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All-Star Break? Time for the World Cup (of Cricket)!

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No, really. As a part of our All-Star break coverage here at Canis, we wanted to bring you sporting options for your viewing pleasure over the long break. Even if you've never watched cricket before, this World Cup is a great place to start, and is easier to watch in America than ever before.

Michael Dodge/Getty Images

The All-Star Break begins today for the Minnesota Timberwolves, with no games scheduled until Friday, February 20. As a part of filling this sad, basketball-less void in our lives, Eric asked me to write a preview of the upcoming Cricket World Cup, which starts on Saturday in New Zealand (so Friday here). I've been an avid cricket fan for several years, and I'm glad to introduce new people to this fascinating game.

The Game

If you've never watched cricket before, you're not alone. Only one network in America (Willow TV, a cricket-specific channel) broadcasts any live cricket, and while ESPN has owned rights to several international series', these have only been available through the WatchESPN service rather than broadcast live. However, Willow's broadcast area has steadily expanded (I actually get the channel at home now!), and the sport has continued to grow in the States. ESPN, in addition to offering all matches of the World Cup through WatchESPN, is offering separate packages for those without a cable subscription to purchase.

There are three forms of international cricket commonly played today: Test, One-Day International (ODI), and Twenty20 (T20). The difference in the three forms is how many overs are played in each game (over: a set of six balls bowled from one end of a cricket pitch). In T20, as you might guess, each team bats for twenty overs, or until they lose all of their wickets (more on this later). A typical T20 game typically lasts between two and three hours. In ODIs, each team bats for fifty overs, or until they lose all of their wickets. ODIs can last up to seven or eight hours, but are almost always finished in one day, as the name implies. In Tests, each team bats twice (each time around is called an innings [yes, it's plural]), for as long as they can, or until they choose to stop. Tests last a maximum of five days, and are declared a draw if the teams run out of time. For this preview, we'll obviously focus on ODIs rather than all the quirks of Test cricket (which are delightful).

A cricket field is a round field at least 70-75 yards in every direction (with some additional details: see Law 19). Fields can be near-perfect circles or ovals. Every cricket ground has slightly to vastly different boundaries. In the center(-ish) of the field is the pitch, a flat, rectangular area typically covered by extremely short grass (or not), measuring 22 yards long and 10 feet wide. At each end of the pitch are wickets, three wooden stumps 28 inches high with two bails (tiny pieces of wood) balanced between them (see the link for a diagram).

Each team in a match has eleven players, typically a mix of specialized batsmen, specialized bowlers (bowling: the action of propelling the ball towards the wicket defended by a batsman), and all-rounders (individuals who are at least decent at both batting and bowling). Each team also has a designated wicketkeeper (essentially the catcher in baseball). Players bat in pairs, each at one end of the pitch, defending their wicket from everything that comes, mostly opposing bowlers bowling up to 90mph. It looks like this coming at you:

The nine non-'keeper, non-bowler players spread out in the field in various positions which are far too numerous to name. Here's a link with position names. Good luck remembering all of them. To score runs, players hit the ball and run back and forth between the wickets. Each crossing is worth one run. If the ball is hit to the boundary of the field (usually a rope) on the ground, it's automatically four runs. If it's hit over the rope, it's automatically six runs. If the batsmen run once, they've switched places, and the other batsman will receive the next ball. Batsmen switch when they run, bowlers switch at the end of each over (one bowls an over towards one end, then the other bowls an over towards the other end). Successful innings and games are built on partnerships between either batsmen or bowlers (or both!)

However, batsmen have to be careful not to lose their wicket and get out. A batsman can be dismissed for:

(1) caught: the batsman hit the ball in the air and it was caught:

(2) bowled: the batsman misses the ball and it hits the stumps, knocking at least one bail off:

(3) leg before wicket (LBW): the batsman blocks the ball with his legs/pads without hitting it with his bat, and the ball would have struck the wicket had it continued:

(4) stumped: the batsman's feet slid out of his crease (the line in front of the wicket) while swinging, and the wicketkeeper caught the ball and knocked the bails from the stumps before he could get back in:

and (5) run out; the batsmen attempt a run, but the ball beats one of them to the crease and removes the bails from the stumps, like this:

Or this.

Scores are written as (number of runs scored)-(number of wickets lost), or backwards if you're in Australia. For example, if England were 173-7, they'd have scored 173 runs for the loss of 7 wickets. To win, score more runs than the other team.

