Cricket: Houghton attacks his `chokers'

Sri Lanka 198-6 Zimbabwe 197-9
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The Independent Online
FROM DAVID Houghton's perch on the New Road balcony, Zimbabwe's performance did not make pleasant viewing. In throwing the holders a World Cup lifeline on Saturday, Houghton's team had been below par in all departments, missing the chance to qualify for the Super Six with three straight wins.

Basic mistakes had littered their batting, they had fielded sloppily, and their bowling, though relatively tidy given the difficulties posed by the ball and finicky umpires, had rarely exhibited much venom. There was more than a suggestion that, faced with the prospect of reaching the uncharted ground of the later stages, they had suffered a critical attack of stagefright. Yet their coach saw no reason to amend his assertion that it is England who should be anxious when the sides meet at Trent Bridge tomorrow.

"England always give you a chance because you always have the knowledge that they might be 150 for 4 but are just one wicket away from being 200 all out. You have that feeling that, if one wicket goes, there is not much there in terms of their tail and you can finish them off quite quickly.

"It is a must win game for both of us," he said. "South Africa, who we meet in our last game, are looking unbeatable and England would not want their qualification to rest on their match against India.

"But we seem to save our best for England and they will be worried. We have played them six times in one-day games and won five and they have just suffered a heavy defeat. So I'm optimistic if we can get them to four down for not too many."

One of those wins was in the World Cup of 1992, when Eddo Brandes, the cricketing chicken farmer, took four wickets. It was a dead rubber, but still reinforces Zimbabwean confidence. As does the fact that their last World Cup match at Trent Bridge, in 1983, produced the shock of the tournament when they marked their debut in the competition with a 13-run defeat of Australia.

For all his positive words, however, it is clear Houghton is concerned that the weight of even modest expectation sitting on Zimbabwe's shoulders is proving too heavy. Even though they had won only three World Cup matches in 25 before this tournament, their cricket has progressed enough in recent years for elimination in the first phase to be considered failure.

"We came here expected to win three matches and I still think we will, but I was disappointed with the way we played here. The players probably will not admit it, but I'll say it for them: they choked.

"Our strength has always been bowling and fielding but today we did not do it. We batted well against India and then one lucky over from Henry Olonga won us the match, but we did not get away with it this time. There were a couple of run-outs and a couple of stupid shots, but we were missing bog-standard singles as well.

"Nerves are definitely playing a part. If we don't qualify it will have been a bad tournament, but they should be able to cope with that. It's not as if we are not used to playing in front of big crowds in big games. On the subcontinent you are nearly always doing battle in front of 40,000 and 50,000 crowds."

Zimbabwe should have finished perhaps 30 or so runs better off, which would have given the stuttering champions quite a challenge. They stumbled from 78 for 2 to 94 for 6, but the seventh wicket added 68 runs in 14 overs and would have put on a few more but for two disastrous deliveries in the 40th over, when Stuart Carlisle perished through a rash run and Andy Flower to an ill-chosen reverse sweep against Sanath Jayasuriya's left-arm spin.

Sri Lanka, who must now beat India and Kenya to qualify, did not look entirely convincing, and their captain, Arjuna Ranatunga, admitted that the form of his top-order batsmen remains a matter for concern. But they fielded urgently and their bowlers kept finding the good ball at important moments, after which Marvan Atapattu's half-century established a platform for the middle-order to push home with four overs to spare.