The 2011 World Cup begins in the subcontinent on Saturday, with one of the most closely fought competitions in the event’s 36-year history predicted.The 14 teams are divided into two groups of seven and after a round-robin section the top four from each group will go through to the quarter-finals.Co-hosts India and Bangladesh contest the opening match in Mirpur (0830 GMT).Defending champions Australia face Zimbabwe on Monday and England begin against the Netherlands on Tuesday.The 2011 tournament, which takes place over the next six weeks in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, is seen as pivotal to the future of the 50-over game, which some believe is under threat because of the enormous popularity of Twenty20 cricket.There was huge criticism of the protracted 2007 World Cup in the Caribbean which saw group stages followed by a round-robin Super Eight phase before the two semi-finals, and comprised 51 matches in total.This time around there will be no Super Eight phase, and each team will be guaranteed at least six matches, which the organisers hope will mean less chance of one of the leading nations suffering a shock early elimination, as happened to India and Pakistan four years ago.The decision to stage the tournament in 13 different stadiums across three countries has presented organisers with considerable logistical and security challenges.India, still smarting from the chaotic build-up to the Commonwealth Games in Delhi last year, suffered a further blow to its image when inspectors declared that Kolkata’s iconic Eden Gardens would not be ready for the high-profile showdown between India and England on 27 February.Another setback occurred on Friday when the Mumbai stadium that will host the World Cup final failed a fire safety inspection.England go into the tournament chastened by a 6-1 series defeat to Australia and the loss of key batsman Eoin Morgan.With four teams qualifying from each seven-team group, qualification for a quarter-final should be a formality, but captain Andrew Strauss admitted his team’s narrow 16-run warm-up win over Canada proved nothing could be taken for granted.”The conditions here a lot different from what we faced in Australia recently,” he said. “The key will be how quickly a side can adapt to the conditions.”Our game against Canada showed there will be no easy fixtures at the World Cup, which will go to make a great tournament.”India are seeking to win the tournament for the second time, having triumphed in 1983, to provide star batsman Sachin Tendulkar with the fitting farewell in what will be his last World Cup.Captain Mahendra Dhoni said: “All teams are in good touch. The gap between matches will help players recover from niggles which are bound to happen. It means every team will be in good shape for their matches.
“A side that plays consistently well over the next six weeks will do well.”Australia captain Ricky Ponting, fit again after a broken finger that caused him to miss the final Ashes Test and the one-day series, believes his team has a good chance of retaining their title despite a difficult recent period.Five of the team that took the field in the 2007 final have retired, while Mike Hussey will miss the team through injury and Andrew Symonds has been consigned to the international wilderness because of a combination of personal problems and poor form.A moderate Australian team lost the Ashes Test series on home soil for the first time in 24 years – an unprecedented third series defeat as captain for Ponting – and have slipped to fifth in the Test rankings.Australia begin their campaign in Group A on 21 February against Zimbabwe in Ahmedabad, India, with Canada, New Zealand, Kenya, Pakistan and Sri Lanka also in their group.However, they thrashed England 6-1 in a recent one-day series to remain as the number-one ranked one-day team and the three-time champions have not lost a World Cup match since the group stages of the 1999 tournament.Ponting said: “We have a pretty proud record here on the subcontinent and come the first game you should see the Australian team in pretty good shape.”If you look at the team on paper there is probably not the McGraths, the Warnes, the Gilchrists and guys like that. But the guys that will feature in this World Cup have had 50 or 60 or 70 one day-matches and they are starting to forge their identities and reputations in the game around the world.
“The group of players here are the same who got us to number one in the world over the last couple of years. I am confident they are good enough to make an impact in this year’s World Cup.”South Africa captain Graeme Smith, who will relinquish the captaincy after the tournament, is hoping to lead his side to a first world title after several near misses.The 31-year-old echoed the views that the tournament will be particularly close, saying: “I believe every team taking part has a chance to win, it is all very open.”Sri Lanka, for whom Muttiah Muralitharan is playing his final major tournament before retirement, are one of the fancied sides but skipper Kumar Sangakkara said although it was helpful to play in familiar conditions it did not guarantee success.”One has to do better than all teams to win the tournament,” he said. “It is great playing at home and front of our own crowds.”The format is such that it you make the quarter-finals, you need to play great in two matches to reach a World Cup final.”For minnow nations like Canada and the Netherlands, the 2011 World Cup may be their last chance to make an impact, after the International Cricket Council (ICC) announced that the 2015 tournament will be reduced to 10 teams.In future, their appearances on the world stage may be restricted to the World Twenty20, which is being expanded to 16 teams from 12.For the first major international tournament since the Pakistan spot-fixing scandal, the ICC has tightened up its anti-corruption code.Players face much tighter restrictions on their use of mobile phones, lap-tops and social-networking sites such as Twitter – BBC