A s-t-r-e-t-c-h too far?

2008-07-04 00:00

THIS was supposed to be solely about tennis, but I have been disgusted by India’s support for Zimbabwe’s continued membership of the ICC. This support is based solely on India’s desire to keep its hands round the throat of the world body. Without Zimbabwe’s vote in its back pocket, India does not quite have the stranglehold to do what it likes with the game that it has hijacked.

By protecting Mugabe’s regime, the Indians have placed their own selfish interests ahead of the millions of Zimbabweans who have been looking for a few shreds of support from a world that has appeared indifferent to that country’s accelerating descent into darkness. Not that our own delegate to the ICC, the dreaded Arendse, has behaved much better. All that CSA has done has been to suspend its “bilateral ties with Zimbabwe”. This does not mean all cricket ties. CSA has made it clear that it considers itself bound by a future tours programme that still includes Zimbabwe.

If Zimbabwe deserves a seat round the table of full members of the ICC, what about the cases that could be made for similar membership of both Ireland and Scotland? In both those countries, cricket is well organised into recognisable structures — in contrast to the shambles up north. Oil has more chance of being found in the middle of Cape Town than India agreeing to full membership for a couple of European countries. They will agree to nothing that would terminate their budding dictatorship of cricket.

India is leading the ICC down a shameful path, along which the weeds of greed flourish and the noble flowers of principle have become entangled amid the rush for gold. In the immediate term, however, a fascinating series awaits us in England. Let us enjoy that to its full without worrying about the uncertain future of cricket as we know it.

In the meantime, Wimbledon has been blessed, thus far, with endless days of sunshine. Last year, the weather was foul and much of the tennis sublime, culminating in a spellbinding men’s final. Even the women’s tennis was intriguing. Little Maria Bartoli, looking as if her taxi had dropped her off in SW19 by mistake, found her way to the final having demolished several of the biggest names in women’s tennis.

This year, however, the sun’s bounty has not shone on a great deal of exciting tennis. The tennis has been bland, apart from a handful of thrilling matches played in conditions of near darkness. One such match involved Andy Murray, who was allowed to incite the crowd to a fever pitch of bloodthirsty excitement at the expense of Richard Gasquet. Poor Gasquet could have been forgiven for imagining that the guillotine was being sharpened under the umpire’s chair, with Murray’s ghastly mother leading the screams for his head.

Watching it all, one was reminded why so few of us support England. The English, with their hideous triumphalism, are the world’s worst winners. They have lost the art of winning gracefully. Perhaps that is what happens to practiced losers. So rare is victory to the Poms that it has become more potent than a cocktail of drugs. If Murray wants to emulate the successes of Federer and Nadal, he must observe not only the excellence of their tennis, but also the gracious manner in which they accept both victory and defeat.

A survivor of the Dunblane massacre in which 15 schoolchildren lost their lives, which may explain both his fighting qualities and bizarre behaviour, Murray is not even English. One could never imagine 10 000 Scots rising to a frenzy of support for an Englishman. Tradition has it that the Scots have always supported two teams — Scotland and whoever was playing against England.

Murray plays a fine game, but the last time I looked, tennis was not a blood sport. Nadal crushed him on the court and showed him how a gentleman behaves on the biggest stage in the sport. The Spaniard is at the top of his game and looks unbeatable on any surface. It would be surprising if he fails to dethrone Federer, assuming always that the reigning champion makes it through the semi-finals. The few weaknesses that were apparent in Nadal’s grass court game last year have been turned into strengths. He is comfortable at net, he has developed a one-handed sliced backhand, his service is stronger and his court craft is now second to none.

After a disappointing fortnight during which the women’s tennis has been pitiful — apart from the Williams sisters and the Bartoli-like performance of the little Chinese wildcard Zheng Jie — this Wimbledon needs a great men’s final. Federer has been off his best all year, but there were signs in his quarter-final against Ancic that he was back at the top of his game. He will need to stay there if he is to extend, let alone overcome, a rampant Nadal. There is clearly more to come from Federer, but not even Sampras or Borg won Wimbledon six times in a row. This may not be his year.

After Wimbledon comes the Lord’s Test — a prospect to savour. Since 1992, South Africa have won all three of their Tests at the home of cricket (before it was transferred to Delhi). A fourth in a row, and a win over the All Blacks, would do wonders for the country’s wobbling morale.

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