If the team batting first scores more, they win by the differential between the scores.

England 300-5 (50 overs) (batting first)

India 250-9 (50 overs)

England won by 50 runs.

If the team batting second scores more (successfully chases the first team's score), they win by the number of wickets they had remaining.

England 300-5 (50 overs) (batting first)

India 301-7 (48/50 overs)

India won by 3 wickets (with 12 balls remaining).

ODI scores usually ring in between 250 and 300 for a full innings. The lowest score for a completed 50 over innings in 2015 is Scotland's 213/7, and the highest is the completely ridiculous 439/2 scored by South Africa, four runs short of the all-time record. To end the rules bit, you'll want to watch AB de Villiers' innings from that match to see how fast runs can be scored when a top batsman is in the mood.

The Teams

The International Cricket Council has three levels of membership: Full Members, Associate Members, and Affiliate Members. The ten Full Member nations are arguably the most important and highest quality cricket-playing nations, and are the only ones sanctioned to play Test matches. They are:

  • Australia
  • Bangladesh
  • England
  • India
  • New Zealand
  • Pakistan
  • South Africa
  • Sri Lanka
  • West Indies (Barbados, Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago, the Windward Islands, and the Leeward Islands)
  • Zimbabwe

In addition to the ten Full Members, four of the Associate Member nations qualified through various tournaments to participate in this World Cup:

  • Afghanistan
  • Ireland
  • Scotland
  • United Arab Emirates

Australia

Last five completed ODIs:

2/11: UAE at Melbourne (H): W by 188 runs

2/8: India at Adelaide (H): W by 106 runs

2/1: England at Perth (H): W by 112 runs

1/23: England at Hobart (H): W by 3 wickets (1 ball remaining)

1/18: India at Melbourne (H): W by 4 wickets (6 balls remaining)

Australia go into the tournament having won their home series with England and India, as well as their two warm-up matches. They're the tournament co-hosts (with New Zealand), and are on an immensely hot run of form in ODIs, having not lost since November 16 against South Africa. They're ranked as the number one ODI team in the world. They've done this even fighting through the immense grief in many members of the team due to the death of batsman Phillip Hughes during a domestic match in late November. Hughes was struck on the neck just below the helmet and never regained consciousness. The tragedy touched the entire community of international cricket, and has provoked discussion about improvements to the safety equipment used by batsmen.

Australia don't go in with complete confidence, though. Their captain, batsman Michael Clarke, has been managing chronic back problems for his entire professional career, and had surgery on a partially torn right hamstring less than two months ago. Remarkably, Clarke has already almost made his way back into playing condition, having played in their last warmup against the UAE and scored 64 runs (in addition to bowling a few overs), and could be available for Australia's second match against Bangladesh on February 21, possibly even their opener on Saturday. Having him back would be a great blessing if he continue to find runs. Should he not be able to play, batsman Steve Smith has performed admirably in his place.

Australia go in with power at the top of their order in openers David Warner and Aaron Finch, both of whom can hit the ball an absolute mile. They have consistency and stability in the middle with long-term wicketkeeper and batsman Brad Haddin. And their fast bowlers (Mitch Johnson, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood) can blow just about any team away on their home grounds. If there's a weakness in the Australian line-up, it's in their spin (slower) bowling, with Xavier Doherty and part-timers Shane Watson, Maxwell and Clarke reliable but not quite what you'd expect to win you a match. However, the Aussies have to be one of the favorites to win the tournament outright.

Afghanistan

Last five completed ODIs:

2/10: India at Adelaide (N), L by 153 runs

1/17: Ireland at Dubai (N), W by 71 runs

1/14: Scotland at Abu Dhabi (N), L by 150 runs

1/10: Ireland at Dubai (N), L by 3 wickets (40 balls remaining)

1/8: Scotland at Dubai (N), W by 8 wickets (42 balls remaining)

This is the Afghanistan team's debut at the World Cup. They have had ODI status only since 2009, and did not qualify in time for the 2011 World Cup. They have been reasonably successful since gaining status, defeating all of the other Associate Members around their level, as well as taking wins against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. They are still seeking their first win against any of the big eight in any format, but they have the potential to get a surprise result against just about anyone if everything comes together.

