Cricket World Cup: Australia reduce fun factor to zero

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West Indies 110 Australia 111-4 Australia win by 6 wickets

IF THE game of cricket is traditionally a mystery to foreigners, it presented even those who love and understand it with a match here yesterday that was not just a mystery but an enigma wrapped in a whole series of riddles. As Australia and West Indies battled for the qualifying positions from Group B of the World Cup, what was on the surface a straightforward 50-overs match became first an exercise in brain-scrambling and ultimately a farce.

At the end of a contest that had degenerated into the cricketing equivalent of a slow bicycle race, Australia had won by six wickets, ensuring their passage into the second phase of the tournament. Barring a Scottish victory over New Zealand in Edinburgh today, West Indies - the first World Cup champions, 24 years ago, but now sadly reduced in all departments, including the presence of Anglo-Caribbean supporters at their matches - could be on their way home.

Nothing, when you thought about it, was quite what it seemed. Why did the West Indians, who lost the toss and batted first, go something like 18 overs, mostly against Australia's slow bowlers, without taking more than a single of any individual ball? Why were the Australians, after electing to bowl first on an overcast morning, apparently reluctant to press home the advantage created by Glenn McGrath's opening spell, which had the Caribbean batsmen reeling at 20 for 3? And why did they finish the match by refusing easy singles in an apparently determined attempt to score at less than a run an over?

It was all to do with run rates, of course, compounded by the stipulation that teams qualifying for the "Super Sixes" take into that round any points already won from opponents who have progressed along with them. This may be an imaginative way of insuring against "dead" matches, but it also admits so many possibilities that only the most numerate can carry its permutations in their head.

At various times yesterday, outlandish assertions were made. West Indies were said to be accumulating runs with unusual caution since, having resigned themselves to almost certain defeat, their requirement was to bat for as many overs as possible in order to degrade Australia's strike rate, hoping that the Aussies would fail to match New Zealand's rate and thus lose out - since West Indies, having beaten the Kiwis, would carry those two points into the Super Sixes if New Zealand qualified alongside them.

Similarly, Australia's bowlers were said to be easing off in mid-innings in a fiendishly subtle attempt to make New Zealand's task more difficult. Once they had bowled West Indies out for 110, it was claimed that their optimum target was to knock off the winning run on the second ball of the 48th over, which would set New Zealand a target of beating Scotland today by 140 runs in order to qualify ahead of West Indies. The faster Australia reached their target, it seemed, the easier the New Zealanders' task would become.

But all that took no account of the weather. A light drizzle during the lunch break held up the start of Australia's innings for the best part of an hour, and the threat of further rain refocused their attention. A single point from an uncompleted match would eliminate them, while putting West Indies through. A win in the shortest possible time became Australia's immediate priority.

All this higher calculus created a curious sense that almost no one in the ground really knew what was going on. It also tended to overshadow the actual cricket, although nothing could dim the magnificence of the ball with which McGrath dismissed Brian Lara in the ninth over, with the score at 20 for 2. He had already removed Sherwin Campbell, caught by Mark Waugh for two, and Jimmy Adams, trapped leg-before with the very next ball, and had been curving the ball away from the bat with a steely elegance that betokened the confidence of a man coming into form at the right moment.

Now he produced a delivery which, landing barely short of a length and pitching on the middle stump, forced the left-hander on to the back foot and then moved away off the seam to take the off bail. It was a perfect ball - as perfect in its way as the combined inswinger-cum-legbreak produced by Shane Warne, bowling from the same end at this ground in the Ashes Test of 1993, to remove Mike Gatting with the most celebrated single delivery in cricket history.

The resolute and unflashy Ridley Jacobs carried his bat for 49, to add to the 51 and 80 not out the West Indies wicketkeeper had previously taken from Bangladesh and New Zealand. The pick of Australia's bowlers were McGrath, who finished with 5 for 14 in 8.4 overs, and Warne, whose 3 for 11 in 10 overs looked a little generous, since the West Indian innings seemed by then to have become entangled in a web of strategic considerations.

Curtly Ambrose tore into the Australian batting as though run-rates were of no more significance than the price of fish. He had Mark Waugh caught by Jacobs in the third over for three runs and forced Adam Gilchrist to chop a rising ball on to his stumps eight overs later, when the opening batsman had contributed 21 runs out of a total of 43. In the 17th over, Darren Lehmann squeezed the ball wide of deep backward point, from where Adams took off to hold a phenomenal diving catch with his left hand.

At 62 for 4, Shivnarine Chanderpaul held on to Ricky Ponting's mis-hit hook off Reon King to give West Indies a sniff of a recovery, but not even the arrival of Dwight Yorke, Manchester United's Tobagan striker, as driver of the drinks wagon could inspire a sustained breakthrough against batsmen intent on stretching the innings as far as possible. Steve Waugh (19) and Bevan (20) blocked and nudged their way through the crowd's wholly justifiable jeers to the required total in 40.4 overs, the winning runs coming from a wide and a no-ball.