Pantomime villains, the 'Universe Boss' and the 'Big Show' are among a stellar cast who are plotting to tear up the script when the Cricket World Cup gets under way this week.

Four years after an embarrassing World Cup exit in the tournament in Australia and New Zealand, England are favourites to be crowned champions for the first time on home soil.

England crashed out of the 2015 showpiece after failing to progress from the group stage, but they have been transformed with Eoin Morgan as captain and Trevor Bayliss as head coach.

Top of the rankings with an aggressive approach that is the polar opposite to previous regimes, Morgan's men will take some stopping if they play to their potential.

Yet England are by no means the only side looking to banish the memories of previous failures in an extravaganza that has been reduced from 14 nations to 10.

India suffered the agony of an ICC Champions Trophy final defeat to Pakistan only two years ago, an experience that should provide additional fuel for Virat Kohli's side.

"You cannot place a World Cup win below anything else," Kohli stated, with the huge weight of a nation on his shoulders.

Holders Australia will relish the prospect of lifting the trophy for a sixth time ahead of the Ashes, with Steve Smith and David Warner having the character and immense talent to drown out verbal abuse for their part in the ball-tampering scandal.

Self-proclaimed 'Universe Boss' Chris Gayle is ready to take centre stage in his West Indies one-day international swansong, while 'Big Show' Glenn Maxwell is another potential match-winner.

There may be a lack of minnows in the absence of Associate Members, but Afghanistan will fancy their chances of ruffling a few feathers with the likes of spin wizard Rashid Khan capable of bamboozling the best batsmen in the world.

The best players in the world are ready to unleash their armoury of ramps, switch hits, slog sweeps, doosras, slower-ball bouncers and yorkers.

There will be runs galore, spellbinding spells of bowling, catches conjured up with astonishing athleticism and breathtaking fielding.

The spotlight is on England, but the hosts are far from being the only side under pressure not to fluff their lines in the next seven weeks.

New Zealand cruised to a six-wicket win in their World Cup warm-up against India at The Oval.

Peter Fulton will replace Craig McMillan as New Zealand's batting coach after the Cricket World Cup.

Fulton, who played 84 internationals for New Zealand, will take over in July after McMillan announced in February he would be stepping down.

Black Caps head coach Gary Stead was delighted with the appointment of Fulton, a former top-order batsman.

"We're delighted to have Pete come on board after the World Cup and are confident he will be a good fit for our environment," he said in a statement.

"We had a thorough process and utilised our senior players to help assess all the candidates.

"Pete obviously has a good understanding of batting, but he also demonstrated a clear vision for helping our elite batsmen.

"He's shown he has the coaching skills through his work with the New Zealand Under-19s and our winter training squads, while we know from his playing days that he will certainly add to our team culture."

Steve Smith produced a performance that was "like he hadn't left", said Aaron Finch after the former Australia captain struck 91 not out against a New Zealand XI on Friday.

Smith and opener David Warner are back in the Australia fray having served their suspensions for the ball-tampering scandal that overshadowed their 2018 tour of South Africa.

The former hit 89 not out against a New Zealand XI on Wednesday and followed that up with another stunning performance against the same opposition, finding the boundary 10 times in a 108-ball knock.

Australia won the final match of their Brisbane training camp by 16 runs via the Duckworth-Lewis-Stern method, and Finch believes the experience of Smith and former vice-captain Warner will be a huge boost to their Cricket World Cup hopes.

"His [Smith] timing and class was back again," Finch said. "It was like he hadn't left. His drives down the ground on a really difficult wicket to time off the front foot was so impressive, just the amount of time he spent in the middle and how he went through the gears was very impressive.

"They [Smith and Warner] are two of the best players in the world which is valuable to have at your disposal. The boys have been brilliant. All the work off the field with the team has been great.

"It's an interesting time, no doubt, when they are coming back in but still a great opportunity for everyone to learn off them as well. They have so much experience and what they bring to the group is really valuable."

Smith and Warner are among six players that were part of Australia's 2015 World Cup-winning side who feature in the squad that will attempt to retain the title in England.

