Little can be predicted as the most open World Cup begins today but if I were a betting man the one wager I would make is that it will be Duncan Fletcher’s last outing as England coach.
Some say this World Cup is simply too long. The final (on April 28) does appear a long way off but the International Cricket Council were keen to have 16 teams, more than ever before, in their aim to encourage the growth of the sport. Though some will claim the ‘minnows’ are a waste of space, Kenya (in 2003) and Zimbabwe (in 1999) made more progress than England in those World Cups.
The format should result in very few 'dead' matches. Nearly every match will matter and there should be little opportunity for match-fixing; a blight that has affected past World Cups. A couple of results in 1999, especially, were most peculiar.
The opportunity to host this tournament means a great deal to the West Indies. "Just look at the previous cities to host the final," World Cup Barbados chief executive Stephen Alleyne said. "London [four times], Melbourne, Lahore, Calcutta and Johannesburg. We are just a tiny island in the sea. We have a population of 270,000. But we will show that we can host such a big event and that we can host it successfully.
"It is the biggest event that Barbados and the Caribbean has contemplated since independence in 1966. For an island like Barbados, built on tourism and the service industries, there should be significant economic benefits."
Alleyne hopes that the global television audience — estimated at two billion — will be so attracted by golden beaches and turquoise seas that they will be encouraged to visit. No doubt he is right. Selling Barbados as a destination must be one of the easiest jobs on earth and there is no reason to suspect this will not be a hugely successful World Cup.
So what a shame that so much pre-tournament coverage here has been little less than patronising. Concerns have been raised over organisation, pitches and readiness of the stadiums.
Oh how quickly we forget! We forget that Wembley Stadium is already four years behind schedule; that London had to surrender the rights to stage the World Athletics Championships after the Picketts Lock fiasco; that it recently took some spectators six hours to leave the Rose Bowl and that travel in this country is increasingly expensive and slow. People in glass houses . . .
Can England win? Yes, they are one of eight countries that have a chance. They have the raw talent so it would be foolish to dismiss them. We might yet find a monster lurking at the bottom of Loch Ness. South Africa, Sri Lanka, Australia and New Zealand are better bets.
What counts against England is their team management. England, once again, enter a major event under-prepared, unfit and leaving too much to chance.
While other teams have fine-tuned in the last 18 months England have chopped and changed their team, developing neither tactics nor confidence. Their squad boasts fewer caps than that of Bangladesh! Ten have played fewer than 50 matches while the selection of Ravi Bopara — after but a single match — shows a lack of coherent planning.
Fletcher has achieved a great deal as England coach. Remember just how poor a side England had in 1999? When he took over they had just been knocked out of the World Cup before the release of the official song and beaten in a home Test series by New Zealand. He oversaw a resurgence that included an Ashes win and away series wins over West Indies, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Fletcher should depart with thanks for a job well done.
He is in danger of spoiling his legacy, however. After the worst Ashes result in a lifetime, and a dismal run of limited-overs form interrupted only by the CB Series aberration, it is time for a change.
Fletcher has been in charge for more than seven years yet recently had the gall to suggest this World Cup was "coming a bit soon". He has selected teams, coaches and itineraries. He has had powers like no coach before to have players rested, dropped and recalled. He can have no excuses if England fail.
Nor can Kevin Shine. When England's bowling coach took charge, he inherited the most talented group of fast bowlers in the world. Eighteen months later all have regressed. The lack of rhythm and pace in James Anderson and Liam Plunkett is painful. That Shine retains his job is more a reflection of the absurdly cosy atmosphere within the England set-up than merit.