WORDS OF THE WEEK

The new edition of the cricketer's Bible, `Wisden', has harsh things to say about the state of the nation's game, but cheerful thoughts about the game abroad
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In 1996-97 the national team reached a point where even the good days were bad. They were one run short of victory in the Bulawayo Test and one wicket short at Auckland. It felt as though the English, who were once presumed to have won first prize in the lottery of life, were now on the receiving end of some cosmic practical joke.

At the 1996 World Cup, the England squad resembled a bad-tempered grandmother attending a teenage rave. Unable to comprehend what was happening - on the field or off it - the players just lingered, looking sullen as well as incompetent. They conveyed as bad an impression in Zimbabwe at the end of the year. And, though they appeared to have learned to display a little grace under pressure by the time they reached New Zealand in January 1997, that merely emphasised their earlier petulance. The captain, Mike Atherton, and coach, David Lloyd, were culpable in failing to understand the importance of their roles as public figures. But it was hardly surprising. Until the end of 1996, they were paid by the Test and County Cricket Board, a body that found public relations so difficult that for its last couple of years it simply gave up on the whole business.

The consistent failure of the England team is the biggest single cause of the crisis, but it is not the crisis itself. The blunt fact is that cricket in the UK has become unattractive to the overwhelming majority of the population. The game is widely perceived as elitist, exclusionist and dull.

Happily this is not the case with cricket around the world. `Wisden' also carries reports on the exploits of the more unlikely cricket playing nations.

Afghanistan: The ravages of war have brought cricket to Afghanistan. More than 1.5 million refugees fled to Pakistan through the Khyber Pass. A small percentage picked up an enthusiasm for cricket during their exile and took it home with them. In April 1996 eight teams played a 50-over softball cricket tournament with finals in the provincial capital, Jalalabad, using a tennis ball covered in plastic adhesive tape to reduce the bounce. A crowd of 200 watched the final.The game is played on dusty, uneven grounds, often with war-damaged buildings in the background. The dust is swept from the wicket, and the game has to start in the late afternoon because of the intense summer heat. Players wear traditional dress, with the umpires in black or dark brown.

China: The Peking Cricket Club began the 1996 season with a full complement of teams. The Beijing Chaoyang stadium became the club's new ground. That offers a vast improvement on the hazardous conditions at the Beijing Physical Institute: it has more grass than dust, it is more centrally located, it has facilities, and it provides shade for those wanting to sleep before they are called out to bat.

Colombia: Cricket is not endemic in the High Andes. Indeed, it is so alien to local culture that Colombian customs reputedly impounded a priceless shipment of bats and balls from Venezuela some years ago as "dangerous, possibly subversive material". Bogota is a challenge for the bowler. At 8,300 feet above sea level, anyone trying to bowl medium-fast soon runs out of puff, and the ball will not swing much in the thin, dry air. The field is kikuyu grass: the ball will not skim the surface, and must be hit dangerously high to reach the boundary.

Ethiopia: Games are played on a football field in Addis Adaba which is composed of volcanic rock with a covering of soil and grass. The pitch is marked out by string, then the groundsman cuts it with his sickle, and the clippings are taken away to feed his donkey. Bigger rocks are pulled out by hand, but it is still imperative to use a soft ball.

Kiribati: Cricket in the republic - 33 fragmented and isolated South Pacific atolls that used to be the Gilbert Islands - dates back to the arrival of the British in 1892. The most dramatic event of recent years came when the Kiribati XI flew to play an away fixture against the Republic of Tuvalu. Batting second, Kiribati were down to the last pair and needed six to win off the last ball. Darkness was falling fast and pressure mounting - the plane for the return journey had to take off from a narrow strip of land, between the ocean and the lagoon, with no landing lights. The batsman on strike was a strapping player called Tapatulu, a man of fearsome strength renowned locally for having once been lost at sea in a canoe for three months. It was a good-length ball. Tapatulu took a step outside leg stump and, with the well-used "Len Hutton" team bat, dispatched the ball over cow-shot corner for six.

`Wisden' is published by John Wisden Co. Price pounds 26, hardback and paperback.

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