"I think it's a big advantage, just to know what it takes to win a World Cup and what it takes to manage your way through a campaign which can be difficult," Finch added.

"You have to be at your best at the business end but you can't afford to let anything slip at the start. Six guys who have been there and done that will give a lot of experience to the others of what to expect, what to feel walking out there because it is different.

"When you talk so much about it, when it finally happens it's a relief to be looking forward. The fact everyone is together and getting on great, the boys are pumped to ramp up the preparations. It really is the time of your life, a World Cup, so that will be awesome."

Australia begin their World Cup campaign against Afghanistan on June 1.

All Black wing Waisake Naholo will swap the Highlanders for London Irish when his contractual obligations in New Zealand have been completed.

Naholo, who has scored 16 tries in 26 Test appearances, was part of New Zealand's victorious Rugby World Cup campaign in 2015 and will hope to assist Steve Hansen's side in their defence of the title in Japan this year.

The 28-year-old also won the Super Rugby title with the Highlanders in 2015 and is the franchise's all-time leading try scorer with 41.

Naholo follows Nick Phipps, Curtis Rona, Sekope Kepu, Allan Dell, Sean O'Brien and Paddy Jackson in joining the Exiles, who secured their return to the Premiership by winning the Championship this season.

"Following a great career with the All Blacks, Highlanders and Taranaki I am excited by the challenge of joining London Irish," Naholo said in a statement via London Irish's website.

"London Irish is a team on the up and has an exciting future. There is plenty of ambition, a world-class training facility, a good group of coaches and players and some exciting signings coming in. The supporters have a great reputation as well and I'm looking forward to it."

In a Highlanders release, he added: "I'm looking forward to the opportunity of playing in the UK but I'm still very much focused on the present and want to work really hard with the Highlanders to ensure we finish our season on a high.

"I feel like I owe it to the Highlanders after all that has happened to me since I came down here in 2015 - it really changed my life. I'm very appreciative of everything the club has done for me and our fans are the best in the world.

"I also have other goals I'd like to achieve with the All Blacks in 2019, and I know our Highlanders fans will be right behind me all the way."

Ben Smith suffered a hamstring blow in the Highlanders' 31-31 Super Rugby draw with the Chiefs that could keep him out for two months.

The New Zealand star was cleared of serious injury following a heavy collision late in Saturday's game that saw him helped off, sustaining a hamstring problem and a cut to the chin.

Smith, who will leave the Highlanders for Pau later this year, could still be out for the remainder of the Super Rugby season.

Highlanders assistant coach Glenn Delaney suggested that the All Black would miss a key stretch in the lead up to the Rugby World Cup, which gets under way in Japan in September.

"He's had a high hamstring strain so he's going to be out for six to eight weeks," Delaney told reporters. "It's just a classic rugby incident where he got caught in a tackle and overextended.

"All the right things are being done and he'll be back as quick as he can be with the right rehab."

Smith's team-mate Aaron Smith added: "Six to eight weeks, from how the injury looked, you could say, was very lucky.

"Obviously, in New Zealand rugby, we've got a few big injuries this year, but that's the game we play. [Ben Smith] is already in the mindset that he'll be back quicker than six to eight."

Aaron Mauger has allayed concerns over Ben Smith after the New Zealand full-back was helped off late in the Highlanders' thrilling 31-31 Super Rugby draw with the Chiefs.

Smith was treated as he lay on the turf following a heavy collision with Chiefs flanker Luke Jacobson at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Saturday.

The All Black looked groggy as he walked off the field with assistance from medics.

Highlanders head coach Mauger says 32-year-old Smith - who will join Pau after the Rugby World Cup in Japan - was not seriously injured.

"He's got a hamstring strain, and he's also got a good laceration on the chin and he's getting stitched up at the moment," Mauger said.

"He's got a strain and we'll know a bit more in the next couple of days. Structurally he's fine, it's just soft tissue."

New Zealand have already lost versatile back Damian McKenzie for the World Cup due to a knee injury, so Steve Hansen will be relieved to hear that Smith is not facing a lengthy absence.

