Cricket: Azha has a mountain to climb as a nation expects

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The Independent Online
WHEN ENGLAND next become agitated by disapproving analysis of their efforts they might spare a thought for Mohammad Azharuddin and India. The loss of a second match on Wednesday has brought forth scorn throughout the sub-continent which is sufficient to make Alec Stewart's lads seem like the nation's favourite teddy bears.

"Appalling display by India ... heaps of humiliation," roared the Hindu newspaper. "In every aspect of the game ... they were outplayed by a team with seemingly nothing but the will to win," thundered the Indian Express. "Spineless India snatch defeat from the jaws of victory," exploded the Hindustan Times. "Truly appalling ... unacceptable, unbelievable, unprofessional," reported the Times of India in its measured tones.

Former players were similarly candid in their reactions to the nerve- tingling three-run defeat by Zimbabwe. Bishen Bedi, the distinguished captain and left-arm spin bowler said the number of extras conceded was "diabolically criminal". Kris Srikkanth, once a dashing but highly suspect opening batsman, wrote that it was "a totally unprofessional and pathetic display."

Captain Azha came off no better. His approach was described as "tactically ambivalent." His batting saw him "leading the brigade of culprits." And then there as his demeanour. "Why can't Azha be more assertive?" implored one commentator.

Doubtless, he is accustomed to this. During the last World Cup, when India lost in the semi-finals to Sri Lanka there was not only a pitch invasion but also the need for a police guard outside Azharuddin's house. His captaincy already appears to be in the past, although anything can happen in the next three matches, starting with Kenya tomorrow when Sachin Tendulkar will return after attending his father's funeral, and continuing with Sri Lanka on Wednesday.

The players have an awesome responsibility. It can be partly measured by the the Cricinfo web site report that its mail-order shop, run in conjunction with American company, Sportsline, has a new best selling item. Since Wayne Gretzky's retirement, merchandise connected with the ice hockey player's name had topped the list. That preminence in the sporting mementos hit parade has now been overtaken by India World Cup caps.

In case the players needed further reminding of where they stand the Hindu did so: "An entire nation will be devastated if this team do not make their way to the next stage of the World Cup."

WITH THE ball swinging more than Chuck Berry and Little Richard combined there will be a record number of wides in this World Cup. After all sides had played two matches each there had been 332, or an average of 27.6 an innings. There had also been 137 no balls, or 5.7 an innings.

These figures make something of a mockery of the idea of the competition as 50-overs a side. The number of extra balls is 469, or more than 19 for each innings, which means sides can expect a mean of three extra overs. Bangladesh, incidentally, are the only side so far to have bowled no no- balls.

OTHER COMMODITIES are in shorter supply. The comparative lack of runs can surely be measured by the entire lack of centuries. None came in the first 12 matches, though two men were run out in the nineties. In all previous World Cups the first century came in the opening match. Their scorers were, in chronological order, Dennis Amiss (137), Gordon Greenidge (106no), Allan Lamb (102), Javed Miandad (103), Martin Crowe (100no - David Boon scored 100 in the same match) and Nathan Astle (101).

THIS COLUMN can claim at least some of the credit for the re-issue, to coincide with the tournament, of the charming little book, What Is A Googly? It was a suggestion here a couple of months ago that helped to clinch the deal. The book by Rob Eastaway and sub-titled "The Mysteries of Cricket Explained" (Robson, pounds 8.99), is a lucid and light-hearted volume. If the ECB want to attract more female interest in the game they could do worse than make this available in places where women gather: nightclubs, tupperware parties the Lord's pavilion. They might have few male players read it as well.

The cash to pay for it came from one of the Cup's sponsors, Outspan, who also commisioned a survey into women's attitudes to the game. They are appropriate backers at an appropriate time. The way the ball's going most of the bowlers may as well be delivering an orange.

NOBODY SHOULD accuse the ECB of spin or cover-ups, obviously, but when that electronic listening gadget was spotted in Hansie Cronje's ear at Hove one of their (temporary) PR people promised an explanation. "I haven't got one yet," she said, "but I know Hansie had an ear infection earlier this week."

CARNIVAL CAPERS

Third umpire Ken Palmer courted controversy by giving out Shaun Pollock. He strangely decided that the ball had not hit the ground before rebounding off Arjuna Ranatunga's foot and into Muttiah Muralitharan's hands. Palmer is a model of probity. Still, one had mischievously to recall October 1964 when Palmer was plucked from his Johannesburg coaching job to play his sole Test for depleted England. He took 1 for 113 and 0 for 76 while a South African batsman plundered 137 and 77no. That was Shaun's uncle Graeme.

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