The world's top ranked team in ODIs, Australia, is also firm favourites of bookies (2-1) as the cricket World Cup gets underway. But India, no.2 in the ICC ratings, comes in only fifth place for bookmakers at 10-1, behind the Aussies, South Africa (3-1), New Zealand (5-1) and England (9-1).
These odds will perhaps change before the first ball is bowled, but underscores the point nonetheless that whatever the cricket establishment's assessment, bookies don't quite see India defending the title.
So who does one believe in such matters? I would say that the ICC ranking tend to be fairly static over a short period of time while bookmakers are obviously more dynamic. But it could well be that the official rating agency as well as the bookmakers are wrong.
In the 1983 World Cup, for instance, India did not feature in anybody's estimation as potential champions. Bookmakers offered whopping odds of 66-1 before the start of the tournament; when Kapil Dev's team reached the final, the odds were still 60-1 against them beating the mighty West Indies.
We all know what happened in the final. And this is not an isolated instance of an unfancied team winning the title in World Cup history. In 1987, Australia shocked everybody, perhaps even themselves. In 1992, Pakistan were nobody's choice and Sri Lanka in 1996 were sort of surprise winners too.
In 10 editions of the tournament, therefore, only six times (West Indies in 1975, 79, Australia 1999, 2003, 2007 and India 2011) did the favoured team go on to win. This highlights the hazards faced by bookmakers and team raters alike.
In my opinion, the best way to approach a World Cup is to 'expect the unexpected'. Cricket, as the cliché goes, can make even the best reader of the game look foolish with its glorious uncertainties. In limited overs cricket, differences between teams narrows down even further, making any firm prediction loaded with danger.
True, the build-up gives an index of how teams are shaping up. Going by this, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand justifiably form the top three choices of bookmakers. All three teams have had considerable success in the past 12-15 months (though it must be remembered that the Proteas lost to New Zealand in the warm-up game) but more pertinently, they also appear to have the bowling wherewithal to exploit conditions and pitches Down Under the best.
England's attack too is potent, which is perhaps why they edge out India from the top four choices of bookies despite the upheavals in team selection. India has looked beleaguered largely because the bowlers have just not been able to make an impact. Also, the batsmen have been unable to carry the onus of winning matches--as yet.
If India are to defend the title successfully, I believe that the batsmen will have to put up totals in excess of 300-plus match-after-match to provide a buffer for the bowlers. Can the star-studded top order deliver? That is the million dollar question on which the hopes of a billion fans rest.
In relegating them to so far below in this preview I am not neglecting the prospects of Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and West Indies--the other three major teams. The first two named have had some fine successes in recent months and could turn the tables on any side.
Interestingly, compared to the trend otherwise, both Lanka and Pakistan have vested their hopes in veterans--for the former Sangakara, Jayawardena, Dilshan and Malinga, and Pakistan in Misbah, Younis Khan and Shahid Afridi. For most, if not all, of these players, the 2015 World Cup is the swansong.
The West Indies in recent times have become insanely unpredictable, which is why I wouldn't be shocked if they win the tournament or get knocked out. Some quirky selection has caused disgruntlement in the ranks. But this could also make the players angry enough to be destructive. Opposing teams beware.
Which brings me to the minnows, who may seem like easy picking, but could cause major upsets along the way even if they don't reach the knock-out stage. Ireland, for instance, beat Bangladesh convincingly in the warm-ups and Scotland lost by only 3 runs to the West Indies.
The fact that the 2019 World Cup will feature only 10 teams can make them doubly dangerous.
Consensus opinion suggests that the 8 major teams should make it to the quarter-finals, and that the real tournament begins only then. But the passage through to this stage will provide a far better idea of how good is which team.
A good start is what every side is looking for--to get momentum and confidence. In this context, India's match against Pakistan on Sunday is easily the blue riband game of the tournament and has several extra dimensions attached to it for obvious reasons.
But important as it is for both sides to win, it will hopefully be remembered by players and fans from the two countries that this does not tantamount to winning the World Cup, only an important step in a long journey towards that objective.