Cricket World Cup: The worlds of Shoaib and Shane collide

A speed demon and a sorcerer of spin promise an explosive World Cup final today
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The Independent Online
THERE IS more, much more, to the seventh World Cup final than Shoaib Akhtar and Shane Warne. Remove them and there are still Steve Waugh and Wasim Akram, the captains of Australia and Pakistan, as diverse in style as they are similar in fulfilment of their rich talent. There are, too, Mark Waugh and Saeed Anwar, two of the most handsomely endowed batsmen of their generation, and also Glenn McGrath and Saqlain Mushtaq, the other speed merchant and the other magical spinner.

These are all cricketers of the highest octane and if they cannot provide an explosive final at Lord's today it may not be worth looking elsewhere. It should be a captivating final in a riproaring atmosphere, which the presence of 700 stewards should regulate but not subjugate. It is also worth contemplating both what the astonishing manner of Australia's arrival at this stage, with five successive wins and a tie, has done for the stock of their captain, and what the consequences of defeat might be for Pakistan and the stock of their captain, with the results of a long-running match- rigging inquiry to be announced any day in Lahore.

All of these are factors to be considered in anticipation of the contest. Two of the best three sides in the tournament, certainly the two most charismatic, have made it through and the organisers could hardly say fairer than that. So, this is not the Shane and Shoaib Show we are talking about here. Yet the magnetic allure of these two magnificent players - one already guaranteed his place in the pantheon, the other not so much cutting as scything a swathe en route to it - is undeniable.

Between them they have seized the day, between them they have grabbed this competition by its throat and given it a humdinger of a shaking. They have not done this by sheer weight of figures, which simply confirms that cricket, one- day, Test, back lawn, even where its bowlers are concerned, is not governed by statistics alone.

Looking at the analyses which projected them to this position - yes, in front even of Steve Waugh and his unfathomably steadfast innings of 120 not out in his country's first match against South Africa - is not to be reduced to a state of awe. Warne's last two returns have yielded 2 for 33 and 4 for 29, good stuff but not, at a glance, knocking-over- the-oppo stuff. Shoaib took 3 for 55 in Pakistan's semi-final, at a glance, ordinary.

The eyes of the cricket world will be on them more than anybody else today because of the manner in which they have done it. A week ago Warne might have been a legend but he was on his roly-poly way to being a washed up legend. No revs, no turn, no spin, no drift, no flight, no-hope blondie. In terms of being able to read him he had gone from something in coded Sanskrit to Janet and John.

In the first, vital match against South Africa last Sunday he was obviously up for it. He put the batsmen under pressure, gave them nothing, begged them through his flight to have a go. In the second he rediscovered drift and spin and he came up with the sort of ball to dismiss Herschelle Gibbs which must convince batsmen to pack it all in. Warne has been wonderful for cricket in the Nineties, simply the best thing to have happened to the old game because he not only reminded us of a lost craft, he re-invented it.

Then there is Shoaib. He has become a leading protagonist in an art which has never faded, will never fade but is still diabolically difficult to perform properly. He reminds us of the beauty and of the tyranny of speed all at once. From the moment he begins that thrilling, threatening run to the point of delivery - the gather as the coaches call it - he is an utterly riveting sight. It is impossible to take your eyes off him, equally impossible to see the ball.

There have been great fast bowlers but few who you simply have to watch - Dennis Lillee and Michael Holding were others of recent vintage - but there might not have been one quite like this since Fred Trueman, if Fred does not mind it being said. Shoaib has not knocked over whole sides, not yet, but he can undermine them through terror as Warne scares them by other means.

Who on the New Zealand side would want to face him after what he did to Stephen Fleming with that snorting yorker in the semi-final last Wednesday? He is the best thing to have happened to cricket since Warne.

It is the shock of an explosion compared with the excruciating nature of water torture. Neither is pleasant for the batsman, but they have been instrumental in making this World Cup what it has become. Their presence, not to mention, lest we forget, that of their compatriots, does not make it any easier to pick a winner, even allowing for the usual one-day get- out clause that anybody can win on the day.

Australia are undoubtedly the team on the roll. They have been on the road a long time, a point which Steve Waugh alluded to yesterday after the last net at Lord's when he mentioned that he had not been home for 120 days. Waugh also said that his team today would turn up to the ground in a relaxed frame of mind, and if you believe that after what they have been through on the cricket pitches of England this past week, the Australian captain is not just a master batsman. He did not mention that they had also played a lot of cricket before that, an unconscionable amount since last September when they were at the Commonwealth Games and which has seen them play in Malaysia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, West Indies and, oh, Australia.

It looked, despite their protestations at the start of this tournament, that this was beginning to catch up with them. Being Australia, though, they came back and they have kept coming back. But now they face not only the tiredness of being away from home for so long but that of having been involved in two drum-tight games - the win against South Africa last Sunday with two balls left when they were dead and buried and the win against South Africa on Thursday with three balls left when they were dead and buried. Have they anything left, adrenalin or otherwise, in their bodies? Come on, they're Australian.

Pakistan's World Cup has embodied their cricket: they have been fitful, both blissful and blessed, maddening and wretched. But their young cricketers - one of them, Wajahatullah Wasti, as untried in one-day cricket as Andrew Flintoff was for England - look mightily composed, prepared for anything. Their experienced ones, like Australia's, are all match-winners. The imminent results of the match-fixing hearing, concerning matches going back years and involving four players in this very side, including Wasim, could end some careers. But not if they win the World Cup, which at around 6.30pm today they might very well.