The chaotic build-up to the 2023 ODI World Cup will finally settle down on Friday when the countdown to the main tournament begins with a bunch of warm-up matches.
It has been a rather subdued lead-up to the 50-over tournament, mainly due to the inordinate delays in announcing the schedule, finalising venues, sale of match tickets and even squad announcements. But, finally, the focus can now shift to action on the pitch.
Pakistan v New Zealand, Bangladesh v Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan v South Africa mark the unoffical beginning of the World Cup, bringing with it its own sense of disquiet.
Pakistan were up until recently the top-ranked ODI team in the world. Then, they failed to make it to the final of the Asia Cup in Sri Lanka, lost badly to India and also witnessed their star pacer Naseem Shah aggravate a shoulder injury that was woefully miss-managed.
Suddenly, there were murmurs of wholesale changes to the team and even the leadership. But in the end, the management retained the personnel utilised throughout this year.
On Wednesday, Babar Azam led a Pakistan cricket contingent on to Indian soil for the first time in seven years, highlighting the significance of the occasion and also the misfortune of fans on both sides of the border given the paucity of such interactions.
The adulation Pakistan received upon arriving in Hyderabad, where they will play the warm-up games and also their first two World Cup matches, will unfortunately be missed when they take on the Kiwis on Friday as the local government could not provide adequate security owing to festivities, forcing the match behind closed doors.
New Zealand will have two main points of focus – captain Kane Williamson and seamer Tim Southee. Williamson was included in the side even though he has yet to prove his match fitness after undergoing knee surgery.
Fast-bowler Southee fractured his thumb and is aiming to be ready for the second of third game of the main World Cup.
Equally rocky has been the preparation of Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. The islanders gave a good account of themselves during the Asia Cup, reaching the final despite missing their entire front-line bowling attack. Then in the final against India, they were shot out for 50 in a record defeat.
Captain Dasun Shanaka’s position came under the microscope but with very little time left for the tournament in India, he retained the role. While they will still be without star spinning all-rounder Wanindu Hasaranga, the fight the Lankans showed on spin friendly surfaces at home prove they will not be pushovers on similar pitches in India.
Bangladesh, however, are a different story altogether. Right before the team was to leave for India, tension between Shakib Al Hasan and former captain Tamim Iqbal spilt out into the open.
Left-handed batsman Iqbal was excluded from the squad, with varying reports of his fitness and unavailability. Captain Shakib said the veteran batsman had been omitted due to “totally childish” behaviour.
That Iqbal was considered in the first place was amazing in itself as he had just returned to the side for a home series against New Zealand after a two-month absence following his shock resignation in July. That decision was rescinded just a day later after the personal intervention of Bangladesh's Prime Minister.
It was an unnecessary distraction for an otherwise in-form white-ball Tigers side.
The Proteas, meanwhile, should be fairly confident going into the tournament. They recently defeated Australia in a home ODI series, putting up 300-plus totals for fun.
While they will miss pace leader Anrich Nortje, who is out injured, they will have enough resources and local knowledge, acquired by their players during many season in the IPL.
It has been a far from ideal preparation for the World Cup, for organisers and many teams. But once the action begins, all will be forgotten.