At last, the day of final reckoning has arrived

2011-03-19 00:00

AT last the formalities have been completed and the festivities can begin. At last the chips are down and the wheel is turning. Finally the lesser teams have been eliminated and the tournament has reached the knock-out stages. The day of reckoning has arrived.

Let’s focus first on the departing.

Zimbabwe were disappointing. Their cricket lacked pizzazz and the batting lacked authority. Even the Canadians, Irish and Kenyans had their moments, producing brilliant innings and stunning hours. Zimbabwe never quite came to life. Somehow they were trapped between the optimism of the Associates and the professionalism of the Test nations. Likewise, few of the players have left youth behind and accepted seniority and all that goes with it. They’ve been around a while and its time to step up.

It’s all very well complaining about a lack of Test cricket but the players have to earn the right to sit at the highest table. Zimbabwe will play a few comeback Tests this year but on this evidence it is premature. Amongst the incumbents only Ray Price caught the eye. For the rest its time to start delivering.

Ireland put up a fight in every match and might have reached the next stage but for a poor decision at a crucial moment against the West Indies given by Asoka De Silva. That the umpire was subsequently demoted was no consolation. Still, they did beat England and overall they came across as an intelligent and seasoned outfit.

Canada played some inspired cricket against Australia and also managed to subdue the Kenyans. The Clover Leaf mob dared to ditch ageing imports and to select a young side, most of whom were born locally and speak with Canadian accents. Hiral Patel, the clattering teenage opener, and both new ball bowlers and Ashish Bagai, the team’s composed and capable captain and keeper/batsman, caught the eye.

At first glance the Canadian side might seem to consist entirely of expatriate Indians. In fact Canada and their cricket are rising because the country is eager to attract skilled labour. Some of the 40 Zimbabweans under my wing had hoped to take their skills to Australia or New Zealand only to be pushed away by insincere governments and rude officials in Pretoria. Contrastingly Canada has put out the welcome mat.

Like the Canadians, the Kenyans improved as the tournament went along. Like them they lack exposure in county cricket and took time to settle. Kenya batted boldly against the Aussies, with Collins Obuya and Tanmay Mishra scoring heavily, but otherwise fell short of expectations.

Kenyan reporters indicated that the game has fallen back in their country due partly to complacency setting in after they reached the semi-finals in 2003 and partly because football and athletics continue to dominate. It’s not easy for a slow and expensive game like cricket to get established, but that does not mean it’s impossible.

People keep saying Africa is not interested in cricket. But they kept saying that Africans cannot play a half-back or golf or tennis or write novels or run the most powerful nation in the world and on each occasion they had to eat their words. It’s utter nonsense to suggest that locals are not keen on cricket. After all it is growing in Zimbabwe. Just that it’s new in most places, and those responsible have not been trying hard enough. And that also applies in this country.

By the time this paper hits the stands other teams will also be lying groggy on the canvass, including England or Bangladesh. Hopefully the Banglas will survive because they have played their part in staging an unexpectedly vibrant World Cup. Certainly this Cup has outstripped the dismal instalments played in recent years. To my mind the last CWC to attract as much enthusiasm was the 1987 version staged hereabouts. Cheap tickets and the cheerful mood in the grounds have helped.

Over the last fortnight I’ve attended games in India and Sri Lanka and watched matches in Dhaka and Chittagong on TV. In almost every case the atmosphere has been lively. Fifteen thousand people turned up to watch Australia play Kenya whilst Pakistan and Zimbabwe exchanged blows before a packed house in Kandy.

None of the favourites looks invincible. India’s batting inspires more fear than any other part of any other team but their bowling and fielding remain dubious. Australia’s pace bowling is unreliable and their spin department is unthreatening. Pakistan are handy and Umar Gul has been bowling superbly. West Indies can cause upsets but surely they cannot become champions? Sri Lanka have not yet produced their best form.

South Africa? Something is still missing, a certain spark. But, then, for the senior sides the CWC starts this week. In a few days it’ll be much easier to predict which country is going to last the course.

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