Cricket: Games of too much ball and not enough bat

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The Independent Online
IT HAS always been a batsman's game but what the World Cup needed after the first few games was some runs to prove it. The white ball became the main player in the opening week of the tournament, and it is showing few signs of going quietly.

Since it was introduced, this Duke ball has always had a reputation for moving around - and it has let nobody down. In every match it has swung disconcertingly in most directions. The seam looks to be slightly different from usual and bowlers are hitting it with unerring regularity; nobody incidentally, more than Jacques Kallis when he bowled for South Africa against Sri Lanka on Wednesday.

Hit it and it goes. Nobody should be in any doubt that this ball is a handful. With the seasonal vagaries of overcast skies and moist pitches, accurate bowlers have taken advantage. A few games in which batsmen are put in their place might be good for the sport, but the one-day version in general and the World Cup in particular needs batting entertainment. It might be hard to come by, though, and scores of up to 230 are likely to be competitive throughout.

Individual scores are also indicating how tough it is. Players are getting a few and then getting out, probably because they never feel properly in, the pitches and the ball are making it difficult for even the top batsmen to settle. It is one thing to be positive but quite another to be denied the opportunity to hit through the ball.

It would be a pity if this continued because the competition, now it is under way, is beginning to capture the imagination. It is the talk of dressing rooms and there is a vast fascination in seeing all these international stars. The full grounds are a sign that the competition will be a triumph if the runs somehow do come along, although it should be noted that the number of spectators has been outdone - probably in the region of four to one - by the number of cardigans. There should still be reservations about calling it a carnival. Carnivals are what you have in Rio and Trinidad, I would have thought. It is also still incredible to believe that we are playing this in May.

Before their match with England, at least, South Africa looked as many suspected they would be, a team of deep all-round strength and resolve. At 122 for 8, as they were against Sri Lanka on Wednesday, many teams would have been dead and buried, but they bat all the way down. Lance Klusener, No 9 for goodness sake, batted sensibly for more than half an hour and launched it in the final over, making 22 - superb hitting.

It took the Boks to 199 which, you would have thought, gave Sri Lanka a chance and provoked differing view points in the Middlesex dressing room. Mike Gatting said South Africa would win, Phil Tufnell was adamant that the Sri Lankan batting would prevail. They had a pound on the outcome. Gatting took the money. South Africa are not a bits and pieces side. All their bowlers are proper bowlers. For example, Kallis, also their No 3 batsman, has developed considerably and is now decidedly brisk.

England looked to have picked the right squad for the conditions in bowling terms. The dropping of Nick Knight was perhaps something of a surprise and you could only feel sorry for a man who had been earmarked for the opening position for two years. His omission was caused directly by loss of form but I felt that was only part of the reason. Nasser Hussain was probably brought in to drop anchor - against that white new ball - which was a task perhaps not suited to Nick's style.

Two wins out of two, before South Africa at The Oval yesterday, was precisely what England needed but then again it was a bit worrying that only four of them had had an innings. As for Knight, he might think it's the moment that he will never get back into the side (and I can confirm how difficult it is to be part of the squad without being in the team) but there is still a strong possibility that injuries will play their part.

Meanwhile, the County Championship goes on. Remember the County Championship? Well, actually, there wasn't a bad crowd at Lord's for Middlesex's match against Hampshire and if it has slipped from the forefront of the public's mind the competitive level is extremely high. The counties have to think of four months' time and the prospect of being a first or second division side.

We have won two close games. Considering what happens in September it could not have been a brighter start, but then we won two out of the first four games last summer and finished 17th. These early days are in a sense artificial ones. Let the carnival resume.