New Zealand fly-half Beauden Barrett refused to be drawn on his future when quizzed on Friday, but hopes to make an announcement in the near future.

The Hurricanes captain has been linked with a move overseas after the Rugby World Cup in Japan.

Barrett gave nothing away when asked about a potential move later this year, saying his only interest was preparing for a Super Rugby clash with the Rebels on Saturday.

"I'll talk about that [his future] in due course, I'll just focus on the game tomorrow at the moment," said the two-time World Rugby Player of the Year.

Sam Whitelock recently signed a four-year contract extension with New Zealand Rugby, which includes a spell playing for Japanese club Panasonic.

Barrett was reluctant to address suggestions he may follow suit.

The 27-year-old added: "Look, my team is working on it and I'm being patient, I'll be ready to hopefully announce something soon if all things fall into place.

"I don't know the ins and outs of his [Whitelock] contract, I don't want to comment."

Sam Whitelock has signed a new four-year deal to remain with the All Blacks, but will take a break from New Zealand rugby at the end of 2019.

The Crusaders lock has won 108 caps for the All Blacks and played in their victories in the 2011 and 2015 Rugby World Cup finals.

He will attempt to help them make it three successive World Cup triumphs at this year's tournament in Japan, before spending a brief stint in that country in 2020.

Whitelock will miss the Super Rugby season to play for Panasonic on a short-term contract, and return to New Zealand at the end of the Japanese Top League season that May.

New Zealand coach Steve Hansen, who will step down from his post after the World Cup and is reportedly set to take over Japan's Toyota Verblitz, said: "Sammy is a very special player, an outstanding athlete, and has been a hugely respected leader in our group for some time now.

"Together with Brodie Retallick, he has been part of what we consider one of the world's best locking combinations, but he is very much a world-class player in his own right. He's a deep thinker on the game, cares passionately about the All Blacks and has done incredibly well in the handful of Tests which he has captained so far.  

"Knowing that he has recommitted for four more years is huge for the All Blacks, the Crusaders and New Zealand Rugby. We're all incredibly proud of what he has achieved so far in the jersey and look forward to the next four years."

Whitelock said: "I'm grateful to New Zealand Rugby, the Crusaders and Canterbury Rugby for their support of myself and my family in making this decision, and I'm really proud to commit to these teams for the next four years.

"Ultimately, this decision allows me to take some time with my family to experience a new rugby environment in Japan, before coming back refreshed and ready for the remainder of 2020 and beyond.

"I'm pleased there is clarity around my playing future, so I can focus on the remainder of this 2019 season with the Crusaders."

Crusaders and New Zealand prop Owen Franks will be out for at least another month due to a shoulder injury.

Franks has been sidelined since doing damage during a Super Rugby victory over the Brumbies this month.

The Northampton Saints-bound All Black does not require surgery, but will not return until the start of June at the earliest.

"The good thing is it doesn't require surgery, so it will be a good rehab process," said Crusaders assistant coach Jason Ryan.

"It's obviously a relief for everyone. It was touch and go there for a bit. Get him back in a month, all going well.

"He's got a good rehab plan for the next four weeks, and all going well that's when he will return to play."

Defending champions the Crusaders are top of the Super Rugby standings after winning their last four matches.

Richie Mo'unga has signed a new three-year deal with New Zealand Rugby and the Crusaders.

The fly-half made his provincial bow for Canterbury in 2013 before making his Super Rugby debut three years later.

A first Test appearance for the All Blacks followed against France in Dunedin last year and he has featured nine times for his country.

It marks another boost for New Zealand, who have tied the likes of Aaron Smith, Ngani Laumape, Nathan Harris, Liam Coltman, Patrick Tuipulotu and Dalton Papalii to deals beyond this year's Rugby World Cup.

"I'm really fortunate to have had some amazing opportunities with Canterbury, the Crusaders, and the All Blacks, and I feel there is still plenty I want to achieve in New Zealand rugby, which was a huge motivation for me to re-commit," said Mo'unga.

"I'm really grateful to be part of a club that means a lot to me and that has given me the opportunity to better myself as a rugby player and as a person. 