For Afghanistan to succeed and have a chance at a major surprise, they need their captain Mohammad Nabi to find form with both ball and bat. He hasn't scored in double figures since the turn of the new year in four innings, and Afghanistan will need him to hold up the lower end of their batting order. Young opening batsman Usman Ghani could make a name for himself with a big score or two. He's only 18, but already tied the highest ODI score in Afghan history (118), and has enormous potential moving forward. He scored 44 against India in Afghanistan's last warm-up match and got out to a great catch, so keep an eye for him. The Afghans play their last warmup tomorrow (tonight) against the UAE.

Bangladesh

Last five completed ODIs:

2/12: Ireland at Sydney (N), L by 4 wickets (19 balls remaining)

2/9: Pakistan at Sydney (N), L by 3 wickets (11 balls remaining)

12/1: Zimbabwe at Dhaka (H), W by 5 wickets (153 balls remaining)

11/28: Zimbabwe at Dhaka (H), W by 21 runs

11/26: Zimbabwe at Dhaka (H), W by 124 runs

Bangladesh has never performed very well in an international tournament. They've only made it out of the group stage once in their four World Cups (in 2007), and while they've claimed some major scalps (Pakistan in their first World Cup in 1999), their struggles have been immense and well-documented. They still hold the record for the longest ODI losing streak in international history (23 matches from 2001-04). They go in having cleanly swept the only Full Member worse than them, Zimbabwe, in five matches in November and December, with a couple of pretty resounding victories in there.

Bangladesh is anchored by veteran leadership, with longtime batsmen Tamim Iqbal, Mahmudullah, Shakib al Hasan and wicketkeeper Mushfiqur Rahim all in the middle of their order and captain Mashrafe Mortaza leading the bowling attack. None of these five have played fewer than 90 ODIs, so they have plenty of international experience on their team. However, it would be quite the feat for them to make it out of their group, although they should do well against Afghanistan and Scotland. Their group looks to be the group much harder to bump any of the four favorites (England, Sri Lanka, New Zealand and Australia) out of the top four spots.

England

Last five completed ODIs:

2/11: Pakistan at Sydney (N), L by 4 wickets (7 balls remaining)

2/9: West Indies at Sydney (N), W by 9 wickets (163 balls remaining)

2/1: Australia at Perth (A), L by 112 runs

1/30: India at Perth (N), W by 3 wickets (19 balls remaining)

1/23: Australia at Hobart (A), L by 3 wickets (1 ball remaining)

The English go into the tournament still somewhat in a state of transition. The Test captain, batsman Alastair Cook, was relieved of the ODI duties just two months ago due to a continual lack of runs and an inability to score quickly. His replacement, batsman Eoin Morgan, brings fire to the middle of the order and led the side to the final of England's triangular series with Australia and India, but results have remained inconsistent. England haven't been further than the quarterfinals of the World Cup since 1992, and have never won it. They have the potential to take down most teams, but rarely has that been fulfilled.

In their first warm-up, bowler Chris Woakes had one of the best outings of his career with 5/19, and if he (along with Steven Finn, Stuart Broad and Chris Jordan) can take advantage of pitches tailored to fast bowling, England have a chance to be pretty restrictive. I think the key is whether or not Finn, recently returned to the team after an extended absence, can remain accurate and threatening. England's batting consistency is the bigger concern. On a given day, Morgan, Jos Buttler, Ravi Bopara and Alex Hales can bat a team out of a match, and Joe Root is the rock on which the order is built. However, all of them going off in a single match is not exactly a frequent occurence. I think England will get to the quarterfinals, but they should be wary of Afghanistan. They won't be near the top of the group.

India

Last five completed ODIs:

2/10: Afghanistan at Sydney (N), W by 153 runs

2/8: Australia at Adelaide (N), L by 106 runs

1/30: England at Perth (N), L by 3 wickets (19 balls remaining)

1/20: England at Brisbane (N), L by 9 wickets (135 balls remaining)

1/18: Australia at Melbourne (A), L by 4 wickets (6 balls remaining)

The defending champions look quite different than they did when they raised the trophy at home in 2011. Sachin Tendulkar, the greatest cricketer of all time, has retired. Gautam Gambhir hasn't played an ODI in over a year, nor has Virender Sehwag. Only three members of the India lineup from the 2011 final are even in this World Cup squad: Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina, and MS Dhoni. India have revamped their lineup and are still a threat, but can they perform away from home?

