One dodgy exhibition can mean an early exit

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The Independent Online

It is an old-fashioned kind of pitch at the Nairobi Gymkhana ground, the sort that has become unfamiliar but which one-day cricket was made to be played on. Heartbreaking for bowlers, that is. Gymkhana has all the necessary ingredients for the scoring of runs: a flat, bouncy pitch, short boundaries, a fast, well-tended outfield. All the bowler can do is try various ways to stop the batsmen from scoring, hitting the right length regularly and employing the odd variation.

It is an old-fashioned kind of pitch at the Nairobi Gymkhana ground, the sort that has become unfamiliar but which one-day cricket was made to be played on. Heartbreaking for bowlers, that is. Gymkhana has all the necessary ingredients for the scoring of runs: a flat, bouncy pitch, short boundaries, a fast, well-tended outfield. All the bowler can do is try various ways to stop the batsmen from scoring, hitting the right length regularly and employing the odd variation.

Variation is crucial. My approach is largely what it always has been, but I have added a slower ball and an off-cutter to the armoury. Used sparingly, the batsmen cannot be sure when they might come. It is all the bowlers can do.

This is something to which we had once become accustomed: spectators want runs in limited- overs games. Lately, it has not always been the case. Last winter in the South African triangular series many pitches were not conducive to unfettered strokeplay, in England in the summer just past there were not many free-flowing scores in the NatWest Series.

This ICC Knockout is back to the old days. There are plenty of runs yet to come at the Gymkhana stadium where all the matches are being played. England might not have known quite what to expect when they arrived in Kenya, but this is not simply another one-day trophy. The winners will take a minimum of US$340,000 in prize money (it would be $370,000 - about £254,000 - for England, having won a preliminary-round match), more than for the World Cup.

Crowds so far seem to have been around the 1,500 mark in a ground holding 7,000. But the word is that the latter stages will bring in much greater attendances. It is an intimate ground, rather like those found in the West Indies, and is impeccably kept. Why, for size and ability to drain the lifeblood from bowlers, it could be Taunton.

We survived our first match intact. Bangladesh, the most recent recruits to full membership of the ICC (they play their first Test match in January), were obviously second favourites, but they had the slight advantage of having played here before. The eight-wicket win was eventually extremely comfortable, but we are aware that it was not a perfect performance. Our fielding, so well-honed lately, let us down. Catches were dropped and we probably allowed 30 extra runs. Perhaps the speed of the outfield took us by surprise - most of our practice having been done on much bumpier surfaces - but it is a facet of our game we will have to rectify quickly. In a knockout competition, one dodgy exhibition can mean an early exit.

The bowlers all did pretty well. We work effectively together now, and though it will not be easy on this pitch there is a lot of experience. The match gave a chance to our captain, Nasser Hussain, to return to form, and how he did! The trouble with winning by such a large margin, of course, is that too few of the batsmen get time in the middle. Some of them will be going in cold. Still, you can't have everything.

And South Africa, who we meet in the quarter-final on Tuesday, have not yet played. But if they might be slightly cold they will also be, with no disrespect, stronger opponents than Bangladesh. It could be a high-scoring match in which the vital saving of a two here or a single there will make the difference.

The last time England played South Africa was at the Wanderers in Johannesburg last February, the final of the winter triangular series. We had them at 23 for 5 early in the match and somehow still lost. They have had one big change of personnel since then. Their innings that night was salvaged by their captain, Hansie Cronje, who scored a painstaking 50. It was to be his last home match for his country. Shortly afterwards he was enveloped by the match-rigging and bribery allegations which have ended hisinternational career.

So inextricably linked was Cronje to his team, his departure might have been expected to have an harmful effect. Not so. In Tests and one-dayers South Africa have remained powerful. Shaun Pollock, Cronje's successor, has proved himself a strong leader who has swiftly got his men behind him. It is as though Cronje was never there.

Their cast of all-rounders is well known, starting with Jacques Kallis and ending with Lance Klusener, and their batting has hardly been weakened by the surprising return of Daryll Cullinan after announcing his retirement from the one-day game.

South Africa, then, will be no pushovers. But England know their game and have made such advances that the opposition will be worrying as much about us. On the day, one-dayers can go any way, but England are now more complete in every area of the game. No silly forecasts, no casual expectation, but England have a chance of winning this ICC Knockout to set ourselves up for the long winter ahead.

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