Six weeks, 54 games and a US$2 million pot of gold

JOHANNESBURG: Today the first ball of the 2003 World Cup will hiss down the Newlands wicket to a huge roar from a capacity crowd and the last few months will all but be forgotten. 

A few months that have been thick-stewed in politics, Machiavellian intrigue and commercial wheeler-dealing. 

The likes of Shane Warne, Muttiah Muralitharan, Wasim Akram, Brett Lee, Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara have barely earned a mention. 

Today, however, 24 hours after a lavish opening ceremony, Shaun Pollock's South Africans, hoping to become the first hosts to win a World Cup, will take on Carl Hooper's West Indies and the game will return to centre stage. 

Or, as World Cup executive director Ali Bacher has repeatedly put it: “It's time for the politicians and administrators, myself included, to take a back seat.” 

Six weeks and 54 matches lie ahead, with a US$2 million pot of gold at the end for the winners. The television audiences will run into billions, and that probably in India alone. 

Sadly, however, the tournament – as occurred in 1996 – has already been blighted, with England and New Zealand unhappy at travelling to Harare and Nairobi because of security concerns, and Australia still watching Zimbabwe warily. 

It will take something special to shift the mood, especially if the event gets saddled with the worst possible scenario of three forfeited matches. 

Seven years ago, Sri Lanka were gifted two matches without even padding up when Australia and West Indies declined to travel to Colombo after a bomb killed around 80 people in the capital. 

Australia, the 2002 favourites, managed to battle through to the Lahore final only to lose to the Sri Lankans. Arjuna Ranatunga's side were as revolutionary as they were exciting and deserving of their trophy. But a bad taste remained. 

The run-up to South Africa 2003 has been even more politically charged. Zimbabwe's suspension from the Commonwealth in March after allegations of vote-fixing in President Robert Mugabe's re-election set the tone. 

Mugabe's policy of seizing white-owned farms to give to landless blacks, followed by a food crisis and social and political unrest, underlined it. A bombing in Mombasa in November, killing 16 people, meant there was no going back. 

For Bacher, the problems had begun even earlier. 

“It's a different world since September 11,” he said. “It would be naive, in my opinion, to expect that in today's times one can host a world sporting event of this magnitude without political issues surfacing.” 

Six weeks, 54 games, 26 of them involving at least one minor side. Whether Holland, Namibia, Kenya, Canada and Bangladesh will make for enthralling viewing remains a matter of debate.  

A giant-killing or two would go some way to justify their presence. 

India's marvellous batsmen also owe cricket fans something, after spending months before the tournament caught up in a labyrinthine sponsorship trial of strength with tournament organisers. That controversy was as protracted and complicated as the political storm to follow. 

For now, however, all eyes will be on South Africa versus West Indies, a game showcasing the world-class talents of pace bowlers Pollock and Allan Donald and all rounder Jacques Kallis on the one hand and Hooper and mercurial left-handed batsman Brian Lara on the other. 

Two days later, Ricky Ponting's Australians, the 1999 champions and hoping to become the first team to win the trophy three times, play Pakistan in a repeat of the Lord's final four years ago. 

This time, Warne's leg spin and Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist's laboratorial-clean hitting will be set against the marvellously colourful talents of fast bowler Shoaib Akhtar – who has already put one of his own team mates in hospital during a frisky net session – Wasim Akram and Inzamam-ul-Haq. 

These are the games the tournament – and South Africa, with one eye on hosting the 2010 football World Cup -- desperately needs to burst into life. For politics – hopefully – read Pollock. – Reuters 

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