India's strength is in batting. Kohli is a proven matchwinner and has been in great form, Rohit Sharma is fresh off 150 runs against Afghanistan and eviscerated the highest single match ODI score of all time three months ago, scoring 264 off 173 balls against Sri Lanka in November. Opener Ajinkya Rahane has also been playing well lately, scoring 88 not out in the Afghanistan match. Their bowlers can all take wickets regularly, but whether or not they can do so on Australian and New Zealand pitches will be interesting to see. R Ashwin and Ravi Jadeja will both be players to watch. India are in the weaker group and should progress easily, but their matchup in the quarterfinals could be a problem.

Ireland

Last five completed ODIs:

2/12: Bangladesh at Sydney (N), W by 4 wickets (19 balls remaining)

2/10: Scotland at Sydney (N), L by 179 runs

1/17: Afghanistan at Dubai (N), L by 71 runs

1/12: Scotland at Dubai (N), W by 3 wickets (21 balls remaining)

1/10: Afghanistan at Dubai (N), W by 3 wickets (40 balls remaining)

Ireland are likely strongest of the Associates, and you could pretty easily make a case for them being stronger than one or both of Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. They also tend to show up to the biggest stages. Their ridiculous win over England from the 2011 World Cup was my favorite match of the tournament. Kevin O'Brien's innings from that match is well worth a watch. They have tournament experience, good batting and great fielding.

Ireland's strengths remain with the bat. Kevin O'Brien's still around to bat and bowl, as is his brother Niall, and William Porterfield and Ed Joyce at the top of the order bring stability and experience to the lineup. In the bowling, spinner George Dockrell feels like he's been on the team for ages, but he's still only 22 years old and brings a unique element to the team. I think Ireland have a great chance to get into the quarterfinals. They should beat Zimbabwe and UAE handily, and they have a very good chance to beat the West Indies.

New Zealand

Last five completed ODIs:

2/11: South Africa at Christchurch (H), W by 134 runs

2/3: Pakistan at Napier (H), W by 119 runs

1/31: Pakistan at Wellington (H), W by 7 wickets (63 balls remaining)

1/29: Sri Lanka at Wellington (H), L by 34 runs

1/25: Sri Lanka at Dunedin (H), W by 120 runs

New Zealand have all the pieces to make a deep run in this tournament. They've been ridiculously hot lately, beating pretty much everyone who comes at them and comfortably. Just in their last five, they've beaten Pakistan, South Africa and Sri Lanka by over 100 runs. They have been the young upstarts with lots of potential for a while now. Everything seems perfectly set up for them.

Their batting is solid and has different strengths: Brendon McCullum's savagery, Kane Williamson's touch. Anyone from their top six can completely destroy a bowling attack. Their fast bowlers in Tim Southee, Trent Boult and Kyle Mills can knock any lineup out. They also remain probably the best fielding side in the world (South Africa would be the other possibility for me), as evidenced by Williamson's ridiculous catch up above. They're just a solid, good team with a mix of all of the right ingredients. Their group match with Australia should be the best match of the group stage, and will be very informative for the rest of the tournament.

Pakistan

Last five completed ODIs:

2/11: England at Sydney (N), W by 4 wickets (7 balls remaining)

2/9: Bangladesh at Sydney (N), W by 3 wickets (11 balls remaining)

2/3: New Zealand at Napier (A), L by 119 runs

1/31: New Zealand at Wellington (A), L by 7 wickets (63 balls remaining)

12/19: New Zealand at Abu Dhabi (A), L by 68 runs

Pakistan, to quote the movie Forrest Gump, are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get. They can crush the best teams and lose to the worst teams. They're exciting and boring. Their captain Misbah ul-Haq has been derided as too slow-paced of a batsman for ODIs, but he's anchored many successful run chases. Shahid Afridi can singlehandedly win any match with bat or ball, and can also have no impact. They are must watch cricket, just to see what will happen.

Pakistan have one World Cup title to their name, and it came the last time the World Cup was in Australia and New Zealand (1992). They come in on an interesting bit of form. They won both of their warmup matches relatively comfortably, but have recently gotten smacked around by New Zealand both home and away. They were semifinalists in 2011, losing to eventual winners and great rivals India in the most-viewed cricket match of all time, watched by 988 million people across the world. The opening group match on Sunday has been sold out for six months and could potentially draw a television audience of over a billion people.

