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May 6, 1999


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The star-spangled manner

Harsha Bhogle

Once you start looking through, and indeed go past the hype, this World Cup is really all about one team -- your team -- and a few stars. It has not been very easy cutting through the hype this year, negotiating the number of forms at a police station might have been quicker, and sometimes there has been a strong feeling of deja-vu and dismay.

Deja-vu, because there is only so many times that you can read about the 1975 World Cup (and surely Sunil Gavaskar should be allowed to forget it 24 years later!) and dismay, because I was just told that on the day the government lost the vote of confidence, more people in India and overseas logged onto the net to read about cricket than about the political future of a possible economic giant. (It is not easy to see where my dismay comes from; not from this overwhelming love for cricket but from such complete indifference to the political system !)

It seems to me that it was only recently that I was packing my bags to go to Calcutta for the opening ceremony of the Wills World Cup. And as I write this, I am struggling to pack everything that I think I should take with me for another World Cup. And I must admit that after all my little complaints about the hype, I am completely immersed in it myself. I am starting to experience that little tingling in my fingers. In the middle of an unrelated conversation, I find I am asking myself whether Srinath and Sachin can hit peak form at Hove on the 15th of May. And why, only this afternoon I dreamt (I was catching a nap, not crossing the street!) that I was chasing an overthrow in the outfield because nobody had backed up.

After months of cautioning people against expectations, after telling them to be realistic about our players and our chances, I find I am doing exactly the opposite. The World Cup, and I find I am actually quite happy to say it, has completely consumed me.

We’ve all got our list of players to watch out for and so do I. Almost every team has at least one player who prevents you from skipping channels (though he tends to lose out to the guy who schedules the ads on DD!). He is the person most likely to do something inspirational. If you have missed the action, his is the name you turn to first in the scorecard.

 Aravinda da Silva
And so I have my list as well and there is a Sri Lankan and a West Indian on top of it. I have always been a fan of Aravinda da Silva, certainly since he acquired control over his temperament. I can’t wait for him to pull the good length ball and there is little doubt that this is one of the most spectacular shots in world cricket. The back foot movement is so small and so quick and the shot is invariably played through mid-wicket rather than square leg.

Allan Donald had him batting at number three in his dream world eleven and when opponents respect a player like that, you know he is special. Forget India and this paranoid dependence on Tendulkar. Even that pales before the burden that Aravinda carries for Sri Lanka!

But my second star carries an even stronger load than Tendulkar and Aravinda! If ever a player and his performance defined his team, then Brian Lara does it for the West Indies. Without him, you have to admit they are no longer a force in Test cricket but in the one-day game, they have a few other contributors (though the loss of the enigmatic but invaluable Carl Hooper will be impossible to fill for at least a year). But they rise and fall with Lara and unlike the other two modern batting greats, and that actually endows his performances with a greater degree of suspense, Lara’s temperament is flawed. Sometimes you think of him as a brilliant gadget with a loose electrical connection and that is why, from a spectator’s point of view, he is so thrilling. The essence of magic lies in its unpredictability.

 Brian Lara
There is one other West Indian you might want to keep an eye out for. In fact, in a funny sort of way, the man to replace Hooper might well be Ridley Jacobs, and his success as an opener in the recent past has not come a moment too soon for them. Hooper’s absence would have meant the inclusion of an extra batsman and an extra bowler and now, the West Indies would be hoping that Jacobs plays the role of that extra batsman allowing them to play an additional bowler without extending the tail too much. Walsh and Ambrose apart, he was the only West Indian to emerge with credit from South Africa and for the first time since Jeffrey Dujon retired, the West Indies are not searching for a wicket keeper!

Pakistan is such a potent combination of characters, even the bit players have their own personality, and yet my eye, that was so much in love with Wasim Akram’s style of cricket, invariably seems to search out Inzamamul Huq these days. That a man as big and as seemingly detached from worldly matters as Inzamam can play such delicate shots is a perpetual source of astonishment to me. And then, he suddenly seems to surprise everyone, himself included, with murderous blows. At this World Cup, he is going to be my eye-catcher from Pakistan.

There is something very exciting about Adam Gilchrist of Australia. I can’t figure out if it is his body language, or just the way he gets into position, but he provides the excitement that no other Australian batsman, Michael Bevan included, does. Without Gilchrist, Australia seem just a bit predictable and they invariably struggle to get the run-rate up if he doesn’t provide the bold shots upfront. He also allows them to play the floater in Shane Lee, and that is why he is so critical to their success. You might find this blasphemous but increasingly, when Australia are playing, it isn’t Mark Waugh but Gilchrist who seems to capture the attention.

 Glenn McGrath
Still, Australia are a good batting side. I am not sure we could say the same about the bowling where the reliance on Glenn McGrath is now acquiring critical levels. I am fascinated by McGrath because we always grew up on variety being the essence of a really good bowler. McGrath doesn’t seem to do too much more than the stock two or three balls but what he does with them is enough. When he was younger, he effortlessly stepped into Craig McDermott’s shoes. Now he has taken Shane Warne’s place. Like it was with Warne, so it is with McGrath. Their performance is a barometer of the team’s performance and so if McGrath struggles, you can be pretty sure that Australia will struggle as well.

 Hansie Cronje
Everybody has their favourite South Africans. I must confess I cannot take my eyes off Jonty Rhodes but the players I will be watching, for reason rather than passion, are Jacques Kallis and Hansie Cronje. In the side as batsmen, they can bowl ten overs each if required, field brilliantly and with Cronje, plot the dismissals of the opposition as well. I’d love to watch Cronje bat in the last fifteen overs because he is such a wonderfully innovative batsman. He is a strong player and so he will hit big ones, but he will also scamper twos quite brilliantly because his fitness standards are awesome. I think South Africa will actually want it that way because if he provides the extra runs at the end, their bowling and fielding will make them invincible.

There are three others in my list of players to watch. Chris Harris of New Zealand, because his enthusiasm is so infectious (same reason why Darren Gough is next on my list) and because he is such a stunning fielder. In South Africa they talk of the great quartet of Rhodes, Gibbs, Crookes and Benkenstein. But I would pay any money to watch my top three, Rhodes, Ponting and Harris in the same side. It wouldn’t matter to me who scored runs or took wickets then!

My last player to watch out for is Neil Johnson of Zimbabwe because he, more than anyone else, has revolutionised this team. Sadly, I have seen so little of him and that is why every time Zimbabwe play at the World Cup, I will be looking out for him.

After the meal, the little nibble; and two players from teams who will not set stadiums alight but who can engage your attention when they bat. These are simple, innocent people to whom the stage is a blessing and where every performance seems to be the last. Aminul Islam of Bangladesh is the solitary batsman of consequence in that side, and quiet and correct in his approach. And Steve Tikolo of Kenya is easily the best and the most flamboyant batsman outside the Test playing nations. On song, he can be breathtaking to watch so if Kenya are playing, don’t go for the remote!

Those are my stars. They will twinkle and light up the World Cup. But as I said at the start of this article, this World Cup is really about one team, your team and mine. What joy if they can illuminate every ground they grace.

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Harsha Bhogle

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