Mount Maunganui: Mithali Raj will be eager to get her hands on a maiden title in what would be her last hurrah for India at the world stage, Heather Knight will hope to defend it while Meg Lanning seems primed to lead Australia to a ‘Magnificent Seventh’ when the ICC Women’s World Cup gets underway here on Friday.
The tournament, which was postponed by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will be played across six venues with the ICC deciding that teams will stay in a ‘managed environment’ instead of stringent bio-bubbles.
The marquee event will be played in the league format, where all eight teams will face each other once with the top four sides qualifying for the semifinals.
India, who were runners-up in the last edition and in 2005, open their campaign against arch-rivals Pakistan, while hosts New Zealand, who won the title in 2000, will take on West Indies in the tournament opener.
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Australia, the most successful side with six titles, will meet defending champions England, who have been crowned champions four times.
The month-long event will see young stars and veterans come together. While the likes of Mithali, Jhulan Goswami, Suzie Bates and Megan Schutt will look to add to their already glittering legacies, teenagers including Shafali Verma, Richa Ghosh, Fran Jones and Darcie Brown will be eager to make one.
Here’s a look at the eight contenders: Australia ====== Hurt by the shock semifinal loss to India in 2017, six-time champions Australia have left no stone unturned in their quest for an unprecedented seventh title. Such has been Australia’s dominance in the past four years in the 50-over format that the Southern stars have lost just one ODI in their last 30 games. Labelled favourites, Australia head to the World Cup on the back of a dominating 3-0 ODI series victory against arch-rivals England in the Ashes.
Ellyse Perry, who has dominated with bat and ball at World Cups since 2009, has recaptured her best form with a commanding all-round display recently. In Alyssa Healy, Meg Lanning, Perry and Beth Mooney, Australia have plenty of experience at the top while the likes of Ashleigh Gardner and Jess Jonassen will be tasked to play the big shot towards the end, making for a strong batting unit. India ==== Runners up in the last edition, India will be keen to go one step ahead and claim the title that has eluded them, specially skipper Mithali and veteran pacer Jhulan Goswami, who will be playing their last World Cup.
India were staring at a demoralising 5-0 whitewash at the hands of New Zealand but have been able to turn things around by winning the final match of the series while also emerging victorious in their warm-up games. While Mithali and Goswami continue to play pivotal roles in the team, young Richa Ghosh has shone in recent series. Star opener Smriti Mandhana is also in good nick while the talismanic Harmanpreet Kaur, considered a big-event player, has also found her groove and is expected to set the stage ablaze.
England ====== The defending champions and the second most successful team in the history of the tournament, England will be eager to retain their crown.
Despite the recent Ashes white-wash, England has been one of the most successful sides in women’s ODIs since the end of the last World Cup.
Kate Cross will be making her much-awaited debut. She has picked up the most wickets for England since 2019 at an average of 17.24 and an economy rate just above four runs per over. A lot will be expected of the seamer.
Another key player for England will be Tammy Beaumont, who was the Player of the tournament in the last edition. The opener has continued her rich vein of form.
New Zealand ========= Last time the tournament was held in New Zealand 22 years ago, the White Ferns won their maiden and only title. The hosts will look to repeat the feat and they have had the perfect lead up to the tournament. Sophie Devine and her side registered a 4-1 series defeat over India while notching up a mammoth nine-wicket win over Australia in the warm-up game.
The Kiwis are performing as a well-oiled unit. Their top batters have been impressive. Amelia Kerr, who was promoted to No 3 form No 5, has taken to the spot like a duck to water. The all-rounder was the leading run-scorer of the series. She has also delivered with the ball alongside sister Jess Kerr.
Suzie Bates heads to the marquee event with a hundred as does skipper Sophie Devine, who blasted an unbeaten 161 against Australia in the warm-up game, while Amy Satterthwaite has also been among runs.
South Africa ========= Riding high on confidence owing to series victories over West Indies, Pakistan and India, South Africa will aim to ride the momentum in search of their maiden World Cup title.
Sune Luus and Co. have played the most ODIs among all teams since the 2017 World Cup and have enough depth and talent in their squad to go all the way.
Widely regarded as the fastest women’s bowler in the world, expectations will be high from pacer Shabnim Ismail.
Laura Wolvaardt and Luus have also been in good touch and will be banked on to collect the runs for the team.
West Indies ======== West Indies qualified for the tournament owing to their ODI rankings after the Qualifiers was cancelled mid-way last year due to COVID-19. The runners-up finish in 2013 was their best ever performance.
They have a blend of youth and experience in their side.
Off-spinner Anisa Mohammed will be making a fifth appearance in the World Cup. She has plenty of experience to offer.
Skipper Stafanie Taylor is a proven match-winner with the bat and is just as effective with her off-spin and is definitely one to look out for.
Big-hitting Deandra Dottin is another player to keep an eye on. She recently smashed her ODI-best of 150 not out against South Africa.
Pakistan ====== Pakistan have competed in four World Cups, finishing at the bottom in three of them. Their best result was a fifth place finish in the 2009 edition.
Pakistan captain Bismah Maroof, who returns from maternity break, hopes to lead her side to the semifinals.
Left-arm seamer Nashra Sundhu, who is the team’s most reliable performer with the ball and has an impressive average of just over 28, will be the one to watch.
Bangladesh ======= Bangladesh will play in the tournament for the first time, having qualified on the basis of their ODI rankings. They will hope to leave an impression in their maiden tournament.
Captaining the side is Nigar Sultana, who will be expected to deliver with the bat and behind the stumps.