Cricket: World Cup - Final week will test the toughest

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A WORLD CUP without a quirk or two would be a dull affair indeed; just cast your mind back to the 1987 final when Mike Gatting committed suicide by reverse horizontal bat or, to the 1992 semi-final, when a sudden Sydney thunderstorm re-arranged South Africa's target from 22 runs off 13 balls to 22 off one.

This cup too has offered us the bizarre vision of "Inzamam between the wickets". In one match Pakistan's trump batsman was run out (though "in") because his bat was airborne and, in another, he was stumped (when he could have made it back) because he chose to practise his botched shot while the wicketkeeper was still fumbling the ball.

A script for faulty cricket perhaps, but of no serious consequence and we must look elsewhere for the quirk of 1999. Early on the schizophrenic white ball and a tidal wave of wides threatened to impact on the result. But, inevitably, the most memorable peculiarity will be the points system, one peculiar enough to bring the part-timers of Zimbabwe to the verge of the semi-finals.

Despite that, the snakes and ladders system has actually served the contest well because, for a fortnight, right until today's last preliminary match between Australia and South Africa, which promises to be nothing but a cut-throat job, it has provided a series of Hitchcockian plot twists to keep players and spectators on edge.

It is a measure of the game's advancement that once upon a time - at The Oval in 1882 when England were losing a Test to Australia by seven runs - on edge meant spectators gnawing on umbrella handles. In this 1999 World Cup the image is one of edgy fans clustered around calculators assessing net run rates.

This is one of the closest cups ever. After 39 preliminary matches there remains a fair chance that the order of the semi-finalists will be decided by a run-rate calculation. It's not quite a penalty shoot-out, but it's better than a grand prix style lap recount.

Usually reviews at this stage of any cup incline towards individual success because individualism, such as Sanath Jayasuriya's batting in 1996, can decide the cup. Outstanding this time has been Lance Klusener's late-order hitting, Glenn McGrath's precision, Shoaib Akhtar's aggression. Why is it that Pakistan can keep turning out these phenomenal young fast bowlers? Most eye-catching for me has been the rise to the highest class by South Africa's Jacques Kallis.

Any discussion about failure is mostly shelved until the cup is all over, when it is more suitably covered by the term post- mortem. But the elimination of England, the host country, while not unique because the same fate befell India in 1987 and Australia in 1992, reflects a failure that has become so on-going that the relevance of England on the world stage - rather than its internal problems - is now being questioned.

Urgent action is required. The selectors can be harshly judged. Wasn't young Adam Hollioake, not so very long ago, their vision for the future? How does that relate to the image of a roly-poly Ian Austin trundling away with the new ball, or that old workhorse-for-the-course Angus Fraser in harness yet again?

Some may say Hollioake has not been up to it, but what does that say about the selectors' initial judgement? There is scuttlebutt that England may appoint an Australian coach, but it would be wiser to appoint some Australian selectors. If there were any toughness left in English cricket they would most likely find it.

Toughness will be the cup clincher, although luck will be an ever-present factor. How lucky were Zimbabwe to get a point when rain swamped that crucial Super Six match with New Zealand?

On the toughness scale, Zimbabwe look a little skinny. Their toughest are the batsman Murray Goodwin, who learned his cricket in Australia, and the all-rounder Neil Johnson, who is South Africa-trained. Pakistan are tough because they are as erratic as ever, and therefore as dangerous as a stray match on Guy Fawkes night. Inzamam may be comical between the wickets but on strike he can be devastating. They were razor sharp in thrashing Zimbabwe and that is the mood they will most likely take into the semis.

South Africa seem tougher. There has always been an expectation they are tough but that has sometimes failed to materialise under pressure. When they followed up the fighting win over Pakistan with the ruthless demolition of New Zealand it was clear evidence that they are sharp for today's clash with Australia.

This appeals as a final-before-the-final. Australia have one major concern - Shane Warne, but in his favour is the sway he has previously held over the South Africans. This match may tell us as much about Warne's future as it does about Australia's in the Cup. How quirky would it be if Warne became a match-winner again and Australia went on to win a cup only a few thought they'd still be in?