India to edge wide open World Cup
It began more than a month ago but it gets serious now. Eight teams are left, and the first quarter-final is on Wednesday. Lose now and you're on the first plane home.
The Cricket World Cup produced one notable scalp by an associate nation - when Kevin O'Brien hauled Ireland past a huge England score with an innings to light up any tournament - but excitement and unpredictability has not generally been high on the agenda.
The one surprise from Group A is that Pakistan find themselves above Sri Lanka and Australia at the top of the table, while in the other half Bangladesh's heavy defeat by West Indies proved crucial in ensuring the Tigers, one of three host nations, would not progress to the knockout stages.
England have consistently been the tournament's jokers in the pack, never winning or losing by more than a whisker, playing brilliantly against the good sides and woefully against the weak ones.
With just seven matches to go, who's going to win the thing? Let's take a look at the eight contenders.
With batsmen like Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli to call on, India look formidable (AP)
A combination of a growing injury list and an alarming loss of form from players such as James Anderson and Paul Collingwood means the World Cup's unlikeliest late recruit, the tattooed Surrey seamer Jade Dernbach, is not a million miles away from making an appearance before this tournament is out.
No team has had to change its plans as often as England, and no captain has endured anything like the anxiety levels encountered by Andrew Strauss. And yet the positives are there for all to see.
England found a way to beat South Africa and tie with India - two of the strongest sides in the tournamen - while Jonathan Trott and Strauss occupy positions two and three in the leading run-scorer stakes.
The bowling could be the weak link, with the ring-rusty spinner James Tredwell likely to come under huge pressure if he continues to play, though the fielding has improved sharply from some horrible moments earlier in the tournament.
Expert's view (Test Match Special's Sunil Gavaskar): "England must be considered as serious contenders to win the Cup... possibly favourites. The way they came back from the loss against Bangladesh was amazing. They have a very balanced bowling attack. Strauss makes England believe in themselves."
My prediction: Beating Sri Lanka at their Colombo fortress on Saturday remains a very tough assignment. England to bow out in the quarter-finals.
Now their unbeaten record in World Cups, stretching back the last Millennium, has finally gone is it time for their stranglehold on the trophy itself to be wrested away? If that's the case, then it might have to be India who do it on Thursday in Ahmedabad.
It is to the immense credit of Brett Lee that the lion-hearted veteran paceman has got himself fit for this tournament, let alone become one of its most dangerous bowlers. Lee has 12 wickets at a cost of 15.83 runs each. And Mitchell Johnson has been much more accurate than he tends to be in Ashes Tests.
But it is unlikely to be fast bowlers who win this World Cup for anyone. Even if Australia were to beat India they would then travel to Colombo for a semi-final set to be played on a low, slow turner.
Their batsmen, with Ricky Ponting the most glaring example, have not yet reached their full potential, and their spinners - as was advertised before the tournament started - remain a weakness. And yet if they do get past India not many teams will be keen to take them on.
Expert's view (Test Match Special's Geoffrey Boycott): "You have to put Australia in the mix. There is always something about them. They've got quick bowling and they are going to try to get up people's noises, try to bombard people. It can backfire - but if they get it right then they make inroads quickly."
My prediction: India to gain revenge for defeat in the 2003 World Cup final by sneaking past Ponting's men in the quarter-finals.
Apart from the astonishing run surge led by Ross Taylor against Pakistan (92 runs came off the last four overs) New Zealand have gone about their business quietly - disposing of the minnows, and losing to the two top seeds in Group A - but effectively enough to reach the last eight without any scares.
For a team who tend to struggle with fitness, they have also got to the knockout stage in good shape, though presumably the physio will have his work cut out to ensure injury-prone all-rounders Scott Styris and Jacob Oram make it thought the remainder of the tournament in one piece.
On that front, captain Daniel Vettori expects to have shrugged off the knee problem that forced him out of two group matches in time for the quarter-finals.
With Taylor topping the batting charts for the Black Caps and seamer Tim Southee proving surprisingly effective with ball in hand, New Zealand are unlikely to go down meekly. It would, however, take a leap of faith to imagine them reaching the final.
Expert's view (The Dominion Post's Aaron Lawton): "Coach John Wright is not a miracle worker. He can only set the game plan - which, incidentally is to be no more than three wickets down by the 35-over mark before pulling out the big shots - and hope his players will follow it."
My prediction: South Africa will be too strong in Friday's quarter-final for this New Zealand side, which appears to be lacking punch.
Their group matches suggested one thing: if West Indies ever establish a big advantage over an opponent they can bully them into submission. They also told us this: put the West Indies under pressure and watch them disintegrate.
Cruising to an apparent victory over England, West Indies needed just 24 to win with four wickets and bags of time in hand but managed just three more runs amid a flurry of wild swings, tentative pokes and a run-out.
India and South Africa also beat Darren Sammy's team by margins comfortable enough to suggest the Caribbean dream is in danger of being ended fairly soon.