Misbah and Afridi return looking for a title as each nears the end of their career, and have the giant fast bowler Mohammad Irfan (possibly 7'1") to do some damage to opposing lineups. The lack of Saeed Ajmal, likely still the best spin bowler in the world, due to a suspension for an improper bowling action will hurt them, but there yet remains the potential he could return if another player is injured, having recently been cleared to bowl in internationals again. For me, Pakistan can bring in all the new blood they want: as long as Shahid Afridi remains in the lineup, he's the player I'm watching to win the match, either bowling or batting. This line from his bio by Osman Samiuddin on Cricinfo says it best:

Of Shahid Afridi it can safely be said that cricket never has and never will see another like him. To say he is an allrounder is to say Albert Einstein was a scientist; it tells a criminally bare story.

Pakistan should progress out of their group, and could win it all. But who knows?

Scotland

Last five completed ODIs:

2/12: West Indies at Sydney (N), L by 3 runs

2/10: Ireland at Sydney (N), W by 179 runs

1/14: Afghanistan at Abu Dhabi (N), W by 150 runs

1/12: Ireland at Dubai (N), L by 3 wickets (21 balls remaining)

1/8: Afghanistan at Dubai (N), L by 8 wickets (42 balls remaining)

Scotland have already showed they've got fight in them and can pull a surprise off, coming within three runs of a landmark victory against West Indies today. They crushed Ireland in their first warmup match as well, so they're in form and have shown they can beat the other associates. They've only appeared in two previous World Cups (1999 and 2007) and did not make it out of the group stage on either occasion, so they'll be looking to spring a surprise on the big dogs and claim their first victory against one of the big eight, at the very least.

Opener and former captain Kyle Coetzer top-scored for Scotland with 96 in the West Indies match, his best score of the new year by far (next highest was 26), and he'll be one of Scotland's keys with the back. They'll be looking to captain Preston Mommsen to anchor the batting as well, after his performance in the qualifying tournament to get Scotland in to the World Cup led him to be named 2014's Associate and Affiliate Cricketer of the Year. Mommsen's highest score came in the final of that tournament, with 139 not out, and he'll be looking to reproduce high scores on an even bigger stage.

South Africa

Last five completed ODIs:

2/11: New Zealand at Christchurch (A), L by 134 runs

2/9: Sri Lanka at Christchurch (N), W by 5 wickets (3 balls remaining)

1/28: West Indies at Centurion (H), W by 131 runs

1/25: West Indies at Port Elizabeth (H), L by 1 wicket (9 balls remaining)

1/21: West Indies at East London (H), W by 9 wickets (152 balls remaining)

Ah, South Africa. They've been one of the best one-day sides in the world for years, but they've never managed to produce on the biggest of stages. Of the six World Cups they've participated in, they've made it to the knockout rounds every time but once. Twice eliminated in the quarterfinals, three times eliminated in the semifinals. Just in 2011, they were the hottest team around, going 5-1 in the group stage and easily topping their group. They played New Zealand in the quarterfinals, restricted them to a low 221/8, were comfortably at 108/2 halfway through their innings... and then crashed and burned for 172 all out. The word "chokers" has been used a few times against them.

And in 2015, it's no different. They come in a month off the second-biggest team score of all time (mentioned above) against the West Indies and have won four of their six ODIs since the turn of the year. But, that last warmup match against New Zealand was not close, and the memories of a 4-1 series loss to Australia in Australia in November are still quite fresh. They have all the tools: the quick bowling of Morne Morkel, Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander; the tricks of Imran Tahir; the raw power of AB de Villiers; and the grace of Hashim Amla. Even newcomers to the team like opener Rilee Roussow have produced. This team has all the pieces, but can they put the puzzle together?

Sri Lanka

Last five completed ODIs:

2/11: Zimbabwe at Lincoln (N), L by 7 wickets (28 balls remaining)

2/9: South Africa at Christchurch (N), L by 5 wickets (3 balls remaining)

12/1: New Zealand at Wellington (H), W by 34 runs

11/28: New Zealand at Dunedin (H), L by 120 runs

11/26: New Zealand at Dunedin (H), L by 108 runs

Sri Lanka enter the tournament staring the end of an era in the eye. This will be the end for the twin titan batsmen Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene. This could be the end for bowlers Lasith Malinga and Rangana Herath. Sri Lanka have progressed to each of the last two World Cup finals, but could not get across the line in either one, losing to India in 2011 and Australia in 2007. The memories of their 1996 win are still there, but they grow further and further from the present, and this is the last chance for many of Sri Lanka's greatest to cap their careers with a World Cup title.

Sangakkara and Jayawardene enter as the keys to the batting lineup, as they have for most of the last fifteen years. Sangakkara in particular has been in ridiculous form for what feels like years, scoring hundreds in every format and rarely bringing out a bad score. They will be there, as will the bowlers above. However, the other pieces of the lineup need to perform as well. Captain Angelo Matthews needs to perform with bat and ball, as well as lead the side intelligently and manage the resources at his disposal well. The performance of Nuwan Kulasekara will be key to restricting other sides to low totals. Kulasekara hasn't taken more than two wickets in an innings yet this year, and will need to be a factor for Sri Lanka to make a deep run.

United Arab Emirates

Last five completed ODIs:

2/11: Australia at Melbourne (N), L by 188 runs

12/4: Afghanistan at Dubai (H), W by 30 runs

12/2: Afghanistan at Dubai (H), L by 2 wickets (2 balls remaining)

11/30: Afghanistan at Dubai (H), W by 6 wickets (10 balls remaining)

11/28: Afghanistan at Dubai (H), W by 5 wickets (8 balls remaining)

The UAE are here for just their second appearance at the World Cup and their first in nineteen years. They have played ODI cricket for the entire time since, but had not successfully qualified since. They did participate in the 2014 World Twenty20 for their first major tournament since the 1996 World Cup, and are now back in the World Cup again after finishing second to Scotland in the qualifying tournament. The UAE has the unique advantage among Associates of having a very sound cricket infrastructure at home, having hosted many Pakistan Tests and ODIs since the terrorist attack on a Sri Lankan team bus in Pakistan in 2009 prevented Pakistan from hosting any home international matches.

The biggest worry for the UAE entering the tournament has to be their lack of play against high-level opponents. Before their warmup matches against Australia and Afghanistan, they had not played at all since the beginning of December. They did win their home series in November and December with Afghanistan 3-1, which is a great sign, but there just hasn't been much showed as to whether or not they will even have a chance against the Full Member nations. Their warmup match against Australia certainly didn't show too many positives. Their captain is 43 year old Mohammad Tauqir, chosen seemingly largely due to his place as a native Emirati. Long-time captain Khurram Khan is still a member of the squad, just not leading it. The UAE will look to match their one victory (against the Netherlands) from 1996, but will likely struggle against many of the larger nations.

West Indies

Last five completed ODIs:

2/12: Scotland at Sydney (N), W by 3 runs

2/9: England at Sydney (N), L by 9 wickets (163 balls remaining)

1/28: South Africa at Centurion (A), L by 131 runs

1/25: South Africa at Port Elizabeth (A), W by 1 wicket (9 balls remaining)

1/21: South Africa at East London (A), L by 9 wickets (152 balls remaining)

The West Indies, the dominating force of cricket through most of the 1970s and 1980s, have been reduced to one of the weakest squads in years. Winners in 1975 and 1979, they have not progressed further than the quarterfinals since 1996 in World Cups. This year, some might not even see them progressing out of the group stage. The organizing body of West Indies cricket is in a complete mess after their abandonment of their tour of India late in 2014, and newly appointed captain Jason Holder, just 23, has been left to pick up what pieces they have left him. Experienced internationals like Darren Sammy and Kieron Pollard were not selected to the squad for the tournament, and while some veterans like long time powerhouse Chris Gayle remain with the team, Holder is clearly still learning how to manage a team, and isn't really being helped by his management:

Holder's authority as captain was further undermined when, during the media conference, the team's press officer took the unusual step of calling a halt to proceedings and demanding journalists ask no more questions about Chris Gayle. If the intention was to avoid any uncomfortable questions, it succeeded only in making Holder appear like a young man who needed shielding.

On paper, the West Indies have plenty of capable players: Holder and Kemar Roach are quality fast bowlers, Gayle, Andre Russell and Lendl Simmons can score plenty of runs. But they've been in pretty atrocious form for months, and that was before Roach pulled them out of the fire of a potentially very embarrassing loss to Scotland by (barely) defending 12 runs off the last over. It's hard to see a happy end to this story for the West Indies, both in the tournament and back home, where administrative squabbles continue to detract from the game. This article from Roger Sawh at Cricinfo explains the fans' perspective rather acutely.

