Pageant must be freed from politics' grip

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All hell was breaking loose round the World Cup when the man elected to run cricket tried to insert a note of calm optimism. The event was limping to the starting line while being assailed on all sides by political threats, contract disputes and player power.

All hell was breaking loose round the World Cup when the man elected to run cricket tried to insert a note of calm optimism. The event was limping to the starting line while being assailed on all sides by political threats, contract disputes and player power.

In the midst of this maelstrom, Malcolm Gray, the president of the International Cricket Council, not only stuck his head above the parapet, he did a little song-and-dance act along it. "The World Cup," he said, "is going to be fantastic. When I went to South Africa and saw what they were doing, it changed my attitude completely. This time we are going to see more than just a cricket tournament, we are going to see a world-class sporting event. It will be great for the game and wonderful for Africa."

He may not be right, but it had better be hoped that he is. The game desperately needs this competition to be a triumph of organisation and execution in southern Africa. It needs tough, exciting cricket played in a fair way. It needs large, happy crowds with television audiences to match. It needs stars.

What it will do for Africa is a harder call to make. At least three quarters of the continent will have not the foggiest the competition is taking place. But for those who know and those who care it should, if Gray is only half-correct, add a little lustre to their lives. That is what spectator sport was invented for.

It looks pretty certain now that the eighth World Cup will take place, with the best players in the world playing (as well as, it could be argued, some of the worst to be paraded under an international banner).

That has not been the case for most of the past year. Preparations have gone ahead as normal, but the professional sport has been in uproar. The cases of Zimbabwe and Kenya were late entries to the fray. For much of the cricketing world – Pakistan, India, Namibia, most of Australia – they were never an issue. But once the spark had been ignited it refused to die, and before long there was an unstoppable bush fire of morality, righteousness and political double-speak. In its path was cricket, especially English cricket.

Calls to boycott the Zimbabwean section of the tournament grew more strident. Kenya followed in its wake. Attention should have been drawn much earlier to the terrible dilemma that the game faced by the scheduling of matches in countries with despicable human- rights records. It was only when the attention-seekers emerged from some other cause, and would not let go of this one, that the dilemma became clear.

The disputes over venues diverted the focus from the delicate matter of personal product endorsement and its rich potential for coming into conflict with competition sponsors. It has still not been settled, but the Indian players, who earn millions from individual sponsorship deals, have effectively been granted dispensation to play and sponsor almost at the same time. A good thing, too.

All the time, as the disputes rumbled on, there was the sense that the players intended to flex some muscles; if not now, then soon. International associations have formed and it is clear that the organisation of all future tournaments will have to be arranged using acquiescence rather than command.

The eighth World Cup needs to be a triumph as well because cricket has been through too much since the seventh World Cup. The sport might have got away with the match-fixing scandal – such is the obsession for the game on the sub-continent – but it was scarred by it. Now its greatest festival is being played largely in the country from which hailed its greatest villain.

Too little had been revealed of Hansie Cronje's involvement before his death in a plane crash last year, but nobody had rebuffed the fear that he was in it up to his neck. Now, there is talk of honouring Cronje, the former captain of South Africa, at this tournament. Better for the moment that he be allowed to rest.

The tournament opened last night and will end with the final on 23 March. That means 54 matches in 43 days. It is all too much. There are at least 25 matches which are wholly predictable in their outcome. If there is any other result, the ghost of Cronje will be stalking the tournament. This is because five, perhaps six, of the competing nations are so much weaker than the top eight or nine.

That matters not, in a way. It is surely appropriate that this should be a proper global festival as far as possible. But it is plainly too long. The rest of the world will not exactly run out of puff in the interminable pool stages, but the competition will have to pick up once the minnows are out.

The clear favourites are Australia. Perhaps that is another reason why Gray said it would be a fantastic tournament, since he is Australian. But they have been racked by injuries lately. They have not lost their glitter, because they have kept winning, but nor are they unbeatable.

They are the holders and they would become the only side to win it three times. Injuries debilitate any team, but they debilitate Australia less than others. England tended to forget that the hosts won the recent VB Series without Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie and with a convalescing Shane Warne.

So, Australia would be expected victors, but it would be pleasant, nay it is essential, that they win in the proper manner. There is an unbecoming swagger to them at present that taints their achievements. Their joyful cricket can also be joyless.

South Africa may have timed their run to perfection, having won 11 of their last 13 games. But most of those were against dispirited Pakistani and Sri Lankan teams. The hosts will not quite have forgotten how Australia dismantled them 5-1, pursuing them all round the republic last year. The Super Six match between the two may again be crucial. If they meet after that anything could happen, including something unthinkable like a match being tied after a run-out in the last over.

The dark horse whose jib looked best cut is New Zealand – until they withdrew from their match in Kenya and forfeited the points. Not too much should be read into the manner in which they recently duffed up India at home, but they seem to have planned purposefully for the event. Everything in New Zealand cricket – except for the unfortunate threatened player strike late last year – has been geared to it.

Eventually, the Kiwis are likely to lack sufficient depth – as well as those gimme points, notwithstanding an appeal – and they will have to nursemaid the all-rounder Chris Cairns. However, Stephen Fleming can lay claim to being the smartest captain in the world, and he has the composure of a man eating toast and reading the paper on a Sunday morning.

India are tired out. They will arrive in South Africa on their knees, exhausted from playing far too many games in too many places (40 one-dayers since the start of last year in five different countries). The perennial dispute with their board and the ICC over endorsements and image rights might also have eroded their intensity. But if Fleming is the best captain, Sourav Ganguly is not far behind. The batting will have to see them through, and do not think that Sachin Tendulkar is finished with us yet.

India are capable of beating any opposition. That rider has to be applied in assessing the chances of Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Pakistan have looked grotesque recently, but it is less than a year since they beat Australia in Australia. Discard them at your peril.

Sri Lanka are not quite in that category, but a fit Muttiah Muralitharan can take them further than they or anybody else might think. West Indies are not the force of old, but nor are they the motley mob of more recent years. By beating India in India last year they said much, not least to themselves.

Which leaves dear old England, or dear young England, as the case now is with all these tiro fast bowlers around. It can be stated quite categorically that they will not win the World Cup, and that they will not come close to winning it, and that is not a punt.

It is possible, no more, that they can reach the semi-finals with luck, a following wind, and their best bowler and the top three in the order firing on all cylinders throughout. The pity is that they do not yet know their best team.

The prediction is that Herschelle Gibbs, Chris Gayle, Nathan Astle and Tendulkar will have a big say in the early stages along with bowlers such as Shaun Pollock, Andrew Caddick, Murali and Shoaib Akhtar. But by the late evening on 23 March, after a fantastic competition, expect Ricky Ponting and his canary- clad men to be singing about the Southern Cross once more.