The number of matches - 51 - is not the problem. The lifespan of the ninth Cricket World Cup has been the cause of all the wailing and gnashing of teeth. This Caribbean festival will run over 49 days and nights - about the length of time homesick commentators have spent groaning about how long it will be.

Cricket, for all its transformations, continues to sit uneasily in a world that wants to get as much done as possible by earlier this morning. Twenty20 cricket undoubtedly has a future, and if the format of this World Cup is as badly received as seems likely, it will begin to eat more and more into the present. Test cricket is safe, as long as it remains viable in at least ten countries, but everything underneath is malleable. The first 20-over World Championships will take place in September and if we don't witness an extraordinary fiesta of glory and suspense between now and 28 April, the 50-over game would be advised to draft a will.

However, on the eve of the opening ceremony, what cricket fan could fail to savour the prospect of 240 players touching down on nine beautiful islands to play the game on hard tracks, under blue skies? The number of dissenting nay-sayers who have piped up in recent weeks probably betrays more about the recent history of the World Cup than its format, or the West Indies' ability to stage a proper show.

It's also hard to miss the fact that many of the aforementioned critics are Sky Sports commentators who have just skipped an entire English winter, only now to body-swerve spring. Remembering their home addresses is probably a harder task than laying into the committed and rapidly improving amateur teams, most of whom will leave them to it in a couple of weeks' time.

The 2003 World Cup in South Africa was a massive anti-climax blighted by politics, rank performances and the injudicious use of a diuretic. It started controversially, with Shane Warne's ludicrous banishment for taking a medicine prescribed by his mother, continued with the hosts' demise in the time it takes a postcard to get from Pretoria to Port Elizabeth, and went completely barmy when New Zealand refused to play in Nairobi because of security fears and two Zimbabwean players forsook their right to go home with a courageous black-armband protest against the Mugabe regime.

The Kenyans only managed to force one genuine upset, but their reward for victories over Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, allied to the Kiwis' intransigence, was a place in the semi-finals that robbed the stage of credibility, if not romance. The Africans lost by 91 runs to India, whose bowlers proceeded to serve up a load of dross to the rampant Ricky Ponting in a lopsided final.

In 1999, the tournament also suffered from the inadequacy of some of the top teams to last the course. India, holders Sri Lanka and their hosts, England, crashed out early and the climax came one match too soon, with South Africa and Australia separated only by their nerve on the last ball of their semi-final. By the time of the final at Lord's, the Australians had used up their quotas of drama and mercy, and Warne propelled them to a long-overdue first title.

In fact, not since Sri Lanka's breathtaking triumph in 1996 has a team held the world in thrall on one-day cricket's grandest stage. Since then, Australia have been the only team worthy of the appendage "world-beaters" and their brace of triumphs coincided with such a prolonged dominance of the Test scene that there was nothing about either final to eject a viewer out of his or her seat.

The rest have flattered to deceive, so there is an element of naivety about the consensus that this will be an open and competitive World Cup. Horrendous mismatches continue to litter the ongoing ODI merry-go-round. South Africa hit 392 against Pakistan recently, and embarrassed them by ten and nine wickets in the same series. And yet, no-one can be sure that the top-ranked Proteas will do better than Inzamam- ul-Haq's enigmatic band on neutral ground.

In this form of cricket there is always a margin for hope, which is why there are always results at the World Cup hailed as major shocks despite the fact they were perfectly predictable on the balance of probability.

Of the 51 matches, one or two will see a giant trip over a bullfrog. But the number of times a good side on paper capitulates to a lower-rated opponent might reach double figures. It takes only three good balls and seven poor shots for a 50-over match to be lost.

When Bangladesh and Kenya beat Scotland in successive months this winter, it wasn't because the Scots were easy prey. They play aggressive cricket and each have a strike bowler who can come in down the order and, with a sniff of victory in sight, clear the ropes at will. New Zealand and England (in Kenya's group) and Sri Lanka and India (Bangladesh) should beware.

These peripheral opponents have never been better equipped to earn, rather than receive, a prolonged stay at the top table.

Any unexpected qualifier from Group A (Australia, South Africa, Scotland and Netherlands) would require the adjective "seismic" to be redefined in relation to plate movement. That is not to say it can't happen, but even a shock result in isolation might not be enough. A not unfamiliar scenario would be a victorious Scots or Dutch side losing to their fellow associate and allowing the humiliated champions to slip through.

Ireland's chances are brighter in Group D, where defeat to Zimbabwe on their World Cup debut would go down as a missed opportunity. Given that Pakistan and West Indies are just as likely to crash to their knees as they are to lift the golden trophy, the Irish draw is to be envied.

When the Super Eights begins, Australia, South Africa, Sri Lanka and India - should they all make it that far - would be expected to stretch away from the pack, no longer indulging in the taking of prisoners. These are the teams capable of putting together consecutive unblemished performances, should their primary weapons fire.

However, allowing for the inevitable stick in the spokes, an inspired team of hosts or a doughty English unit could meddle with the established order and find themselves in the semi-finals.

From there, there might well be a sense of destiny about Brian Lara's tournament specialists, while such progress would be hailed as a triumph for England.

Attached to New Zealand, the perennial semi-finalists, is a feeling that they have been well equipped to compete at every World Cup since the early 1990s, yet never quite believed the gold was there for the taking. Pakistan have lost key players (not including Shoaib Akhtar) and their opponents know where they are weak.

Whoever rolls up to the Kensington Oval in Bridgetown on 28 April should be in perfectly rude health to honour the occasion. What a load of rubbish about burn-out. As the ICC has pointed out, it might be seven weeks long but teams only need to negotiate ten days of cricket to reach the final. In an era of back-to-back Test matches, how does that constitute an ordeal?