Cricket - World Cup: Time for some unconventional innovation

Click to follow
IT HAS been a frustrating World Cup for the plethora of past fast bowlers employed to deliver their expertise to the world through television and radio.

As the heavily lacquered white ball, with its prominent seam, has swung and moved, they have sat starry-eyed in commentary boxes salivating over the thought of what might have been.

Once they have awoken to reality, they have carped at the sight of their modern successors denied by their cautious captains the cluster of close catchers that the conditions justify.

As the fast bowlers Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose harassed New Zealand's top order at Southampton yesterday, Michael Holding was as close to apoplexy as this mild-mannered West Indian can be without a cricket ball, of whatever colour, in his hand.

At the time, probing edges were being consistently passed as the two great veteran bowlers had the ball darting this way and that - and yet the most Brian Lara, their captain, would afford them were the obligatory couple of close men, either two slips or a slip and a leg slip, along with the occasional gully.

"If it was me and if it was 20 years ago, I would be demanding three slips and two gullies," Holding asserted without anything in the way of exaggeration. "Once you take early wickets and the ball is doing so much, you should be going for the kill."

Lara has been by no means the only skipper following the generally accepted limited-overs methodology of run restriction rather than all-out attack.

Wasim Akram spoke fervently, after Pakistan's pulsating victory over Australia at Headingley on Sunday, of his aggressive policy of choosing five specialist bowlers, contrasting it with Steve Waugh's diffidence in relying on batting part-timers, like himself, Damian Martyn and Darren Lehmann, to fill in the fifth spot.

Yet, in spite of the extravagant reverse swing he, Shoaib Akhtar, Azhar Mahmood and Abdul Razzak were achieving, Wasim left third slip and gully open to his cost.

Had Wasim gone for more early wickets following his first-over removal of Adam Gilchrist, rather than containment, Mark Waugh and Ricky Ponting may not have been able to give the Australians the foundation for their great run chase.

More than once at Headingley, edges that would have been slip catches found third man instead.

It is surprising, and disappointing, that no one has yet been bold enough to follow the Holding dictum. Teams have always been rewarded for their tactical innovations in earlier World Cups.

New Zealand shocked everyone when they opened the bowling with an off- spinner, Dipak Patel, and their batting with the original pinch-hitter Mark Greatbatch, in 1992 and, against all the odds, reached the semi-final.

The Sri Lankans advanced the pinch-hitter policy further in the subcontinent in the 1996 tournament when Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana maximised the field restrictions in the first 15 overs by hoisting the ball over the top. It helped secure them the Cup, against even greater odds than the New Zealanders had been to reach the semis four years earlier.

The spin option as the first-up bowler has not gained much currency since Patel filled the role, although South Africa did use an off-spinner, Pat Symcox, in the role with telling effect against the West Indies in the mini World Cup final in Bangladesh last October, which they won.

The scheduling of this tournament early in the season and the properties of the Dukes white ball scuppered the Sri Lankan 15-overs strategy and opened the ideal opportunity for a daring captain to add a new dimension in one-day cricket with aggressive field placing for his quick bowlers. None has yet stepped forward.

Three times the West Indies have allowed the opposition to recover from stuttering starts virtually to bat through their 50 overs, instead of trying to bowl them out. Pakistan were 42 for 4 in the opener and made 249 although, to be fair, Lara was handicapped by the faulty selection of only three fast bowlers. Bangladesh moved from 55 for 4 in the 23rd over to 182 all out in Dublin and New Zealand were 59 for 4 after 25 overs yesterday and got up to 156 all out in the 49th.

The same sequence can be found with several of the other sides. Yesterday, New Zealand could only win by taking all 10 West Indies wickets. Lara was the key man and they might have snared him off a thick edge off Chris Cairns when he was on 20 but there was not a single slip in sight.

Captains will respond by pointing out that it is all very well for former players to pontificate from the safety of the commentary box without dealing with something unusual when it goes wrong.

But adherence to the conventional would not have carried New Zealand as far as they went in 1992, nor secured Sri Lanka the Cup in 1996. The team that shows the same sense of adventure they did is the one likely to present the most serious challenge to South Africa and Pakistan, who have looked the best equipped to reach the final.