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India was the team of the week

By Peter Roebuck
February 28, 2003 11:42 IST
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At last the underdogs have barked. Admittedly, the Australians march on, an apparently unstoppable force. Otherwise, this has been the week of the outsider, the whipping boys brought into the tournament by a game determined to grow.

Upsets are few are far between in cricket because it relies on the individual. Organisation is not enough to carry a day. Soccer is altogether more democratic because defences can be packed and space denied. Adam Gilchrist, Brett Lee and company cannot so easily be contained. Accordingly, minnows are routinely thrashed and sent home to lick their wounds. In this regard cricket is more akin to boxing or squash. Much to their embarrassment teams have been bowled out for under 40. It had been happening for a fortnight and there was no end in sight apart from the merciful release of elimination.

Nothing much was expected from the Kenyans. Plain as day they were the weakest of the four African teams in the competition. Most of their players have been around a long time and seemed to be called Otieno or Tikolo. South Africa beat them by 10 wickets in hot Potch, where the Aussies have spent so much of their time. Sri Lanka had been the hottest team in the competition and went to Nairobi to collect the points needed to take them into the next round. Doubtless, they expected to find the home team down in the dumps. They were in for the rudest of shocks.

Everyone has seen surprises in sport; alongside greatness, it is the valour of the outsider that keeps the spirit alive. Often these upsets follow the same pattern, a complacent favourite going through the motions, falling into difficulty and unable to escape. Despite Murali taking four wickets, Kenya passed 200, whereupon the visitors' innings was a sorry affair. Witnesses scorn the idea that the Lankans were not trying, pointing out that Aravinda De Silva, their most senior batsman, put his head down and produced the top score. Rather the favourites lost wickets and froze. Suddenly a good length ball from an otherwise amiable trundler becomes a potent delivery. Suddenly batsmen dare not take risks for the awful thought has dawned and it will not go away. On a warm African afternoon, Sri Lanka saw its hopes of World Cup glory shrivel. Afterwards, Jayasuriya blasted his players, calling them amateurs, though unpaid contemporaries may not appreciate the comparison. Meanwhile, the Kenyans did a lap of honour.

Next morning, numerous cricketing bigwigs passed some idle hours at Bulawayo airport trying to work out the tables. Tony Greig and Mark Taylor produced numerous scenarios and convinced your correspondent, whose head was spinning, that Kenya still could not reach the last six. Doubtless, Kenyan heads were not so much spinning as sore.

Jon Davison was the other hero of the week. Until he joined the Canadian squad for this tournament few realised that this travelling cricketer had a maple leaf upon his passport. Davison has spent his sporting life moving around Australia, bowling flighted off-spinners that bounce and occasionally change direction. No one thinks much of off-spinners Down Under. In the national psyche they sit alongside drinkers of sherry. Although Davison scored a stylish 30 now and then his batting was not taken all that seriously either. Rather he served as a willing night-watchman, hardly the type to march out to bat against the West Indies and score the fastest hundred in the history of World Cup finals.

Davison's epic began with a few strong blows against a West Indian attack that started slowly. Realising their mistake and insulted by this temerity, the West Indians began to bowl faster and shorter whereupon Davison rode his luck with a succession of violent pulls. Line and length went out of the window and common sense followed as this long-haired troubadour scored a hundred in 63 deliveries. Alas, his dismissal to an athletic catch on the boundary led to a collapse that let the West Indians off the hook. Still, a previously humdrum cricketer had touched God for a day!

Otherwise, India was the team of the week and Ashish Nehra the best bowler. Those arriving early at Kingsmead saw Nehra undergoing a long fitness test with his laconic coach John Wright. In a previous match against Namibia he had fallen flat on his face whilst sending down his opening salvo, and had been assisted from the field. On this rowdy evening in Durban he produced the spell of his life, ten overs of fast left-armers delivered with a high arm and landing on a length that alarmed his opponents.

Javagal Srinath was almost as good and not nearly as well rewarded whilst Zaheer Khan again bowled like a warrior charging at British guns in Lucknow. Amongst the Englishmen, only Andrew Flintoff was remotely as impressive, and he was superb with bat and ball.

Afterwards there was much talk of the toss, and dew arriving at dusk, but these were distractions. Sachin Tendulkar had set the tone for the match with a masterful innings and Indian did not loosen its grip. Between overs five and 15 Tendulkar gave an exhibition of batting, the like of which has seldom been seen. Sourav Ganguly captained better than he bowled, which was not all that hard a task. India remains weak in a couple of positions and the balance of the side is not quite right. Give them Flintoff and they'd reach the final.

Tendulkar was measured and majestic throughout but Lara was not far behind. Unfortunately, the other great batsman of the era is twiddling his thumbs. Whereas the Bombayite is a mighty force armed with a broadsword, the Trinidadian is a creative genius who uses an epee to cut his opponents to shreds. West Indies' match against Bangladesh was a victim of the weather and those lost points might yet deny Lara his place in the next round. Cricket followers must hope that these great batsman meet upon the field this month because these heights cannot be sustained, not even by a Bradman.

Amongst the Pakistanis, only Wasim Akram has shown intent. They will not be missed. Despite losing to India, England might scrape into the last six. Their pathetic maneuvering over Zimbabwe counts against them. Opposition supporters were planning to put their cars in queues at petrol stations on the day of the match, a peaceful protest drawing attention to the plight of a betrayed nation. Meanwhile, English commentators and hacks were putting on a grand show of supposed principle. Their silence during the massacres of the Ndebele and Tamils in the 1980s now counts against them. Presumably they also count.

Andy Flower had another hard week. After a cautious display against a rejuvenated Indian attack, he was carpeted by the team management and censured by a Board furious at his continuing but subtly changing protest. Senior figures on a highly politicised body wanted the selectors to discipline their best batsman but were told that such matters must be decided by the Board itself whereupon those same officials hastily withdrew. Furious about this interference, some of Flower's colleagues intended to stand by their man. Not that all Zimbabwean players think cricket fields are the right places to make political points. They may, though, be amongst the safest.

Australia played with understated efficiency in Bulawayo in a performance that was more impressive in hindsight. Ricky Ponting's team will sail into the semis. Everyone else is desperately trying to last another week.

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Peter Roebuck