ICC Champions Trophy 2009: The Contenders
Well, the ICC Champions Trophy, also known as the mini-World Cup featuring the world's eight best cricketing nations, is a month away and I thought I'd take an in-depth look at the strengths and weaknesses of each and every participant.
Group A features Australia, India, West Indies, and Pakistan.
Group B features hosts South Africa, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, and England.
Defending champions Australia will come to the Champions Trophy after the Ashes and seven ODI series against England.
The world champions have gone through a rather steady decline over the past 24 months, which was highlighted when they were knocked out in the first round of the ICC World Twenty 20 held earlier this year in England.
The Baggy Greens need skipper Ricky Ponting to step up to the plate and lead from the front.
Mitchell Johnson has greatly matured as a bowler over the past 12 months and is expected to lead the attack, as question marks hang over the fitness of Brett Lee.
Watch out for: Micheal Clarke
Ponting's deputy, Micheal Clarke, is now a prominent part of the Australian middle order and the Aussies will need him to shine alongside Mike Hussey in order to excel in the tournament.
Verdict: Should be able to seal a semi-final spot despite stiff competition from India and Pakistan and are definite contenders to go all the way and retain their trophy.
South Africa will be hosting this year's ICC Champions Trophy which means they will have the local crowds backing them up, However, it could mean some unnecessary pressure for the Proteas.
Mickey Arthur's squad has developed a reputation of being "Chokers," which was further highlighted when they were knocked out in the semifinals (not for the first time) by T20 champions, Pakistan.
However, Graeme Smith's side have managed to strike a terrific balance in their team with AB De Villiers and JP Duminy supporting the likes of Herschelle Gibbs, Jacques Kallis, and Graeme Smith in their top order.
Wayne Parnell and Dale Steyn appear to have formed a decent new-ball partnership which could help South Africa's chances of making it to the semifinal.
Watch out for: Jacques Kallis
Kallis is the main stay of the Proteas batting lineup and is also known to chip in with a few wickets.
If Kallis can regularly contribute with both bat and ball, South Africa could cause problems for their opponents.
Verdict: Don't expect too much from the Chokers. For me, they'll get to the semifinals and get knocked out there.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni's team has come under stern criticism for failing in their bid to retain the ICC T20 World Championship.
India, though, will be boosted by the return of senior batsmen Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid to their ranks. Aggressive opener, Virender Sehwag, who has injury concerns, has been dropped.
Ishant Sharma is expected to lead the attack in Zaheer Khan's absence. He will supported by the likes of Rudra Pratap Singh, Ashish Nehra, and Praveen Kumar.
Watch out for: Yuvraj Singh
Nobody can doubt Yuvraj Singh's ability to destroy the opponents when he is on fire, but India's batting sensation has appeared to be out of form of late.
If Yuvraj can find his magical touch, India's chances of winning the tournament will get a massive boost.
Verdict: Dhoni's men will have to compete with Australia and Pakistan to get to the semifinals, but if they get through then they should go all the way and win the tournament.
England have enjoyed mixed fortunes recently.
Unfortunately for the Barmy Army (England's supporters), Kevin Pietersen is injured and has been ruled out of the tournament.
Pietersen has been replaced by Kent's Joe Denly.
Captain Andrew Strauss will need to rise to the occasion and produce something special. Otherwise, England's downfall in this tournament seems inevitable.
Watch out for: Andrew Flintoff
England need Andrew Flintoff to be fit and firing if they are to have any chance of posing a threat to their opponents in the eight team tournament.
Verdict: They will compete with South Africa, New Zealand, and Sri Lanka for two spots to the semifinals.
Personally, I can't see England going beyond the first round.
Younis Khan's men will be high on confidence going into the ICC Champions Trophy after being crowned ICC T20 World Champions earlier this year.
However, they were comprehensively beaten by Sri Lanka in both the Test and ODI series but ended the tour on a positive note, winning the last three games comfortably.
The Greenshirts have been strengthened by the return of ICL rebels Imran Nazir, Abdul Razzaq, Rana Naved ul Hasan, and Mohammad Yousuf.
Shahid Afridi and Saeed Ajmal have formed a deadly spin partnership for the T20 champions and could play a pivotal role if Pakistan are to pose a challenge to their opponents.
17-year-old sensation Mohammad Aamer and Umar Gul are expected to lead Pakistan's bowling attack in South Africa.
Watch out for: Shahid Afridi
Pakistan's star all rounder Shahid Afridi, or "Boom Boom" Afridi, has enjoyed great success with both bat and ball in Pakistan's recent endeavors.
He is a match winner and will need to shine for Pakistan to conquer the Champions Trophy.
Verdict: Pakistan will need to compete with Australia, India, and a depleted West Indies for a place in the final. If they get through, then they should be able to go the whole way and take the crown back home.
Daniel Vettori's Kiwis will come to South Africa after a tough tour of Sri Lanka which includes a triangular series between New Zealand, Sri Lanka, and India. This means, the Black Caps surely won't be short of match practice.
New Zealand's batting will rely on the likes of Ross Taylor, Jesse Ryder, and Brendon McCullum to give them an edge over their opponents.
Skipper Daniel Vettori could use Jeetan Patel as another spinner to test the likes of England and South Africa, who unlike the sub-continent teams, aren't known to have the best players of spin bowling.
Watch out for: Jacob Oram
Though McCullum is the star man, Jacob Oram can make useful contributions with bat and ball.
The lanky all rounder has been out of form recently, but on his day he can cause problems for any bowling attack.
Verdict: South Africa and Sri Lanka are expected to take the semifinal spots which means I can't really see the Kiwis getting through the next round.
Sri Lanka, who shared the trophy with India when both attempts to finish the final were washed out by tropical storms in 2002, are being considered as serious contenders for the ICC Champions Trophy in South Africa.
The Lankans avenged their T20 final defeat to Pakistan with comprehensive victories over Younis Khan's team in the recently concluded ODI series at home.
skipper Kumar Sangakkara, veteran Sanath Jayasuria, and former captain Mahela Jayawardena form the core of Sri Lanka's batting.
The Tigers need the trio to fire in order to propel them into a position to win the tournament.
Mutiah Muralitharan, Nuwan Kulasekra, and Thilina Thushra, who impressed in the recently concluded series against Pakistan, will be expected to continue displaying their rich vein of form in South Africa.
Watch out for: TM Dilshan
Dilshan missed the series against Pakistan, but the highest scorer of the ICC T20 World Champions is a real threat to Sri Lanka's opponents.
Verdict: Sri Lanka should comfortably get through to the semifinals, however, whether they can go on from there to win the tournament is questionable.
The Windies will arrive with a depleted squad which lost both the ODI series and the Test series to Bangladesh.
Chris Gayle, Dwayne Bravo, Shiv Chanderpaul, Ramnaresh Sarwan, Fidel Edwards, and Jerome Taylor are all missing from the Windies squad which is lead by veteran Floyd Reifer.
Darren Sammy and Darren Powell are probably the only two prominent names in their squad.
Watch out for: Andre Fletcher
Fletcher is an explosive batsman, who plays at the top of the Windies batting order and is an ever present threat to their opponents.
He was a part of their ICC T20 World Cup squad.
Verdict: I predict them to fail miserably. They are mismatched and probably won't be able to compete against the likes of Pakistan, India, and Australia, who are in their group. Rock bottom.
That wraps it up, folks!
I hope you enjoyed the slide show!
Who do you reckon will win the ICC Champions Trophy 2009?
Personally, I think it's between Australia, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.