventuate at the last World T 20. The winner is likely to come from the trio of Australia, India and South Africa, with captaincy playing a role in any success, whilst the West Indies is the dark horse.
As for England, captaincy is likely to play a part in the dark days ahead, as the outstanding feature of their World Cup trophy cabinet will remain a thirty-nine year-old piece of velvet carpet.