"I want to keep striving to be the best I can be, which ultimately is why I've made the decision to stay in this environment."

New Zealand coach Steve Hansen added: "Congratulations to Richie on his re-signing. 

"He is developing into a very good rugby player and it's great that he's staying, as he is only going to get better and better."

Brian Lara made 375 to break the record for most runs in a Test innings 25 years ago - and his unbeaten 400 a decade on remains the highest score today. 

New Zealand have been dealt a blow with All Blacks full-back Damian McKenzie set to miss this year's Rugby World Cup after rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament.

All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen announced the ACL injury on Monday after McKenzie was hurt during the Chiefs' Super Rugby win over the Blues on Saturday.

McKenzie limped off the Waikato Stadium pitch after attempting to make a tackle early in the second half of the Chiefs' 33-29 victory.

The 23-year-old – a 21-time international – is now all but out of the World Cup picture, with the tournament scheduled to get underway in Japan in September.

"He's done an ACL and looks to be out for eight to nine months which is a real shame for him," Hansen said.

"His World Cup opportunity's gone but he's still young enough to make probably the next two. It's just important he gets his knee right and takes the time to be able to come back and achieve the dreams that he wants to achieve.

"It's sad for him obviously. It creates another opportunity for someone else. We've got to expect injuries and there will be more than just him I'd say."

Defending champions the All Blacks will face South Africa, Italy, Canada and Namibia in Pool B.

New Zealand will open their title defence against South Africa in Yokohama on September 21.

Blues and New Zealand centre Sonny Bill Williams will be out for six weeks due to a knee injury.

Williams will undergo minor arthroscopy surgery on Friday and is not expected to return until late May.

The 33-year-old did the damage when laying on a try for Otere Black in a Super Rugby clash with the Stormers on March 30.

Williams will be hoping to be back in action for what could be a push for a quarter-final spot.

The rugby league convert faces competition for a place in the All Blacks midfield as he eyes a third Rugby World Cup triumph in Japan.

Blues head coach Leon MacDonald said: "Whatever he decides to do and puts his mind to, he sort of makes happen. If he still wants to keep playing later on he's the sort of guy you would never write off.

"He's a pretty determined guy and this year he really wants to make the World Cup squad and be a part of that. So he's pretty driven to make sure he recovers well from this and gets back on the field."

Uncapped back-row Akira Ioane has been included in an extended New Zealand squad for a foundation day ahead of the international season - but there is no place for Ma'a Nonu.

Ioane was one of 41 players named on Tuesday, along with his brother and prolific wing Rieko Ioane.

However, there was no place for veteran centre Nonu in a squad that will assemble for a gathering in Wellington on April 15.

All North Island-based players will meet up again on May 20 in Auckland, while those on the South Island will gather in Christchurch on June 3.

New Zealand Rugby head of high performance Mike Anthony revealed the dates had been chosen during a meeting with Super Rugby coaches and All Blacks management last year.

"Given the All Blacks have an incredibly short lead-in time to the upcoming international season, culminating in the Rugby World Cup, and with there being no camps during the Super Rugby season, the foundation days will provide an opportunity for All Blacks management and our leading players to start building towards what is a huge year ahead," he said.


New Zealand squad:

Forwards: Dane Coles, Liam Coltman, Nathan Harris, Codie Taylor, Owen Franks, Nepo Laulala, Tyrel Lomax, Joe Moody, Angus Ta'avao, Karl Tu'inukuafe, Ofa Tuungafasi, Scott Barrett, Jackson Hemopo, Brodie Retallick, Patrick Tuipulotu, Sam Whitelock, Sam Cane, Vaea Fifita, Shannon Frizell, Akira Ioane, Kieran Read, Ardie Savea, Liam Squire, Matt Todd, Luke Whitelock.
Backs: TJ Perenara, Aaron Smith, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Beauden Barrett, Damian McKenzie, Richie Mo'unga, Ryan Crotty, Jack Goodhue, Ngani Laumape, Anton Lienert-Brown, Sonny Bill Williams, Jordie Barrett, George Bridge, Rieko Ioane, Waisake Naholo, Ben Smith.

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