Cricket: Kallis lifts tempo above seriously sedate

YESTERDAY'S CONTEST between South Africa and Sri Lanka was by any definition one of the glamour fixtures of this World Cup. In pitting the favourites against the champions, the game threatened to be either the day when these once-flamboyant Sri Lankans gave us a refresher course in daring-do, or the day when South Africa gave a final glint to the sheen of well-drilled invincibility that had clung to them this last year.

In the event, there were several surprises. No one expected Sri Lanka's low-horsepower bowlers to destroy anyone, least of all South Africa. But when, an hour and a half into the game, South Africa's innings stood at a shaming 69 for 5, it looked as if Arjuna Ranatunga's side were on the brink of a significant rally. Who would have predicted, though, that Sri Lanka's dashing batsmen could collapse quite so feebly as they did? Not many teams have a bowler like Allan Donald coming in second change, but still, Sanath Jayasuriya and Aravinda de Silva looked like jaded, flimsy shadows of the men who set the continent alight in the last World Cup.

South Africa's victory looks, in the scorebook, like a thumping and easy one, but in truth the game reminded us that cricket is a matter of awfully fine lines. With South Africa's score on 168 for 9, Jayasuriya missed running out Lance Klusener by only a few whiskers. That would have wrapped things up nicely, but Klusener went on to clump a few sixes and stretch the score by another 31 runs. Who knows, maybe Sri Lanka would not have given up the ghost so tamely had their target been 30 runs nearer.

There was more. There was some interesting third umpiring - when Shaun Pollock was given out caught off Ranatunga's foot, the entire South African balcony rose furiously and walked off in a huff. A small plane circled the ground tugging streamers that read: "Killing Tamils is not cricket" and "South Africa, we Tamils support you". After his composed and match- winning innings against India, the strident whirly-armed bowling of Jacques Kallis - the wicketkeeper was grabbing the ball head-high for the first few overs - made him seem a good bet to be the outstanding player of this World Cup.

It was good stuff. But the question remained: why was it happening in Northampton? While the great grounds of England - The Oval, Headingley, Trent Bridge, Old Trafford - have stood empty, or entertained crowds of a few hundred for County Championship matches, the World Cup has been playing to packed but modest audiences in Hove, Taunton, Bristol, Chelmsford and now Northampton. It seems especially sad for Britain's Indian and Pakistani fans that they have been deprived of the chance to follow their teams. A few thousand Indians squeezed into Hove and made an impressively joyous racket (even though they lost) - but India could have filled a Test ground with ease. It was obvious, too, that for every South African on the early train from Euston yesterday morning, there were three who would have been on board if they could have found a ticket.

The principle of spreading the tournament around the provinces sounds fine, in theory, but England is only a province-sized country, and it is not - no offence - as if Northampton is one of the game's fiery hotbeds. Most of the crowd came up from London anyway.

The result is that the World Cup so far, while intriguing, does seem seriously sedate, especially compared to the last one, in the subcontinent, where huge crowds (up to 100,000 in Calcutta) roared and jostled and lit torches in the heat. England's early games in Pakistan were played in echoing stadiums in Rawalpindi and Peshawar, but in India every match felt urgent and enthralling.

This World Cup is being sold as a "carnival", and you have to say, they are doing their best. At Northampton a two-piece steel band whiled away the lunch hour, and a three-man jazz combo tooted away near the Pimm's tent, and by English standards this is almost bacchanalian but it did feel comically low key, a quaint scones-and-jam parody of fun.

Passengers arriving at Northampton looked in vain for any sign that a World Cup match was imminent. Huge queues formed at the deserted taxi rank and the bus stop on the bridge. Hordes of rainbow-clad South Africans set off on foot, eager Voortrekkers who did not know, perhaps, how long a trudge lay ahead of them (three miles, not counting the one-way system). And throughout the game the Tannoy delivered messages that made it all sound like a horse show. "Would the Sri Lankan players' wives like to assemble for lunch?" it asked politely.

The weather was fair; the pitch was sporting - one of the tasty features of the competition so far is that it has brought bowlers emphatically back into the game; and the match was very nearly exciting. But it hardly felt like a world-class cricket occasion. South Africa's smart captain, Hansie Cronje, won a cheer when he thanked the crowd and said it was almost like playing at home, but he was fibbing. It wasn't like Cape Town or Johannesburg, not by a long chalk. Perhaps, when he said "home", he meant his garden.

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