AS expected, the league phase of the Wills World Cup did not throw up any surprises in terms of the qualifiers for the knock-out phase. As I had mentioned in one of my earlier columns, the minnows—the United Arab Emirates, the Netherlands and Kenya—were clearly out of their depth among the established sides. Kenya, of course, pulled off a stunning win against the West Indies, whose performance was clearly affected by internal problems. I felt sad for the West Indians who have been such a great influence on cricket and cricketers around the world. Perhaps, this was the jolt they needed to get back on their feet. Like they did against the Australians whom they beat quite convincingly, though the victory was achieved at the very end of the game. At least the Windies showed that they cannot be written off at any stage and I believe that they have too much stuff and class in them to allow anyone to bog them down.
The preliminary league phase also showed that spinners can play a dominant role in modern one-day cricket. Almost all the teams had a couple of good tweakers in them and it was hardly a surprise that given the sort of pitches available in the Asian subcontinent, the slow bowlers made a mark.
In this context, I was shocked that India went into the New Delhi game against the Sri Lankans with as many as four pace bowlers and just one specialist spinner. It was a great folly on the part of the Indian think-tank which was evidenced by the fact that skipper Azharuddin finally asked Sachin Tendulkar and Manoj Prabhakar to bowl slow off-breaks. I hope that the Indians have learnt a lesson or two from these mistakes.
Of course, by the time you read this piece, the two finalists will have been decided, but, then, one cannot overlook certain happenings during the league phase which could prove useful pointers to the future.
South Africa have shown that one-day cricket is not all about batting and bowling, but that fielding can lift a side as much as a big score or a bagful of wickets. In fact, I rate the South African performance as the best overall among all the 12 teams that took part in the league matches. Yes, there is a theory that the South Africans are not very hot on playing spin, but they wonderfully countered the leg-spin of Mushtaq Ahmed by using the sweep shot to good effect.
It only goes to show what some systematic planning and homework can do. As far as I am concerned, it matters little whether South Africa can go on to win the Cup or will bow out earlier than the final round. But they have already contributed a great deal to the world of cricket by their superb fielding and highly professional approach and attitude to the game. One can speak of the Australians in the same breath. That the Aussies are a more experienced side might take them far, but, as regards going about their job professionally and with great commitment they have no peers.
The Sri Lankan performance, too, was an eyeopener. It was abundantly clear that they went about their task with great determination and if they wanted to prove a point or two to some of the better known teams, like the West Indies and the Australians, then they succeeded. Whether or not the Sri Lankans go further than the quarter finals, I am certain they will be treated with far more respect as cricketers and I, for one, will not be surprised if we get to hear more from these wonderful and gifted cricketers from the Emerald Isles. I think no praise would be too high for the Sri Lankan team.
Of the minnows, I rate Kenya as the team that needs to be closely watched in the post-World Cup period. I would wager a bet that the Kenyans will come with a far superior side for the next edition of the event. They reminded me of the West Indians of old, with their sunny disposition and deceptively carefree style of play. I thought for a minute when watching the Kenyans celebrate their win against the West Indies in Pune that they had won the Cup itself. I appreciate the happiness that the Kenyans felt, like we did when we beat the Caribbeans in the 1983 World Cup. Of course, the occasion was different, but the feeling could not have been much different.
The Dutch and the UAE have a long way to go. I cannot see either of these sides making much of an impact, at least not as much as the Kenyans would, in the near future. I think for any nation to come up, it must have a strong structure, especially at the lower levels which will not only support the main team, but also throw up talent regularly. I am not aware of any such elaborate system either in Holland or the UAE. But the Kenyans certainly have a strong base which will produce some topnotch cricketers in the future.