Cricket World Cup: No shortage of stars but no local heroes

Cricket World Cup: Australia's victory was reward for courage under fire but in England long-term worries remain
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The Independent Online
THIS WORLD Cup, the seventh to be staged, began on a chill day in mid-May with an England win over the previous winners Sri Lanka, a result that ultimately flattered to deceive.

But, if England's failure to get past the group stage was a disappointment, world cricket's only global tournament, won by Australia on a Sunday stroll at Lord's two days ago, has actually been and gone before summer officially began. Summer time may begin in March - but my diary clearly states that summer begins on 21 June, the day after Steve Waugh hoisted the trophy at Lord's.

Timing is everything in cricket and it appears that the national summer sport, taken for granted for too long in this country, is no longer even master of its own calendar. Indeed the scheduling, in the face of the Rugby World Cup later in the year and immoveable objects like Wimbledon, smacked of insecurity. England's early exit did not help matters, particularly with regard to inspiring the young, and it was left to others such as Shoaib Akhtar and Lance Klusener, neither household names here before the tournament began, to fire pubescent imaginations from Aberdeen to Yeovil.

They made a good job of it too, as did Steve Waugh, Shane Warne, Rahul Dravid, Glenn McGrath and Moin Khan, all of who made outstanding individual contributions. But if the format, played over 42 games in three separate stages, filtered out the weak and allowed the best teams to prosper, it did so by chance rather than design. In hindsight, sides should have carried through all their points into the Super Six stage, rather than those gained solely against fellow qualifiers.

Ironically, it was Australia's hesitant start - which saw them scrape through into the second stage with no points - that essentially forced their hand and turned each subsequent match into one of sudden death.

Living by their wits and their captain's example, they raised their game enough to get on a roll with enough momentum to see them past South Africa twice in a week.

It was those two games - the first won with two balls to spare, the other tied with the same margin remaining - that should have showed cricketers in England, potential and current, just what it takes to be the best. Fourteen years ago, Steve Waugh was just another talented cricketer whose moderate start to Test cricket gave few clues to the steely willed scrapper whose unbeaten 120 was the knock of the tournament.

Pity Herschelle Gibbs, or even Lance Klusener and Allan Donald for that matter. Their nanoseconds of insanity cost South Africa a place in the final, a position they may not be in for a decade or so, should political directives to have at least 50 per cent African and coloured players in all representative teams become compulsory.

Gibbs, who dropped Waugh at Headingley, when he had made 56, also received the ball of the tournament. Given that he is only half of Mike Gatting's girth, the ball Warne bowled him with at Edgbaston (pitched outside leg and hit the top of off stump) had more than a hint of overkill about it. In retrospect, it was probably just what Australia needed and the extravagance insinuated itself deep inside the minds of those waiting to bat. Later, when Klusener's rhino charge caused Donald to panic and be run out, Australia just knew it would be their Cup. They are now the world's best at Test and one-day cricket, a mantle only the awesome West Indies teams of the late 1970s could rightly claim.

Pakistan, their humbled opponents in the final, deserved a better fate. More than any team, they truly thrilled spectators with their juxtapositions of brilliance and buffoonery. No other team could give away so many wides and no-balls, or recover from so many run-outs and still be so dominant. Spearheaded by Shoaib's exocets, they could be electric, as they were when they beat Australia at Headingley. Sadly for them, Australia gleaned more from defeat than Pakistan did in victory.

On balance it was a bowlers' World Cup. But if scores were subdued for modern one-day cricket, the conditions, which did not overly favour the team bowling first (of the 42 matches, which included one tie and one abandonment, 21 were won by the team bowling first), forced captains to adopt strategies not often seen in one-day cricket. For instance, slips were kept in long after the 15 overs had passed and batsmen had to concern themselves about survival as well as run-scoring. If spin bowling was a rarity, the little that was seen, namely from Warne and Saqlain Mushtaq, was of the highest quality and provided more evidence that the best can operate in spite of the conditions.

Incredibly, given the doom-mongering by weather watchers at the start of the tournament, only one match failed to be completed due to rain. The dry but largely chilly conditions that prevailed during the tournament meant that Messrs Duckworth and Lewis, many people's tips for the men of the tournament, stayed as back-room boffins.

The lack of rain was not the only plus and the World Cup organisers, headed by Michael Browning and his team, in conjunction with the England and Wales Cricket Board [ECB], have already promised a record profit of around pounds 31m, though the extra security for matches involving Pakistan will have eaten into that. Apparently pounds 17m will get doled out to the competing countries while pounds 14m is pocketed by the ECB, boosting the pot from which the 18 first-class counties are funded.

It should have been a better income, though, and, after seeking eight global sponsors, the ECB found only half that number. Opinion differs on who is to blame, but some experts are saying that the ECB began its campaign too late. Without recourse to tobacco advertising, it needed to begin its pitch sooner, and it is instructive to learn that those running the Rugby World Cup, to be played in the autumn, began their sponsor hunt some 18 months before the ECB. There is profit and there is profit, and rumbles that the projected increases in hand-outs to the counties will not be as big as first promised have angered those clubs already committed to projects budgeted on the original figure.

Although the crowd invasions at the end of matches became a source of concern for the players, there were few incidents of a serious nature. Indeed, the support for India and Pakistan, largely by British-based Asians, was one of the highlights of the competition. While over-zealous support can become wearing, their drums, whistles, klaxons and thunderflashes did more than most to uphold the carnival atmosphere, a glib soundbite bestowed on this World Cup by marketing men who had clearly never had to sit for eight hours watching cricket on a fresh May day.

It reminded me of the West Indies supporters of the 1970s and 80s, before their steel drums were silenced and the corporate fat cats invaded the scene accompanied by Chardonnay and smoked salmon.

The trouble with sport in England is that more people watch it than play it. If that sounds facile, the saturated sport coverage now available on television is taking away the need to create your own drama and kids, far from being inspired to get outside in the garden, are flicking channels trying to find the next offering.

Of what sport is played, cricket appears to be losing its share. I know snatched glimpses can be deceptive but, as I arrived at Old Trafford the day before Pakistan's semi-final against New Zealand, I noticed a field full of kids enjoying their morning break. Apart from the general larking about that children between seven to 11 get up to, there were three games of football going on, one game of rounders and a single game of cricket - the last being played mainly by Asian kids. As Wasim Akram pointed out the other day, cricketers count for something in Pakistani society, something that has been lost here.

Given that United had not long won the treble, perhaps Manchester was a bad place to take a snap poll. With English cricket continuing to come way down in world rankings, I suspect it was a fairly accurate picture and that what little voluntary cricket (muck-about games in a playground are a good indicator of obsession) is played in England is being played by kids whose heroes have names like Shoaib and Saeed, rather than Andrew and Graham.

There is nothing wrong with that, but if England is to get back on course it is those kids, as well as some of those playing football and rounders, who have to be won over as well.

DEREK PRINGLE'S WORLD CUP XI

1 Mark Waugh (Aus)

2 Sachin Tendulkar (Ind)

3 Rahul Dravid (Ind)

4 Brian Lara (WI)

5 Steve Waugh (capt) (Aus)

6 Jacques Kallis (SA)

7 Moin Khan (wkt) (Pak)

8 *Lance Klusener (SA)

9 Shane Warne (Aus)

10 Glenn McGrath (Aus)

11 Shoaib Akhtar (Pak)

* Providing runner is used

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