Cricket World Cup : Wondrous India enrich the carnival

England's loss is the World Cup's gain as Azharuddin's merry band of batsmen seize the chance to delight their fanatical support
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IF THE demise of the World Cup hosts is a matter for regret, how great would have been the loss to the tournament had India gone out instead of England? Should we really mourn the passing of Darren Gough or Nasser Hussain when it might have been Rahul Dravid, Saurav Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar?

To that, the partial might take exception but for the aesthete there is no argument. Those three musketeers - with their D'Artagnan, Mohammed Azharuddin - represent the most sumptuous batting line-up in the competition. The World Cup, they keep telling us, is a carnival of cricket and bowlers do not a carnival make.

Pinned down by a mean England attack, with the ball moving even in the high heat of Saturday, their impact may have been limited in this match but they had already brought wonder to the tournament. All of the centuries of the World Cup so far have been shared by that illustrious threesome - two by Dravid, one each for Ganguly and Tendulkar. Had the upstarts of Zimbabwe forced them out, rather than England, would it not have been a deeper blow?

Here at Edgbaston yesterday, Azharuddin accepted handshakes and backslaps from those most grateful for India's survival and reflected with a smile born of satisfaction and relief. Azhar has played in more one-day internationals than any cricketer in history and, on Saturday, became the only batsman to exceed 9,000 runs in that form of cricket. Yet it has not made him immune to the fiercest criticism from some sections of an Indian press in which he has engaged, even since the World Cup began, in a bitter war of words.

They see him as a captain who is not supportive, assertive or demonstrative enough, even though he is entrusted with leading India in a World Cup for the third time. He sees their carping as damaging to Indian morale. If India fail to reach the semi-finals - and they have their work cut out with no points to carry forward - his second term of office may end rapidly. But after the ignominy of 1996, when he lost the captaincy over tactics and India lost the semi-final with Sri Lanka by default after crowd trouble in Calcutta, he is driven by the desire to prove his detractors wrong and repeat India's triumph on English soil of 1983. "It has never clicked for me at a World Cup and that hurts," he said before the tournament.

Yesterday he was not underestimating the task his side faces. "If we are to win the tournament from here we will probably have to win every match," he said. "We expected stronger resistance in this match. We thought we were 30-40 runs short but then again I thought we batted well, bowled well and fielded well. Everyone did his bit."

Doubts did and still exist over India's bowling but three wickets for Ganguly's wobblers and the impact of the 23-year-old Debashish Mohanty, coached by Dennis Lillee to add outswing to his repertoire, has raised Azharuddin's optimism. "We always thought Mohanty was going to be very useful," he said. "He swings the ball both ways."

Apart from the quality of their players, India have brought tremendous colour to the tournament through their massive support, which outnumbered England's at Edgbaston to a degree that can hardly have helped the host team. Even on Saturday, with 20,500 squeezed in, there were few flags of St George to compete with thousands of Indian tricolours. Yesterday, hardly an Englishman bothered to turn up.

The meeting with Pakistan at Old Trafford on Tuesday week, bringing together arguably the best attack against the most gifted batsmen, promises to be memorable for all sorts of reasons, political tensions included, and not least for noise levels an English Test ground rarely hears.