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Final eight nations seek World Cup glory as quarters arrive

The groups are done and only eight teams now remain as we enter the business end of the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup.

Compared to previous tournaments (especially those which used the Super Six format), there is nothing too shocking about the list of quarterfinal combatants. New Zealand and Australia both progressed comfortably on home soil, India and South Africa took the top two spots in Group B, and Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the West Indies did just about enough to make it through.

The only surprise of the bunch is Bangladesh. The emerging nation secured fourth place in Group A with room to spare, going through at the expense of an embarrassing England outfit that managed to rack up only two wins (against Scotland and Afghanistan) from its six miserable games.

At the other end of the scale, New Zealand delivered on the pre-tourney hype with six wins from six to top Group A in very impressive fashion. That form is reflected in the outright betting markets, with the Kiwis – who were priced around $8 in the lead up – now paying as little as $4.30 to win the World Cup. You can get slightly juicier odds at CrownBet.com.au, which has the hosts at a still-healthy $5.

Anyone who got on Kumar Sangakkara in the top runscorer futures nice and early will be smiling now. The Sri Lankan star was paying upwards of $21 just a few of weeks before the tournament commenced; he’s now $1.80 at many Australian sports books.

Likewise, AB de Villiers has come in from $15+ to less than $4 at most online bookmakers. For those who fancy a late bolter, the likes of Shikhar Dhawan ($17 at Bet365), Hashim Amla ($21 at Sportsbet) and especially Brendon McCullum ($51 at Sportsbet) offer good value.

In the top bowler stakes, Mitchell Starc’s 16 victims at 8.50 runs each puts him ahead of Trent Boult, Mohammed Shami and Morne Morkel in the wicket-taking futures. The young New South Welshman is paying as little as $2.25 at some bookie sites, but you can pick him up for $2.75 at Bet365.com.au.

South Africa vs Sri Lanka – Wednesday, March 18 – Sydney

The first of the World Cup quarterfinals sees Group B runners-up South Africa ($1.44 at CrownBet) take on Sri Lanka ($3.00 at Bet365), the third-placed team from Group A. The bookmakers have AB de Villiers and Co. as the clear favourites, but can they shake off the ghosts of World Cups past?

The Proteas have never won a single WC knockout game, having contrived some truly spectacular defeats since returning to the international scene in 1992. There was Allan Donald’s final-over brain fade at Edgbaston in 1999; the Duckworth-Lewis debacle in 2003, which cost Shaun Pollock the captaincy as the hosts fell at the group stage; a seven-wicket humbling by Australia in 2007; and most recently, at the 2011 tournament, an upset defeat to New Zealand after strolling through the group.

A favourable coin-toss will go a long way towards helping the South Africans slay their demons. Batting first in this tournament, their lowest innings total so far is 339; but when forced to chase the game, they have managed just 177 (vs. India) and 202 (vs. Pakistan).

The Sri Lankans, meanwhile, have shown fine form with the bat throughout the group phase, Kumar Sangakkara leading all comers with 496 runs – a tally comprised of an incredible four consecutive centuries. Openers Tillakaratne Dilshan and Lahiru Thirimanne have also contributed plenty.

So too has captain Angelo Mathews, who will take his place in the side despite concerns over an Achilles injury sustained in the final group game against Scotland. Rangana Herath is also expected to play, the star spinner having missed the last two matches after needing stitches for a finger laceration suffered against England.

India vs Bangladesh – Thursday, March 19 – Melbourne

Expect Melbourne’s thriving Indian population to make the MCG its own on Thursday as the Group B winners look to continue their undefeated run and seal a spot in the semifinals. In their way is Bangladesh, who qualified fourth in Group A with seven points (including a washout against Australia).

India has all the tools to get the job done. Virat Kohli’s inevitable rise to elite status continues, with 301 runs from six digs so far; Shikhar Dhawan is back to his brutal best at the top of the order, with tons against South Africa and Ireland; and the spin combo of Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravi Jadeja has been as effective as any in the tournament so far.

The key for MS Dhoni and his troops will be not to underestimate the up-and-coming Bangladeshis, who booked their first ever appearance in the Cricket World Cup knockout rounds on the back of a stunning 15-run victory over England. Mahmadullah has outscored all of India’s superstars with the bat, having notched back-to-back hundreds in his last two knocks, while all-round talent Shakib Al Hasan has 186 runs to go with his seven wickets.

Nevertheless, the odds are firmly in India’s favour as they continue their World Cup title defence. Luxbet.com has the 2011 champions at $1.16 to win, while William Hill is offering $5.50 on Bangladesh to cause what would be one of the biggest upsets in cricket history.

Australia vs Pakistan – Friday, March 20 – Adelaide

The co-hosts and pre-tournament favourites will be looking to make a statement of intent when they face off against a mercurial Pakistan side in their quarterfinal clash at the Adelaide Oval on Friday.

Australia bounced back from a narrow defeat to New Zealand to secure second spot in Group A with big wins over Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Scotland, but there is still an undercurrent of unease about the makeup of the best XI.

Batting consistency is still the Aussies’ major concern, and Shane Watson’s position remains a constant topic of debate. However, Michael Clarke appears to be finding touch following his injury layoff, while Steve Smith also appears to be on his way back into form after a couple of failures early in the tournament.

But if the four-time world champions have batting worries, they are nothing compared to their opponents’. The Pakistanis have passed 300 runs only once this tournament – against the UAE – and have been bowled out for under 250 three times in six games. The century by Sarfraz Ahmed against Ireland was Pakistan’s first in World Cup play since 2007.

Like the Australia-New Zealand clash at Auckland, this could come down to the bowlers. Mitch Starc is the tournament’s leading striker, while Wahab Riaz, Sohail Khan and Mohammed Irfan have impressed for Pakistan – although the latter is a doubt for selection due to a hip problem.

The general consensus seems to be that this is Australia’s match – and tournament – to lose. Crownbet’s $1.23 odds for the Aussies are about as high as the bookies will go, while Sportsbet is offering $4.40 for Pakistan to knock the hosts out.

New Zealand vs West Indies – Saturday, March 21 – Wellington

The West Indies ($3.85 to win at Sportsbet) will have the unenviable task of trying to derail New Zealand’s ($1.30 to win at Luxbet) dream run when the two sides go head-to-head at Wellington on Sunday afternoon in the last of the quarterfinal match-ups.

The hosts smoked the group stage to finish outright first with 12 points from 12, the most precious of which came when Kane Williamson smacked a straight six off Pat Cummins to seal a thrilling one-wicket victory over Australia at Eden Park.

The most promising thing from the Kiwis’ perspective is that it hasn’t all gelled perfectly yet. Ross Taylor’s form can only get better, while the consistent Brendon McCullum is yet to produce that big match-winning knock we all know he is capable of. The acclaimed pace attack of Tim Southee and Trent Boult hasn’t always fired, either, with the evergreen Daniel Vettori arguably the pick of NZ’s bowlers to date.

Over in the Windies camp, so much relies on one man. If Chris Gayle goes out early, so too do the Caribbean team’s prospects of a semifinal berth; but if he hangs at the crease for any amount of time, he could single-handedly put his side in the box seat.

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