Cricket World Cup: One-day theories dispatched to boundary

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THE SEVENTH cricket World Cup is only five days old, and already several pieces of conventional wisdom have had to be torn up.

They said the English spring weather would cause havoc with these early group matches. Yet the first seven matches all finished in the day. The Duckworth-Lewis system has been the butt of so many jokes, you may have missed the fact that it hasn't actually come into play. They said the white ball would swing prodigiously. It's true that some bowlers have had trouble controlling it, but those have tended to be the ones who swing the ball early, like reckless Eric Upashantha of Sri Lanka. It's true that Glenn McGrath, despite taking the precaution of coming on first change, bowled six wides against Scotland at Worcester on Sunday, but then Worcester is a big-swinging ground and McGrath had problems controlling the red ball in England this time two years ago. (By mid-June, his control was absolute, so batsmen should make hay while the sun is not shining.)

There was plenty of movement at Lord's on Friday, but that was largely off the seam. England's six seamers, not always noted for their reliability, had no trouble putting it "there or thereabouts" once their early nerves had settled. (It was hardly surprising that Ian Austin had the most butterflies in his stomach: there's more room in there. And surely even he could see that it was perverse of the selectors to prefer him to Angus Fraser, when the match was on Fraser's home ground and conditions were perfect for him.)

They said any captain winning the toss would automatically put his opponents in. And certainly Alec Stewart - a hopeless tosser no longer, now that he is flipping not calling - has had no hesitation in electing to field. But Mohammad Azharuddin chose to bat first at Hove on Saturday, and so did Wasim Akram at Bristol on Sunday. Wasim won the match, with assistance from the West Indian selectors, who were so wary of Shoaib Akhtar that they picked eight batsmen and only three proper bowlers.

Azharuddin finished on the losing side, but only narrowly, and not because of his decision. On a day when 275 was par, India were restricted to 253 by South Africa's supernatural fielding. It's not just catches that win matches: sliding stops and baseball throws do too.

They said these early matches would be dominated by the bowlers. But there were 400 runs at Lord's, 500 at Hove, 460 at Taunton from Zimbabwe and Kenya, 430 at Bristol, and 360 at Worcester. The only game to give the pessimists much satisfaction so far was New Zealand's impressive, but boring, win over Bangladesh.

There has been, if anything, more ebb and flow than usual in one-day cricket. Well, Sri Lanka reached 42 without loss against England, slumped to 65 for 5, and counter- attacked superbly to make a respectable 204. Pakistan made a terrible start against West Indies (42 for 4 in the 19th over), then raced along at six an over, whereas West Indies made a decent start, then went to pieces. Kenya began like snails against England, but soon found their feet, and the boundary. They said pinch-hitters would look stupid in English conditions. Here again, the reality has been mixed. Sanath Jayasuriya, the prince of pinch, missed as many as he hit against England - but he did make 29, which was more than the next four in the order put together. His current opening partner, Roshan Mahanama, may have perished to an ugly hoick, but his ex- partner, Romesh Kaluwitharana, flourished by going for his shots.

South Africa, who lead the world in one-day thinking, came here with one excellent pinch-hitter, Lance Klusener, and immediately tried out another, Mark Boucher. He came off so well at No 3 in the warm-ups that Woolmer and Cronje persisted with him against India. His 34 off 36 balls made sure that although South Africa lost early wickets, they never fell significantly behind the clock.

Finally, they said that Alec Stewart was too defensive in the field, and too inclined to let things drift in mid-innings. Or rather I said it, in last Thursday's paper, and so did Imran Khan, with rather more authority, in his newspaper column the next day. Stewart was so much more aggressive against Sri Lanka that one Test Match Special commentator wondered aloud if he had been reading us columnists. And yesterday, when Steve Tikolo and Ravindu Shah were beginning to embarrass England, Stewart didn't just bring back Darren Gough - he gave him two slips. Gough responded with two wickets.

Stewart has done nearly everything right so far, and it is great to see him back in form. But he was wrong to leave Nick Knight out in the cold yesterday. David Graveney admitted that Knight had been dropped partly because of Stewart's failures. Once Stewart was back in the runs, there was no excuse for continuing to punish Knight.

Knight has failed only in warm-up matches - in his last few internationals, in Sharjah, he outscored Stewart three to one. Nasser Hussain's fielding is a great asset, but if that is deemed decisive, he should play alongside Knight, not instead of him.

Tim de Lisle is editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly.