The first two weeks of the World Cup saw some exciting action, but apart from Australia no sure qualifier for the Super Six has been spotted.
THE big fast bowler thundered down, the intrepid batsman made room and smashed the delivery over point for the maximum. Mervyn Dillon simmered with rage, John Davison smiled.
Down on his luck in Australia, the country of his birth, and now sporting the Canadian colours, Davison was making a significant statement at the Centurion. That the game is not all about the superstars, the Laras, the Tendulkars and the Warnes. Indeed, even as Brian Lara watched from the slip cordon, Davison, in an extraordinary display of batting that had both the Aussie aggression and the Caribbean flair, smashed his way to a 67-ball century, the quickest in World Cup history.
If limited-overs cricket is about gathering runs at a hectic pace, then the record for the fastest hundred in the competition has to be a prized one. And it had now gone to someone from Canada, the minnows.
Not to speak of the little-known leg-spinner Collins Obuya, who bowled Kenya to a sensational 53-run victory over the mighty Sri Lankans in Nairobi to throw `Group B' wide open or the Namibians who gave the Englishmen a real scare at Port Elizabeth.
This is the great charm of the competition; in this stage, there are times when everybody is an equal. The glamour boys and the unsung heroes are all together in the World Cup canvas, the class barrier seemingly invisible.
While there might still be room for old-fashioned beliefs and values on the field, the World Cup itself has been hijacked by big bucks, with the money sharks now having a vice-like grip on the tournament.
The Indian side has already been consumed by this crass commercialism. Even in the short break between the New Zealand tour and the World Cup, Indian cricketers were busy fulfilling the obligations towards their sponsors. The greed for money has forced the players into too much cricket over the year, which, apart from leaving many of them tired and jaded, has taken some gloss off the competition.
When cricket fans watch, on television, the top sides facing off every other day, the World Cup appears a mere extension of those battles. Meaningless one-day contests have certainly managed to dilute the premier one-day competition, despite all the hype and hoopla that often turn ordinary performances into extraordinary achievements.
THE controversy over the venue, with England and New Zealand refusing to travel to Zimbabwe and Kenya, clearly put the International Cricket Council (ICC) in the dock. This was an issue that should have been sorted out months ago, given the importance of the event. However, by delaying a decision, it became clear that the game's governing body was banking on brinkmanship to produce a solution.
While it was the moral issue of playing in strife-torn Zimbabwe, under President Robert Mugabe's regime, that prevented Nasser Hussain's men from proceeding to Harare, security concerns in Kenya were paramount in the minds of the Kiwis. The ICC ruling meant that both sides had to forfeit four points, cricket being the biggest loser.
TWO weeks into the World Cup, the Australians, the defending champions, appeared awesome, crushing both Pakistan and India. The shock of watching Shane Warne flying home in disgrace after testing positive for a masking agent, on the eve of the crucial `Group A' match against Pakistan, could have left the side's morale in tatters.
Worse, the team was in trouble, reduced to 86 for four in Johannesburg, with the much-vaunted Pakistani pace attack firing full blast. This is where the character of the side shone through.
The feature of Australia is that in moments of distress, there invariably is someone who puts his hand up and tells his captain, "I'll get the job done, skipper" - a quality that separates a supremely successful outfit from a merely good one.
This time Andrew Symonds pulled the chestnuts out of the fire for Australia, with a booming 125-ball 143. There was a hole in Australia's middle-order with Michael Bevan nursing an injury. However, Symonds, whose indifferent form meant he was only the 15th choice in the side, decided to take the bull by its horns.
Symonds, who spurned the chance to represent England to pursue a greater dream, excelling for Australia, had to wait for 55 ODIs to register his maiden hundred, and he achieved that with bludgeoning strokes.
The Pakistanis had blundered by leaving out the quality off-spinner Saqlain Mushtaq, who could have seized control in the middle-overs - it was at this stage that the game got away from them - after the pacemen achieved the early breakthroughs. Australian players' weakness against probing off-spin is well-known, and why the Pakistani think-tank decided to keep Saqlain on the sidelines will remain a mystery.
THE West Indian strategy of packing the side with seven batsman and the hard-hitting wicket-keeper batsman Ridley Jacobs, with room for just three specialist bowlers is a double-edged ploy, and if Plan `A' goes wrong, there might not be enough bowlers in place for `Plan B'. What if one of the specialist bowlers has an off-day? The Caribbeans are walking on thin ice here.
The move paid off against South Africa in that humdinger in Cape Town, Brian Lara announcing his return to big-time cricket with a 116 laced with spectacular strokes, and the rest of the middle-order batsmen, including the explosive Ricardo Powell, making valuable contributions.
However, even in this duel, the tournament opener, Lance Klusener, striking the ball with brute power, almost won the game for the Proteas, only three runs separating the sides in the end.
The West Indian team management has been extremely conservative; the quickest bowler in its ranks, Jermaine Lawson, who ripped through the Indian top and middle order in the deciding game in Vijayawada of the seven-match series, has not found a place, nor has Marlon Samuels, one of the most exciting batting talents in contemporary cricket.
The South Africans could have done with a bowler of Lawson's speed, with Allan Donald on a rapid downhill curve. This once great bowler appeared a shadow of his former self and it was a mistake that he was selected at all.
The Proteas are not jelling as a unit, and there are voices of dissent in the side, with that maverick opener Herschelle Gibbs singing praises of the disgraced late skipper Hansie Cronje. Gibbs' public criticism of Shaun Pollock's captaincy did not go too well with South African establishment though.
The fact that he dismissed the Kiwi attack ruthlessly to rattle up a 141-ball 143 in Johannesburg and still finished on the losing side might have left Gibbs angry. But then, it was a night when New Zealand captain Stephen Fleming played out of his skin in a `death or glory' situation for his side, in pursuit of 306, that after a rain interruption, was reduced to 226.
Fleming's unbeaten 134 contained 21 sizzling boundaries, with the left-hander cutting, pulling, flicking and driving as if there was no tomorrow. He punished the slightest errors in length and line, lighting up the arena. He may have been put down at 53 by wicket-keeper Mark Boucher, but this is a game where you make your own luck, and with the captain showing the way, the Kiwis outgunned the Proteas by nine wickets.
The absence of the Jonty Rhodes denied the South Africans a figure who could have lifted the side on the field, and the injury he sustained while diving in a bid to snaffle Kenya's Maurice Odumbe not only ruled this great fielder out of the remaining matches but could have, sadly, signalled the end of an illustrious career. As a supreme entertainer, who put a smile on many faces, he will be missed.
Another prime crowd-puller, Sri Lankan captain Sanath Jayasuriya, smashed a 125-ball 120 at the expense of the Kiwis at Bloemfontein, a match-winning effort. The Sri Lankans have burned mid-night oil to formulate their strategy, which was evident in the promotion of tenacious Hashan Tillekeratne to the No 3. slot. In a side of strokemakers, a stone-waller is of much value, but even he could not rescue Lanka during that gripping encounter at the Nairobi Gymkhana.
Left-arm paceman Chaminda Vaas has been outstanding, firing out three Bangladesh batsmen off the first three balls of the match in Pietermaritzburg, a feat unprecedented in ODIs, and picking up a fourth in the same over. The Sri Lanakan pace trio of Vaas, Prabhath Nissanka and Dilhara Fernando, blew away the hapless Canadians in Paarl for 36, the lowest score in ODIs. Vaas has been an exemplary performer for Sri Lanka over the years, pitching the ball up allowing it to swing both ways. He was superb against the Kiwis too.
The Kiwis bounced back from the depressing defeat at the hands of the Sri Lankans, displaying their typical efficiency and planning. The run-out of Brian Lara being a fine example of how the New Zealanders worked at their game. Lara flicked Andre Adams to the mid-wicket boundary and set out for a third run, only to find Lou Vincent, having made a sliding stop, relaying the ball to Chris Cairns at cover, who found the mark, with the Caribbean caught out for two. This was the turning point of the game in Port Elizabeth.
