|ESPN.com: Cricket||[Print without images]|
We're halfway through the group stage at the 2011 Cricket World Cup, so it's time to mark the established teams, plus a dangerous outsider.
The defending champions are still unbeaten, two powerful co-hosts have been average and a third Asian nation is faring better than expected. Meanwhile, the top European contender has made for great viewing.
Australia (A-): Australian cricket, atypically, was reeling in January in the aftermath of the Ashes debacle. The doom and gloom is disappearing.
No one would have expected Australia to lose to New Zealand and Zimbabwe, but the workmanlike, no-fuss performances suggest the Aussies, going for four straight titles, remain on track for another lengthy stay at a World Cup.
Captain Ricky Ponting is due for a big innings, and the return of Michael Hussey, one of the few bright spots in the Ashes, is a boost.
England (B+): The stronger the opposition, the better England seems to play, which bodes well for the quarterfinals. If only England could crush the minnows.
England has been impressive with the bat at times, most notably against India in their absorbing draw. The bowlers, rocked by Ireland, led the way in Sunday's hardly believable victory over South Africa.
Captain Andrew Strauss can only hope the offense, bowlers and fielders can shine on the same day.
Kevin Pietersen's absence is a big loss. He'd settled as an opener with Strauss and has the ability to win matches by himself. In a second blow, fast bowler Stuart Broad has since been ruled out, too.
New Zealand (B+): New Zealand didn't have lofty ambitions heading into the World Cup. It wanted to get to the quarterfinals, and it was job done for the Kiwis, who recently snapped an 11-match losing streak.
|Ross Taylor has propelled New Zealand to impressive wins.|
Tuesday's unanticipated win over Pakistan means they're almost there. Slumping birthday boy Ross Taylor, given a second chance courtesy of wicket-keeper Kamran Akmal, overpowered the once mighty Shoaib Akhtar and most everyone else, clubbing seven sixes.
His brilliance was tempered by a knee injury to skipper Daniel Vettori. If Vettori's layoff is long term, it spells trouble.
Give New Zealand credit for not lingering against Zimbabwe and Kenya.
In between, New Zealand suffered a seven-wicket loss to archrival Australia. A low run total would have been even lower if not for the work of Vettori and Nathan McCullum at the bottom of the order.
Pakistan (B): Stripped as co-host because of security concerns and weighed down by last summer's spot-fixing scandal that led to the suspension of two key performers and devoid of many leaders, Pakistan wasn't supposed to succeed -- even with ample talent.
Thank Shahid Afridi for the solid start. While Afridi wasn't a unanimously popular choice as captain for the event, he's leading by example on the pitch, taking 14 wickets in Pakistan's first three matches and 15 overall.
But Pakistan showed its fragility in the emphatic loss to New Zealand, unable to rebound from a dismal final six overs with the ball. Akhtar was particularly poor, and Akmal is far from safe hands in the field.
Fortunately for Pakistan, up next is Zimbabwe.
India (B): Captain Mahendra Dhoni was quick to point out the tournament is a marathon, not a sprint, which tells you all you need to know about India: It can do a lot better.
In India's only match thus far against serious competition, Dhoni admitted his team was lucky to nab a point. The bowlers struggled, which is a worry, and India's fielding still leaves much to be desired. When Yuvraj Singh picks up wickets, as he did against Ireland, it helps.
Of course, India largely wins by stacking up runs, and with Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Singh and Dhoni in the squad, batting depth isn't a problem.
Ireland (B-): Ireland rose to prominence at the 2007 World Cup, upsetting Pakistan and reaching the Super Eights. Beating England last week, spearheaded by Kevin O'Brien, went one better.
There's nothing like a good upset to bring some unpredictability to the first round.
O'Brien rewrote history by smashing the fastest century in the World Cup, replacing a slightly more renowned cricketer, Matthew Hayden.
If the Irish are eliminated early in this edition, they'll rue an opening match loss to Bangladesh. Chasing a modest 206, Ireland coasted to 151-5. Losing O'Brien for the sixth wicket, though, sparked a collapse.
Sri Lanka (B-): Sri Lanka, one of the favorites, didn't expect to fall short against Pakistan.
However, Sri Lanka was in the midst of building a good total against Australia before the match had to be abandoned because of rain. Ponting later admitted chasing runs on a spinner's pitch in Colombo wouldn't have been easy.
Too bad we didn't get to see him face Muttiah Muralitharan.
Sri Lanka's remaining two group games -- against Zimbabwe and New Zealand -- should produce comfortable wins. Further, devastating pace bowler Lasith Malinga returned to the lineup after a back injury and claimed a hat trick against Kenya.
West Indies (B-): It's feast or famine for the West Indies.
They trounced the Dutch by more than 200 runs and obliterated a woeful Bangladesh by nine wickets. Not so grand was a seven-wicket loss to South Africa.
That's the West Indies in a nutshell.
Unless Chris Gayle delivers man-of-the-match performances, it has little chance of downing an elite nation. A tough task was made even tougher when all-rounder Dwayne Bravo sustained a knee injury that will require surgery.
Friday's clash against Ireland is pivotal.
South Africa (C+): How the complexion changed for South Africa on Sunday.
Dominating England, the Proteas were on the verge of joining Pakistan as the lone team at 3-0.
But a capitulation ensued. Some call it a choke, although captain Graeme Smith didn't see it that way. South Africa slipped to 2-1, and if it loses to India this weekend, Smith has problems.
All-rounder Jacques Kallis needs to get going if South Africa hopes to beat India and win the tournament.Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.