Zimbabwe

Last five completed ODIs:

2/11: Sri Lanka at Lincoln (N), W by 7 wickets (28 balls remaining)

12/1: Bangladesh at Dhaka (A), L by 5 wickets (153 balls remaining)

11/28: Bangladesh at Dhaka (A), L by 21 runs

11/26: Bangladesh at Dhaka (A), L by 124 runs

11/23: Bangladesh at Chittagong (A), L by 68 runs

We end with Zimbabwe, who are the lowest ranked of all ten Test nations. They just have never been able to get off the bottom of the table, whether because of player disputes, administrative issues, or a simple lack of matches. They, like the UAE, have only their warmup for the World Cup for ODI play in 2015, and their last play before that was a 5-0 whitewashing by fellow bottom-dwellers Bangladesh, including a couple of really bad defeats. They will remind themselves that the impossible can still be possible, having defeated Australia for the first time in 31 years just six months ago, but the impossible sure isn't likely.

The key man in that run chase was captain Elton Chigumbura, and he reprises his role at the World Cup. He's been playing for Zimbabwe on the international stage for ten years, and needs to find form to guide his team. His highest score in his last ten matches in all formats and teams is just 26 in a domestic match in January, and that will need to change. Fast bowlers Tinashe Panyangara and Tendai Chatara will need to keep opponents' scoring to a minimum so that batsmen like new find Solomon Mire and veteran Hamilton Masakadza (who just scored 117 not out to lead Zimbabwe to a surprise win against Sri Lanka in their last warmup) can score enough runs. They can get upsets on the right day, but as this article from Firdose Moonda of Cricinfo says, they're more concerned with the clubs behind them than ahead of them.

The Tournament

The fourteen teams are broken up into two pools:

Pool A Pool B
England South Africa
Australia India
Sri Lanka Pakistan
Bangladesh West Indies
New Zealand Zimbabwe
Afghanistan Ireland
Scotland United Arab Emirates

Each team in each pool plays every other team in their pool once (2 points for a win, 1 each for a tie or abandonment, 0 for a loss), then the top four teams in each pool will match up in a bracketed tournament:

(bracket created with Challonge.com's bracket generator, tournament format via ESPNcricinfo)

The Picks

I like New Zealand to win the whole thing, in a reasonably big upset. They've been playing great cricket lately, they have consistency in both batting and bowling, a matchwinner in Kane Williamson, and they're playing on home soil.

Pool A: Australia #1, New Zealand #2, Sri Lanka #3, England #4

Pool B: South Africa #1, Pakistan #2, India #3, Ireland #4

Quarterfinals: Australia over Ireland, New Zealand over India, Sri Lanka over Pakistan, South Africa over England

Semifinals: Australia over Sri Lanka, New Zealand over South Africa

Final: New Zealand over Australia

How do I watch?

Every match of the World Cup will be streamed live on WatchESPN. The first match is New Zealand against Sri Lanka from Christchurch, New Zealand at 4:00pm  Central Time tomorrow, followed by the oldest of rivals, Australia against England from Melbourne, starting at 9:30pm Central Time tomorrow. Almost every match in the tournament hits in that sweet spot late afternoon to mid-evening for those of us in the Central Time Zone, other than the few matches from Perth in Western Australia (starting closer to 12:30am). The tournament runs all the way until March 29, so you have plenty of time to catch a match or two.

What else can I read?

  • ESPN's cricket hub, Cricinfo, which I've linked to before in this article, is great for everything from match reports to analysis to live scorecards to intense statistical analysis (Statsguru is awesome).
  • The cricket journalists at the Guardian are excellent. I originally got into watching and learning about cricket by reading over-by-over reports (like this one), which (I believe) they'll have for at minimum every England and Australia match, in addition to everything from the quarterfinal round on.
  • For further international perspective, try the Mumbai Mirror and Hindustan Times of India, the Sydney Morning Herald of Australia, the Mail & Guardian of South Africa and Dawn of Pakistan. I'll add more to this if anyone has any.
  • Also, you have to check some Wright Thompson on why you should care about cricket.