Cricket World Cup: Freebies destroy all the passion

Pakistan missing usual inspiration from trumpets and whistles as the fat cats tuck in to lunch
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The Independent Online
WHILE the players were still finishing their breakfasts yesterday morning, the drizzle-dampened streets of St John's Wood blazed with noise and colour. Flags waved, trumpets blared, firecrackers spat, and those who couldn't afford the black-market prices were investigating alternative means of entry. Inside Lord's, the senior staff of the Marylebone Cricket Club bustled around with walkie-talkies, looking anxious. "They're coming over the walls already," one of them reported.

It was the biggest of false alarms. Amazingly, the final of the seventh Cricket World Cup turned out to be characterised by the absolute decorum of the atmosphere inside the ground. The sun came out, but of the electrifying tension created by supporters at some of the earlier matches, there was no sign.

If you wanted to know where it had gone, you needed only to be in your seats for the first couple of overs after lunch, when Australia's opening batsmen came in to face the fired-up duo of Wasim Akram and Shoaib Akhtar. Unfortunately, thousands weren't. What should have been one of the most riveting passages of cricket seen anywhere this year was witnessed by row upon row of blank white seats in the Mound and Edrich stands. The culprit, of course, was corporate hospitality. Fat cats on freebies couldn't be bothered to finish their lunches in time to see what might have been the match's defining passage.

So when Shoaib tore in and delivered his first ball to Adam Gilchrist, triggering a 92 mph reading from the speed-gun, the place was not exactly the cauldron of noise the young bowler might have anticipated. And when Gilchrist top-edged his attempted hook just short of Azhar Mahmood at short leg, the place buzzed but did not explode. Faced with an almost impossible task, the Pakistan bowlers were given little help to achieve the sort of superhuman feats that might have turned the match.

Mind you, when Saeed Anwar leaned back to Glenn McGrath and steered the third ball of the day wide of Steve Waugh's right hand to the cover boundary, we imagined that we were in for the best possible climax to the competition. And when Saeed tucked Damien Fleming off his hip for another four with marvellous nonchalance in the fourth over, following that up by square- driving the same bowler across the rope, there seemed no doubt. Pakistan had caught fire.

Within 10 minutes, they were choking on their own smoke. With both openers back in the pavilion, their confidence had suffered a knock from which it was never to recover. This highly motivated Australian side gave their opponents no chance to arise from the ashes of that disastrous start.

Eight of these Australians had played on the losing side in the last World Cup final, in 1996, when they allowed Sri Lanka to outscore them. Those who feared that this year's Aussies had left their best performances behind in the two amazing confrontations with South Africa in the Super Sixes and the semi-final were reckoning without their phenomenal collective desire, and the leadership provided by Steve Waugh.

If Shane Warne, deservedly, took the man of the match award at Lord's yesterday, then there could be no doubt whatsoever about Australia's man of the series. Their captain had picked them up after early defeats by New Zealand and Pakistan and built their momentum to a point at which they were convinced nothing was beyond them. And it has to be said that they would probably have felt the same if there hadn't been a single Australian supporter in the ground.

In retrospect, the contest probably died the moment David Shepherd decreed that Inzamam-ul-Haq had been caught behind off Paul Reiffel in the 31st over, sixth man out with the score on 104. While the big fellow was still there, anything was liable to happen. But it wasn't Inzamam's day, in any respect. He thought he was not out, and so did many others. A couple of hours later, he hurt his wrist catching Adam Gilchrist's drive at mid- off and took no further part in the proceedings.

Along with Shoaib, Inzamam had been one of his side's stars of the tournament. Pakistan's volatility had a lot to do with their appeal, their passion mirroring that of their fans, and it was sad to see the down-side of their temperament in their body language - slumped shoulders, hands in pockets - as first Gilchrist and then Ricky Ponting smashed the last hope out of them.

The Cricket World Cup won't be coming back to England for a while - if ever, in the view of some players and officials, particularly those from the subcontinent - and in the meantime a few lessons had better be learnt. Those empty seats yesterday afternoon were an echo of the blank spaces in the pavilion benches at the opening fixture between the host nation and the holders when some MCC members chose to demonstrate their displeasure at being expected to fork out the price of admission. In that respect, and in other errors to do with the location of particular fixtures, the organisers repeated some of the mistakes perpetrated by the Football Association during the Euro 96 football tournament.

Principally, however, if cricket is to regain any sort of genuine prominence in English life, as opposed to existing as a perennial topic for mildly ironic middle-class self-flagellation, it has to find a way of tapping into the kind of passion we saw from other nations in these last few weeks. And that, of course, begins in childhood.

If the seventh Cricket World Cup achieved nothing else for its hosts, it showed us that the game can be still something to get excited about. The trumpets and whistles still blaring outside the ground two hours after the close of play were not, I promise you, the noise of people discovering that only one escalator was working at St John's Wood tube station.

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