Given the home advantage, under normal circumstances, India might have been considered overwhelming favourites for the ICC Cricket World Cup 2023. However, in what is turning out to be a rather interesting affair, there are several contenders who could be considered dark horses or even underdogs, and that goes for the defending champions as well.

Pat Cummins’ post match press conference after Australia lost the first one day international to India pointed out that the situation is quite perplexing across the board. It is not just India who are resting on hopefuls to bolster their middle order. Australia are continuing to sweat on some of their potential playing eleven to be fit and ready in time for the ICC Cricket World Cup 2023 which gets underway on the 5th of October.

Australia, as five time World Cup winners, might just find this period of trough to their advantage. They lost to South Africa recently by a 3-2 margin and until recently, missing big names in the likes of Cummins himself and players like Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc and Glenn Maxwell, peaking in time for the World Cup.

Ironically, India, who did not look settled for a while, might just be lulled into a false sense of security. Team India can find themselves in deep waters against a home crowd and the pressure of playing out in front of large stadiums, should they come up against a formidable performance by any of the other teams.

Although the proposition itself to playing in front of huge crowds and with home pressure is not alien to the Indian cricketers, they have found a skip to their step bolstered by their performances in the Asia Cup. To the point where the skipper Rohit Sharma even commented that with this World Cup essentially being a format where every team plays the other, India could afford to lose a few matches and still come back in the tournament.

That kind of thinking, coupled with some curious rest and rotation policies to say the least, could prove diabolical when having to sustain interest over nearly a period of a month and a half. Not only is the format a different take which is perhaps wise given that there are only ten teams in the tournament but also, because no one team in contention is currently head and shoulders above the others to claim the throne as theirs or to be dubbed favourites.

While every cricket pundit is playing it safe by stating the obvious three of India, Australia and England, the truth of the matter is that there is the trio of dark horses in Pakistan, New Zealand and South Africa. There is a sense that given how every team has had its obvious and well documented pluses, and apparent weakness. This is in terms of either getting their team composition ready or generating and building on a winning momentum, the upstaging of the few by the many has created this rather unusual heat under the collar for the so called favourites.

Australia have found themselves on a rocky road to the World Cup with the said injuries. On the slip side, South Africa found they do have powerhouse performances as evidenced in the series against Australia but need consistency and self-belief about getting across the line when the opportunity presents itself.

For South Africa, it will be nothing short of pulling the rabbit out of the hole but they are showing signs that they could be in it while also being dependent on other teams slipping a notch or two. Australia will need to do more and that includes their current vulnerable middle order in order to justify their favourites tag.

Pakistan were en route to matching India in the Asia Cup, to the point where it seemed insulting that Bangladesh and Afghanistan were virtually overlooked in the matter of allocating a reserve day at the eleventh hour. But their batting showed a rare lack of courage in the one encounter that will be something that will be closely looked at because they do have talent in their batting as they have serious firepower in their bowling.

For a team that was recently No.1, Pakistan have work cut out for them while India, on the other hand, would be well advised to continue to keep their game face on.

Taking their foot off the accelerator might not be the way to go given that there has been so much drama in the build up to the World Cup and a few obvious chinks that they cannot afford to let their guard down, not when there are so many dark horses as opposed to under dogs in this one tournament.

The fact that someone like K.L. Rahul who until recently lost himself a seat to both, injuries and inconsistency, finds himself the benefactor of a spot courtesy an injury-prone Shreyas Iyer as is being dubbed and finding assurance in a wicket keeper spot which would have been Rishabh Pant’s prior to the latter’s road accident in late December says it all.

India has the big guns. But then they have always had stalwart players in the team. The fact that this present team doesn’t even hold a candle to the team that lifted the trophy with Kapil Dev in 1983 or Mahendra Singh Dhoni in 2011 at home speaks to the heart of the lack of obvious all rounders and emboldened match winners which can be barely counted on one hand.

The fact that there have been only two World Cup trophies in this format. This says as much as the grounding belief that India don’t have their name sealed around the Cup, even at home, even if their Asia Cup performances have given much to be excited about.

It may even lull the team and management into thinking their work is done as far as putting the pieces of the puzzle together goes. Not close to it, not quite.

And especially not comfortably set pieces yet when there are so many more moving pieces on the chess board.

New Zealand and England have not shown themselves as a cut above the rest. As teams that gave the cricket world a great finale in 2019 in a humdinger of a tie and Super Over, they should have been the two teams to watch out for. It is not easy to pull away attention after India lost the way it did to New Zealand in the semi finals but the final managed to capture the imagination of an audience that the organisers wanted to believe had lost their appetite for the 50 overs games.

England and New Zealand have been as nuanced and clinical as any team, even if they have lacked fireworks in the recent past. Their presence is as quiet as it could be deceptive. Which of the team wants to take the title of favourites and dark horses respectively depends on which team thinks it can handle the pressure well that comes as part of the responsibility of that load bearing.

An India versus Pakistan match might have copped all the attention, diffused partly by the battles in the Asia Cup. While it will still be the match outside the semi finals and final that will garner the most interest, it is likely that the teams matching in intensity and problems alike might just present a few more interesting possibilities to the mix.

The tournament organisers will certainly hope that is the case. This has already been a strange World Cup in preparation, attracting attention by the release of a late botched schedule that had to be reworked and not to everyone’s obvious liking. There is next to no fanfare, which is perhaps more telling with a billion plus audience ready to lap up anything cricket.

The back door signs are worrying, while the World Cup and the one day internationals can only hope that the ultimate redeeming factor might also be the saving grace in teams being able to pull themselves together when time and pressure mounts on them at the right moment to raise their game and the game itself.

From the World Cup perspective, having teams play each other rather than be divided in groups of two seems to make more sense as the World Cup gets smaller in numbers. Also, it would give a fairer assessment given that the teams would perhaps feel more comfortable being labelled dark horses than favourites lest their players get carried away, given how tumultuous results have been for all teams in the run up, which is saying something about the sport that is caught in their perplexing whirlpool of managing workloads as well as pay scales and calling upon players to make some rather finite decision for themselves, inevitably impacting the sport and creating an imbalance as it were in terms of the priorities of cricket boards.

For the World Cup, it is a great advertisement without a clear cut winner because it presents a relatively open field. West Indies might have rued such as an opportunity while teams like Sri Lanka should consider it an opportunity rather than a slight not to be considered in front contention. It gives even neutral fans something to look forward to, which is a rare sight.

But it does say something about the game of cricket. For starters, the fact is that the one day internationals have not had so much scrutiny or fan interest as they have had in the lead up to the World Cup, evidenced by the interest in following the results and performance in the lead up. With Twenty20 leagues having dominated the map in a larger way than ever before, the stakes for the one day internationals as an endangered species, despite paving the way for short form sport, have never been higher.

With players relishing the opportunity and the format getting a rare fillip, the signs seem headed in the direction of a good, robust ICC Cricket World Cup 2023, with one caveat that the teams, all dark horses at this point which perhaps takes away the significance of a dark horse in that regard, bring their ‘A’ game when the heat will be under the collar, the fans resplendent in the stands despite the ticketing chaos and the focus on the spectacle of a World Cup in the background of several other sports and tournaments coming in the limelight.

This World Cup and the fate of the one day internationals might demand an even playing field and while quality might be sometimes compromised, these teams, struggling as they are in their own individual capacities, might just bring out the best in each other, pushing themselves and their opponents to punch above their weight to make for more than the odd, expected, predictable clash. The World Cup can only demand so much but fans will want more.