It was a breathtaking piece of action, but what is not known to many is that the Kiwis must have rehearsed the relay throw at least a thousand times during practice sessions. It was a must-win situation for the spirited Kiwis, defending a modest 241, and they managed to pull it off. A side of committed performers, the Kiwis possess several useful cricketers such as Scott Styris, whose 125-ball 141 against the Sri Lankans was as brave as they come, even in a losing cause.
The Kiwis have also shown a refreshing flexibility in thinking. The move to give the new ball to Andre Adams who, using his strong shoulder, hits the deck harder than Darryl Tuffey, added an element of pace and aggression to the attack. The `out-of-sorts' Craig McMillan's promotion as an opener against the Proteas was a marginal success, even if the attacking batsman was still struggling to find his timing. The point is that the New Zealanders are not static in their strategy.
THE Indian think tank promoted Sachin Tendulkar as an opener. However, the side surrendered meekly against Australia, while the wins over minnows Holland and Namibia, and a troubled Zimbabwe with a toothless attack, do not count for much. The key games for India will be against England and Pakistan, and this is where one can have a clear look at the character of the side... how much it has recovered mentally after the pounding by Australia.
Zaheer Khan and a rejuvenated Javagal Srinath have been on target for India, while Tendulkar went past Javed Miandad's 1,083 for the highest run aggregate in the World Cup. The Indians will have to pull together collectively as a team. If the Cup has to be won, it has to be for Team India - all the players, not any one individual.
Wasim Akram, Pakistan's 36-year-old pace bowler, earned his record 34th World Cup cap, leaving behind Javed Miandad and Steve Waugh. He became the first bowler to scalp more than 50 in the competiton, and at the time of writing was on 499 ODI wickets, the unsurpassed 500-mark only a whisker away. He is strong, wily and dangerous.
Shoaib Akhtar made the headlines when he broke the 100-mile barrier, sending down a delivery at a whopping 161.3 kmph against England in Cape Town. However, the Pakistani bowling let both Australia and England off the hook - Waqar Younis' captaincy appears pre-determined - and the batting, where key man Yousuf Youhana is not exactly middling the ball, has been found out against the moving ball.
Indeed, 20-year-old James Anderson had a wonderful time in Cape Town, operating at a lively speed and bamboozling the Pakistanis with his outswingers. His four for 29 sliced open the top and middleorder. The Burnley boy was called in as reinforcement to an injury-hit English side Down Under this season and has grabbed the chance, swinging the ball away and testing the batsmen in the corridor. In the absence of the inspirational Darren Gough, the unsung Anderson has the spotlight on him.
The English batting relies on the top three - Marcus Trescothick, Nick Knight and Michael Vaughan - and the line-up does appear a bit fragile, even if Paul Collingwood in the middle order has shown the heart for battle.
NOW to Zimbabwe. Despite Craig Wishart's rollicking 172 not out, where he destroyed the Namibian attack, the team bears little resemblance to the fighting unit it once was; it is obvious that the volatile political and economic situation at home has distracted the cricketers. Andy Flower and Henry Olonga wore black arm-bands during the Namibia game to protest against the crushing of democracy in the country, and the Zimbabwe Cricket Union did not like this one bit. The otherwise reliable Andy's reckless ways with the willow against India reveals the state of mind he is in. It was a sad sight.
Among the minnows, Kenya stole the thunder, Canada and Namibia had their moments, while Bangladesh, a Test-playing nation, stood exposed.
Among other things, the one-bouncer-an-over rule has acted as a deterrent to the pinch-hitters. While the surfaces have mostly played true, there is some help for the pacemen in the early stages of the match and under lights, when the conditions become humid. As the pitches wear out, the spinners could assume a more prominent role.
Some of the action in the first two weeks was engrossing. However, apart from Australia, another sure qualifier for the `Super Six' had still not been spotted. Things should hot up in the busy days ahead.