Whatever happens now, paceman Kemar Roach and opening batsman Chris Gayle have had good tournaments, and given the dreadful bad luck they have encountered with injuries West Indies cannot be said to have performed below par.
Expert's view (Windies captain Sammy, after batting collapse against India): "It's a worrying thing for us but I still back the calibre of players we have, once we put our heads down and play each ball on its merits."
My prediction: West Indies' brittle batting will be severely tested by Pakistan's varied attack, and that should decide that quarter-final.
With 17 wickets costing 11.47 runs apiece and opposing batsmen managing to score barely three-and-a-half runs from each of his overs, Shahid Afridi has laid down a claim as the leading bowler of the tournament. If he can recapture the batting form he is more renowned for, then anyone standing in Pakistan's path should watch out.
For a team whose prime weapon is its bowling - alongside Afridi, the unpredictable fast bowler Umar Gul has been in fine fettle - they have also had their moments with the bat, such as when totalling a match-winning 277-7 against Sri Lanka in Colombo.
But then there's also the mediocre Pakistan who West Indies will hope to encounter on Wednesday in Mirpur: the one that was bowled out for 184 by Canada and thrashed by New Zealand five days later.
Asad Shafiq's steady 46 in the confidence-lifting victory over Australia may have ended Ahmed Shehzad's tournament. Even so, a top three of Kamran Akmal, Mohammad Hafeez and Shafiq/Shehzad is a weakness that must be overcome.
Expert's view (Former World Cup winner Imran Khan): "The mix of youth and experience is helping Pakistan. It was a complete team effort against Australia and with their natural talent I think they can win this World Cup."
My prediction: Batting weakness to be exposed by India as Pakistan's journey ends in the semi-finals.
Some excellent selections, notably picking plenty of spinners including the ODI newcomer Imran Tahir, have ensured South Africa enter the knockouts as one of two teams with five wins behind them.
The startling lack of form of Graeme Smith, and to a lesser extent Jacques Kallis, has been overcome with some big runs from AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla and JP Duminy.
Squad depth is a big strength for South Africa. Seamer Lonwabo Tsotsobe came in for his first game against Bangladesh and returned 3-14 in five overs.
The weakness remains this: how good are South Africa mentally in a tight run-chase when asked to bat second on a spin-friendly wicket? England had their number in Chennai, and other teams will aim to repeat the formula of crowding the bat and inducing some panicky shots.
Expert's view (BBC cricket correspondent Jonathan Agnew): "I'm going for South Africa to win the World Cup. They are a much more rounded team than they've probably ever been in one-day cricket. If anyone is going to win it rather than England then Graeme Smith, for his long service to the game, deserves to get his hands on the Cup."
My prediction: South Africa to miss out on a World Cup final again as nerves get the better of them against Sri Lanka in the semis.
In the only abandoned match of the tournament, Sri Lanka were poised to set Australia a testing target and the margin of their wins over Zimbabwe and New Zealand in their final two games - 139 runs and 112 runs - speaks of a team entitled to feel a trifle confident.
And yet it was a bit of a surprise that they were unable to find a way past Pakistan at their Premadasa fortress back on 26 February.
With no Asian opponents on their possible list until the final, mystery spinner Ajantha Mendis is expected to be picked, especially with Sri Lanka in Colombo both for their quarter-final and semi-final (should they beat England).
So long as Mendis is not knocked off his rhythm, then the rest of the bowling should be strong enough to take Sri Lanka deep into the knockouts, especially with Kumar Sangakkara in tremendous batting form, and others doing their bit with the willow.
Expert's view (TMS pundit Simon Mann): "Sri Lanka, in these conditions, have got lots of options. I'm a bit worried about their lower middle order but all the teams are flawed, and Sri Lanka have fewer flaws than others."
OB's prediction: They have the tools and should have the confidence to go all the way, but the final will be only their second tournament match away from home. Runners-up.
For a team with everything going for it - home advantage, a rejuvenated Sachin Tendulkar, and a death bowler par excellence in Zaheer Khan, India don't half have their detractors.
A number of fans feel off-spinner Harbhajan Singh has been coasting through the tournament and should be dropped - I disagree - while the lower middle order have not scored enough runs when setting targets.
Throw into the mix the persistent refusal to play more than four bowlers - Yuvraj Singh and Yusuf Pathan have got this far relatively unscathed as the "fifth" bowler, but that may not last - and suddenly the negatives are piling up.
In what remains largely a batsman's game, however, you feel the sheer weight of runs already meted out by the formidable top six will keep on coming. And Harbhajan will surely start taking wickets when opposing batsmen have no option but to attack him.
Expert's view (Test Match Special's Michael Vaughan): "A few teams can win and you can't rule out India with the support they have and the power of their batting. The bowling and fielding will have to be better, though."
My prediction: India were not the finished article in 1983 and found a way to win. Packed with match-winners this time, they can certainly do it again.