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May 31, 1999


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Plight of the priviliged few

R Mohan

World Cup champions have been known to go out with a whimper rather than with a bang.

When the time comes to win a match or be dumped from the event, they are generally never there to stand up and be counted. This is the law of the World Cup. The World Cup champion has to be be doubly wary because so many are waiting to knock them off their perch.

Given the history of the event, it was never likely that Sri Lanka would retain their title which they earned with powerful batting, accurate spin bowling and purposeful fielding on the subcontinent three years ago. The spin bowling strength of '96 was unlikely to be a force in English conditions and therein lies a tale.

The Lankan cricketers, under Arjuna Ranatunga, had given their island state a great reason to feel an overwhelming national pride. The bhaila and double distilled arrack-loving commoner on the street was pitchforked to the top of the world when Lanka beat Australia in the final at Lahore in March '96.

Cricket had become such a big force in Sri Lanka that the sales of television sets would go up whenever they were involved in a cricket tournament and there would be power failures because demand would outstrip supply when Sanath Jayasuriya was batting.

The star of the previous World Cup was hard put to sustain his reputation in the face of two challenges - the first of ensuring his hand mended from the blow Down Under and the second from English conditions. The swinging white ball was not going to be his ally in the first 15 overs to which Jayasuriya had given his own, unique interpretation of batting tactics.

It is a sad turn of events for the defending champion to go down without ever looking to be in contention for a place even in the Super Six. Their win over Kenya was some kind of a consolation as they prepared to face the reaction of their cricket-loving public whose adulation may turn quickly enough to ire if the emotions of the subcontinent are my guide.

The West Indies were still awaiting their fate on Monday. They are the only team to have ever defended the world title success- fully. But that was in the days when the rest of ther world was far behind in the one-day game. Also, Clive Lloyd had the most powerful one-day side in 1979 that was filled with classy batsmen, fiery fast bowlers and athletic fileders.

The West Indies met their Waterloo at Lord's in 1983, when India turned the cricket world upside down by beating the unbeatable side from the Caribbean. Since then the West Indies, under Richards and Richardson, just made the cut once when the late order batting collapsed under the pressure of scoring the last few runs needed to beat Australia in Chandigarh.

The result was symptomatic of their plight in the one-day game now. The West Indies are more often likely to lose matches just when they had appeared to have got on top of their rivals. They had a strage ally in Australia, who were batting so slowly on Sunday as to give the former champions a mathematical chance of getting into the Super Six.

The Aussies were booed for their slow batting at Old Trafford when they were trying desperately to keep a terribly impoverished West Indian side in the competition so as to suit their own points position.

Cricket often becomes a farce in such situations when complicated scoring systems take precedence over the old fashioned method of just going out to play and win. What the Aussies attempted in their unethicalsow batting was not so much match rigging as manipulating the situation to suit their own ends.

New Zealand may have eliminated the West Indies if they manage to beat Scotland with the required margin - they must bowl Scotland out for less than 100 and win in under 21 overs or set a 250-plus target and win by 120 runs.

The West Indies, who like England also scored three wins, may deserve to go home if only because their batting was never strong enough.

The two old warhorses, Walsh and Ambrose, must be feeling the most dejected. They set the early standards of bowling with the white Duke ball which took others a while to control and conquer. However well Ridley Jacobs batted at the opening slot, the middle order, like Swiss cheese, had so many holes that none could help this former champion towards seeking respectability in a World Cup.

It is 16 years since the West Indies have advanced beyond the league. If they have survived into the Super Six there may have been some support for them. Their countrymen are not turning up in droves as they used to simply because they cannot afford it anymore. Cricket watching has become an expensive hobby in England. Only Brian Lara's brilliance could have saved this side and his stumps were shattered by an old, arch enemy in Glenn McGrath.

The home side suffered the worst kind of misfortune. The team was told not to assume that South Africa would beat Zimbabwe and so they would get in irrespective of what happened to the India game. Had only Stewart decided that sunshine was a better ally to batting and could suppress the old seaming ways of Edgbaston, there might have been a different story to tell.

Truth be told, England would have made a poor side in the Super Six. Their batting weakness would have been exposed at some stage or the other. There is a soft underbelly to English cricket that cannot be gloosed over by any amount of newspaper space, acres of which are devoted to England's fortunes.

But how quickly the good fortune brought by the Manchester United bus turned to misfortune on a bleak Sunday. They have now lost their coach too. David Lloyd, who once played back Churchill's speeches and played martial music to inspire his team into cricket battle, heads for the media.

A commentary box presence might be a job to which anyone will be better suited than trying to retrieve English cricket from a morass of excessive low quality country cricket. It is a sport that does not attract the best youngsters anymore.

Apart from making it to three finals, England has never been a collective force good enough to lay hands on the World Cup. They were most unlikely to win this one.

The minnows would have taken their bow along with Sri Lanka, England and (most probably) the West Indies. No side had the team strength to beat a major team in the competiton. Their bowlers were never penetrative enough even in the helpful conditions for seam bowling and their batting was always going to be under pressure.

While Scotland and Kenya took their leave without registering a win, the Bangladeshis may take heart from their one win over Scotland which upheld the form of the qualifying ICC Trophy. Mehrab Hussain showed he is a classy batsman when he made runs against the West Indies and Australia.

The minnows will go home with happy memories of having played the World Cup in England which is the traditional home of cricket and still a top class country to play the game in if only because the conditions are far more challenging. The carnival of cricket will continue with the top six.


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