Captains of catastrophe

Derek Pringle in Karachi looks at the tournament's leadership questions
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WHAT a week of contrasting fortunes it has been for the team captains in this World Cup. Bookended by low points for Michael Atherton and England, the middle was marked by impressive wins for Australia and South Africa. However, the pinnacle of the week was undoubtedly Kenya's earth-shattering victory over the West Indies which produced such extremes of emotion that Maurice Odumbe's disbelieving jubilation only highlighted Richie Richardson's glassy-eyed despair.

For those not present in Pune, the emotional quaver in Odumbe's voice as he collected both the winner's cheque and the man of the match award was enough to forget the present avarice of modern cricket, and believe once more in the sport's innocent ideals. The West Indies may have lost more than just a one-day game, but the game has won itself new friends in Africa.

Yet joyful though that victory was, even the perennial supporters of such giant-killing would have struggled not to have felt some sympathy towards Richardson and his crumbling citadel of a team. He was initially lauded for his leadership and control but, since tensions ran taut as piano wires during the West Indies' 1993 tour of Australia, his decline as both captain and batsman has been painful to watch.

Part of his problem is that he is a decent, undemonstrative man who expects the same qualities from his team, and in particular his senior players. Qualities that have not been forthcoming and which have inevitably led to dressing-room rifts, the most infamous of which led to a walkout by a certain disgruntled left-hander.

These in turn have merely highlighted the problems of leading a once indomitable team whose rate of decline has so far outstripped the rampant expectations of its people, and even Richardson's fellow Antiguan and mentor Viv Richards has called for Lara to replace him. As public pressure mounts, nothing short of beating Australia in their last group match and reaching the final can save Richardson.

Of all the other captains, only Atherton will have an inkling of how Richardson feels. Generally praised for his team's fighting performances against the West Indies last summer and commended for his own intense innings against South Africa, Atherton has gradually seen his horizons shrink.

Poor personal form - which in turn appears to have infected his team - has not made the job of exuding confidence for others to feed off any easier. To compound matters, Atherton is not as cool and detached off the field as he looks on it. Beneath the unimpressible expression, passions burn strongly, particularly when his team are playing poorly.

Even so, that does not explain the "Buffoon" gaffe he made at a press conference after England's insipid display against South Africa last Sunday. The remark, intended as an aside, badly backfired and, despite a curt statement of apology, is still consuming column inches on a daily basis in the local press.

Since then England have had time to regroup their thoughts and strategies, though Friday's defeat at the hands of a young Karachi Cricket Association side will have done little to boost flagging morale and ease their captain's mounting angst before the game against Pakistan earlier today and their quarter-final appointment.

They say good captains have always had good teams playing for them. It is an epithet borne out by the neat, efficient cricket being played by Australia and South Africa, who last week both notched important psychological wins over India and Pakistan in their fortress homes. South Africa have looked so impressive that they have supplanted Australia as the tournament favourites.Since an upturn in his batting form, Hansie Cronje has looked far more decisive as a captain, orchestrating Bob Woolmer's meticulous game plans with ruthless efficiency.

Backed by the best all-round fielding side in the competition, Cronje has been able to throttle batting line-ups and keep totals down on pitches licensed to print runs. And so far they have been able to play confident, well thought-out cricket without having their resources stretched.

The same can be said for Australia whose captain Mark Taylor is doubly blessed, having both Mark Waugh and Shane Warne in sparkling form. Like India's Sachin Tendulkar, Waugh seems to have struck a motherlode opening the innings and his silky touch and weighty catalogue of strokes has got Australia off to some storming starts. So far, their opponents haven't come close to threatening them despite injuries to the pace bowlers Craig McDermott and Paul Reiffel.

Having Shane Warne in your side on these pitches is a bit like having a nuclear warhead up your sleeve when asked to sort out a little skirmish between rival football hooligans on a Saturday afternoon. Despite the surface slowness, he has regularly turned the ball over a foot, and by the way Taylor slouches contentedly at slip no one has yet come close to mastering him. So absolute was his control against India that Taylor was happy to take a risk and give Mark Waugh a bowl during a crucial period of the game, a punt that paid off handsomely when he had Tendulkar stumped.

It is little gambles like these that often mean the difference between winning and losing over 50 overs, gambles that Atherton must be prepared to take, especially in the knockout stages when stakes and tensions will be running high. His future as captain of England hangs on them.