Cricket World Cup: Kiwi who mastered mysteries of flight

Iain Fletcher finds experiments have paid off for the leading striker
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The Independent Online
THE BEAUTY of sport is its unpredictability. Before the World Cup started who would have considered Zimbabwe to be favourites for a semi-final berth, and a New Zealander to be the tournament's leading wicket taker?

If anyone did they would be very wealthy now at the expense of the bookies, but it has happened, and it has happened through a mixture of hard work, courage, aggression, instinct and gambler's luck. And all of it has been deserved.

Who can deny the Africans their position after Henry Olonga's last-minute heroics against the Indians and their comprehensive victory over the mighty South Africans when nothing less would do? Compare that to the hosts' efforts.

With the explosive and talented Pakistanis and the awakening Australians to come in the Super Sixes, Zimbabwe will believe that it is victory today over New Zealand which will secure them their first ever World Cup semi- final place. But New Zealand also need to win, so, in the modern sporting parlance, it is crunch time at Headingley, where conditions will probably favour the ball, again.

Geoff Allott is not complaining about that, as his 15 wickets so far put him in front of the more illustrious names in this bowler-friendly tournament. "Yeah, the conditions have helped me swing and seam the ball," the affable 27-year-old from Canterbury said. "But I've been really lucky to have Dion Nash bowling so well at the other end, he really has performed tremendously." And, eyeing the grey damp skies of Leeds, he added: "If it stays like this maybe I'll get a few more.

"Really, I'm wrapped because it was only after I had a good series against South Africa that I cemented my place in the squad, so yeah, I think it's fantastic having taken the wickets.

"Fortunately, my cricket didn't take off until after my studies and I was working in marketing for ANZ Bank. Two years ago they gave me leave to give my cricket a full go and that ends in October. So then it's decision time: either I have made myself an international cricketer or it's back to work."

Curious to hear a sportsperson describe their late arrival on the scene as fortunate. "It definitely is," explained Allott. "It's important to have a background as a bowler. You can easily get injured so you need something else, and having experienced the work place you really appreciate the benefits of playing professional sport. Especially when you play Australia and beat them. We knew we had to beat one of the big sides to go through, but for it to be Australia was even better. That victory in Cardiff is with me forever."

While such sentiments are typical across the Tasman Sea, Allott's bowling action is not. Or, to be more precise, his grip. Instead of holding the ball loosely in his index and middle fingers, Allott uses three fingers, giving the impression of a claw wrapped round the ball.

"I'm amazed that's been spotted," he laughed. "We call it the devil ball. It came about on last year's tour of Aussie when I wasn't able to swing the ball.

"I got dropped for the last Test and went out the back and started experimenting with a few grips. I also had a couple of stress fractures in my back so when we went home we basically developed a way of keeping my wrist behind the ball. I could do it with three fingers on the ball, so even though it's odd, it's working."

Such attention to detail exemplifies the New Zealand work ethic and allied to their team spirit explains why other countries are wary of them. Few sides would be able to defeat even a below-par Australia from the perilous position of 40-odd for four, but when the pressure is on, the Kiwis seem to find something extra. As Allott himself showed during the recent drawn series against South Africa, when he broke the world record for the longest duck in Test cricket. His 101-minute vigil helped prevent defeat and showed the combative spirit within the camp.

"We know we haven't got the skills of other countries but we have developed a great togetherness over the last couple of years," said Allott. "Everyone fights hard for each other and there is an excellent team spirit. OK, we desperately want to beat Zimbabwe but if we don't we still feel we can beat India and South Africa and go through. Why not? We've played them both recently and beaten them both. What we have to do now is to beat these sides with greater consistency. We've worked hard in the last couple of years so, with the cup and the Test series, this is a big year."

Selection for the Test series against England will be made after the semi-finals and, if Allott stays, his love of fishing will have to take second place to his love of landing wickets. The claw rather than the hook will be his weapon this summer.