NEW DELHI: India target a third World Cup when cricket’s global showpiece gets underway on Thursday with the country buoyed by a growing, international self-confidence and with a sport which unites and divides the sub-continent like no other on the verge of joining the Olympic elite.
The epic tournament features 10 nations playing 48 matches over 46 days at 10 different venues.
However, the build-up has been far from smooth after arch-rivals Pakistan considered a boycott when India refused to travel across the border for the Asia Cup.
As a result, the announcement of the schedule for the World Cup was delayed until just three months before the first ball was to be bowled.
Fears over security for the India-Pakistan World Cup blockbuster in Ahmedabad then saw the match moved back a day, sparking a domino effect of nine rescheduled fixtures.
Pakistan’s visit to India is their first since the 2016 Twenty20 World Cup but they were welcomed warmly when they arrived in Hyderabad last week despite only receiving visas just 48 hours before their departure.
“It’s been a superb welcome. People coming to the hotel and their hospitality has been fantastic,” said leg-spinner Shadab Khan.
In an indication of the security tensions, Pakistan’s opening warm-up match with New Zealand on Friday was played behind closed doors at an eerily silent 55,000-capacity Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium.
Torrential rain has also caused an early headache with two warm-up games abandoned without a ball being bowled and a third a reduced overs affair.
The opening match on Thursday between champions England and New Zealand as well as the final on November 19 are being staged at Ahmedabad’s Narendra Modi Stadium, named after the prime minister, the world’s biggest cricket arena boasting a capacity of over 130,000.
India will face Pakistan at the mega-venue on October 14.
The city which independence hero Mahatma Gandhi called home for 15 years is tipped as a potential host city should India bid for the 2036 Olympics.
Cricket itself — albeit in its short-format T20 — is expected to be named an Olympic sport for the 2028 Games in Los Angeles when the International Olympic Committee meets in Mumbai later this month.
The gathering of the best players of India’s favorite game will be the sporting culmination of a year that saw India overtake China as the world’s most populous country, after displacing former colonizer Britain as its fifth-biggest economy in 2021.
Now Modi is seeking a place on the global stage to match.
Courted by the West — despite rights concerns — as a bulwark against Beijing, the prime minister used the G20 summit he hosted this month as a catalyst to position New Delhi as a representative of many others outside traditional power blocs.
His Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party is widely regarded as a certainty to win next year’s general election by a crushing majority.
India are two-time champions having added the 2011 title on home soil to their 1983 triumph.
They boast superstar Virat Kohli who has made more than 13,000 runs in the ODI format.
“The memories of past World Cup victories, especially the iconic 2011 win, are etched in our hearts, and we want to create new memories for our fans,” said Kohli.
Pakistan, the 1992 champions, have lost seven times out of seven to India at past World Cups.
However, skipper Babar Azam will be key to turning around that run as he leads the way in the batting rankings. His average of over 58 betters even that of Kohli.
Defending champions England, who triumphed in a nail-biting 2019 final against New Zealand at Lord’s, can harness the destructive firepower of Ben Stokes who smashed 84 in that game which went to a Super Over conclusion.
The tournament will likely see the farewell ODI performance of Bangladesh skipper Shakib al Hasan, the top-ranked all-rounder in ODI cricket.
The 36-year-old has made more than 7,000 runs in the format with 55 half-centuries and 308 wickets.
Never far from controversy, Shakib arrives in India after a public spat with axed batsman Tamim Iqbal who he blasted as “childish.”
Australia are five-time champions and boast veteran David Warner who has amassed over 6,300 ODI runs.
South Africa, who have endured a roller-coaster relationship with the World Cup, undone by rain rules in 1992 and 2003, have also been hit by injuries, losing key pacers Anrich Nortje and Sisanda Magala.
For Afghanistan, slow bowlers Rashid Khan, Mohammad Nabi, Mujeeb Ur Rahman, who made his international debut at 16, and Noor Ahmad will be key on welcoming Indian pitches.
Sri Lanka, the 1996 winners, will be fired up by the indignity of being bowled out for just 50 and losing the Asia Cup final to India by 10 wickets.
Netherlands complete the line-up and are match-tough after negotiating the qualifying round in July where two-time champions West Indies crashed out.