Cricket: New twist brought to the old slogging game

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The Independent Online
THE WORLD CUP reached its first do-or-die climax yesterday when India beat Sri Lanka in what was, in effect, the first knock-out match of the tournament. Once again it was a shade embarrassing that a game carrying the hopes of two extremely avid cricket nations was staged in a cramped ground like Taunton, when clearly it could have filled Lord's twice over.

The selection of small County grounds for world-class matches does appear to be a sad blunder, and the thorough-going failure to plug the gaps in England's dodgy transport system looks an equally casual oversight. If anyone wants to travel from London to Manchester for Sunday's all-or- nothing clash between the West Indies and Australia, then be warned: the first train arrives at 12.15, 90 minutes after the first ball. But it might be time to stop carping about that. It is too soon to start counting chickens, but the organisers of this World Cup do have plenty of blessings to tot up.

The format is already bearing fruit. Crunch games are cropping up earlier than usual. The pitch invasions are making the game look dynamic and passionate, as well as provoking some hilarious whingeing from those tough Australians. And though the decision to hold the tournament in May has been much derided - it is still dismaying to see how inaccessible it is to schoolchildren - the weather gods have smiled.

The odds on the first 19 matches being completed more or less on time must have been long. There has been the odd shower, and the game between the West Indies and Bangladesh in Dublin took place in a snapping gale that would have made rugby players wince. But Duckworth and Lewis, who were widely expected to be the most influential partnership in English cricket since Hobbs and Sutcliffe, have remained firmly padded up in the pavilion. After the weekend it will be June, and the pessimistic May-sayers will have to hold their tongues.

The early-season conditions have, in any case, given a likeable twist to the one-day game, which in recent years has been an outright, if invigorating, slogging contest between batsmen.

It is possible that the toss has been too decisive: when England beat Zimbabwe on Tuesday they did so by bowling below clouds and knocking off the runs in placid sunshine. But it is hard to begrudge the world's best bowlers a share of the World Cup limelight. In most matches, two or three batsmen have been blown away in the first 15 overs, and it has been up to the middle order to dig in for a score. And proper bowling has been properly rewarded. Allan Donald was simply too good for England, Wasim Akram and Shoaib Akhtar were just too sharp for Australia, and Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh were far too hot for New Zealand.

It is hard to see any of this as unfair or unspectacular. The bowlers have had their work cut out, and it has been fun to see them struggling. You can see them frantically holding the ball across the seam, trying to straighten things out.

If they have had the best of things so far then it makes up for all the times they've been clubbed all over the ground by some wicketkeeper promoted to have a whack. The sporty conditions have also encouraged captains to take a few more risks than usual with their field settings. We have even seen some tentative attacking fields, with slips and silly points still crouching down in the final overs.

One bold innovation was revealed by Zimbabwe against England. Promoted to No 3, Paul Strang's 17-ball nought represented a new tactic: pinch- blocking.

Cricket has always been a game that obliges players to handle a bit of nature, and tailor their game to the prevailing conditions; and the best batsmen have adapted well enough. There have been big innings from Dravid, Ganguly, Kallis, Hussain, Hick and others, some fiery hitting down the order from Klusener and Moin Khan, and one absolute humdinger from Tendulkar. Lara, we can be sure, will be sharpening his bat in response.

As far as England are concerned, things have gone better than anyone dared hope. Their batting tripped up badly at the first sign of pressure, against South Africa, and experienced England-watchers will not need reminding how fragile our team can be in tight corners. But otherwise their all- round game has been well organised and confident.

The way Graham Thorpe hit three consecutive fours in the closing overs against Zimbabwe, a feat not remotely called for by the match situation, brought a warming flourish to a crowd which, demanding as ever, was longing for a bit of swagger. Even the fielding has been smart.

The powers-that-be also deserve a pretty big hand for picking Nasser Hussain in place of poor Nick Knight. It was fearfully unlucky for Knight, and a fate he certainly did not deserve. But there is only one test of a selectorial whim, and Hussain has paid off handsomely, with runs as well as run-outs.

We will never know now whether Knight would have found his form. It is possible that his back-foot slashes would have been suicidal against the seaming new ball. But there's no question about it: England look much more assured with a resolute opener thrilled to be in the side, and eager to make the most of it, than with one fearful of losing his place.

England look to be through to the next stage now, a big relief for everyone involved. If Alec Stewart had lost the toss against Sri Lanka, it could have been a different and very tortured story. Maybe it isn't blessings we should count: maybe it's lucky stars.