100 days to go: Five key questions ahead of the Cricket World Cup

Tuesday marks 100 days until the Cricket World Cup gets under way when hosts England face South Africa at the Oval.

Starting with that opening clash on May 30, the world's 10 best ODI sides will battle it out over a round-robin phase, from which the strongest four teams will progress to the semi-finals prior to the decider at Lord's on July 14.

Of the nations involved, only half have tasted glory in the ICC's 50-over showpiece, while four of the last five tournaments have been won by Australia.

But the defending champions will not start as favourites this time around - that questionable honour will instead be bestowed on the home side - while Australia will have to cope with the distractions involved in welcoming back two of their best players from ball-tampering suspensions.

How will the holders cope? That question is one of the five major unknowns ahead of the action kicking off in 100 days' time...

 

Baggy Greens to struggle with Smith-Warner baggage?

Australian cricket was rocked last year when captain Steve Smith, his right-hand man David Warner and opening batsman Cameron Bancroft were all banned for their part in the Newlands ball-tampering scandal. Smith and Warner's suspensions are due to expire in March, two months before their first World Cup warm-up fixture against England at the Rose Bowl. As two of the world's finest players, it seems inconceivable that Australia would not select the pair, who will expect a hostile reception from the home crowd but have been around long enough to be able to block out any abuse from the stands. But will the predictable media brouhaha and constant questions surrounding their return become too great a hindrance?

Which Pakistan will turn up?

A global 50-over tournament in England should hold fond memories for Pakistan, who overcame fierce rivals India in the Champions Trophy final at the Oval two years ago. That 180-run hammering came just a fortnight after India had inflicted a 124-run thrashing during the group phase. And that, in a nutshell, is the Pakistan cricket team. They veer from the sublime to the ridiculous on a regular basis, proving consistently capable of looking unbeatable one day to utterly incompetent the next. The likes of Mohammad Amir and Hasan Ali can be devastating with the ball while Fakhar Zaman and Babar Azam are explosive at the top of the order, but bet on Pakistan at your peril. They could go all the way. They could crash out in a series of batting collapses in the round-robin stage. The one guarantee is that it will not be dull.

Will the Universe Boss bow out in a blaze of glory?

At the age of 39, Chris Gayle will take part in his fifth and final World Cup after announcing he will retire from ODIs once the tournament is over. The scorer of the first double-century in World Cup history - smashing 16 sixes in making 215 off 147 balls against Zimbabwe four years ago - the self-styled 'Universe Boss' has spent much of the latter part of his career travelling the globe playing Twenty20 cricket for a number of high-paying franchises. As such, his involvement for the Windies has dwindled, but Gayle still manages to talk the talk - declaring himself "the greatest player in the world" recently. So, as he nears his 40th birthday, can Gayle walk the walk on his World Cup swansong?

Is Dhoni still the ultimate finisher?

If India are to reach the final, it will fall a week after MS Dhoni's 38th birthday. A veteran of well over 300 ODIs dating back to his debut in 2004, the wicketkeeper-batsman has proved himself to be the coolest of customers when the run chase reaches the wire. His unbeaten 91 from 79 balls delivered his country's second title in 2011 and despite moving up and down the order with regularity, he still somehow averages more than 50 with the bat. India fans have a new superstar to worship in the form of captain Virat Kohli, but Dhoni still remains an idol to millions in that part of the world. In recent times Kohli has proven the master of the chase but, in what is sure to be his final World Cup, can Dhoni have the last word, as he has so many times before?

Can England cope with the favourites' tag?

It is an unusual scenario for England, whose ODI fortunes dropped to an all-time low at the last World Cup, where defeats to Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh saw Eoin Morgan's side dumped out in the groups. That elimination proved a watershed moment, however, and in the intervening four years Morgan's men have transformed themselves into the ICC's top-ranked side, playing a brand of cricket that prioritises aggressive, attacking play over a ponderous, patient approach. Their startling evolution is best summed up by a pair of stunning innings at Trent Bridge in the past two and a half years - setting a new ODI record 444-3 against Pakistan in 2016 before smashing that mark with 481-6 against Australia in 2018. Familiar conditions should play into their hands, but will the hosts make light of the weight of expectation? We only have to wait 100 days to find out.

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