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May 03, 1999

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On self destruct...

Harsha Bhogle

While India ponder over and examine their opponents in Group A, like scientists in a research lab might, the real pre-tournament action is actually taking place in Group B.

And at least two of the teams involved would have been very happy not to get the kind of news they have been getting in the last couple of weeks.

 Wasim Akram
First, Pakistan seemed to confirm a widely-held view, and one that I must confess that I have to subscribe to, that the only factor that keeps them together is India. Till they appointed Wasim Akram as captain in the month before they arrived here, they were disjointed, they were torn apart by internal rivalries and the race for the captaincy seemed a bit like the succession battles the Mughals used to have.

The cynics said the NATO forces would be better served being in their dressing rooms than in Kosovo.

They were wrong because all that Pakistan needed to do was to play India and appoint the right captain. They did both and they played some spectacular cricket. In the process, they also showed that they had a passion for the game that was unmatched. Watching them in India and in Sharjah, I thought they were the team to back for the World Cup.

Then they did something spectacularly unexpected. Even by Pakistan cricket standards -- and they tend to embrace the unusual every playing day -- this was the kind of stuff that made you rub your eyes. They appointed a South African as assistant coach and then, asked (or maybe they were forced to ask!) Sarfraz Nawaz to be their fast bowling coach.

I found that staggering. This is a team which has the best new ball bowler in the world, a left hander the like of whom several generations in this game havenít seen. They have the fastest bowler in the world, a raw, passionate young man who doesnít dilute his pace for the one-day game and who is already proving to be too hot for a lot of batsmen. In support, they have Waqar Younis who has lots to prove and they have Azhar Mahmood who is such a talented cricketer and is a player in form.

Without a fast bowling coach, Pakistanís fast bowlers were knocking over England and India. Why then would you appoint a coach at very short notice and for a very short period? Especially someone, who for all his skill as a bowler, has very little respect and credibility in his own country? Now, to show that his appointment was essential, Sarfraz will have to be seen to be doing something and whatever that is, it will rock the ship.

One can, however, understand the need to have the other coach, Richard Pybus. He comes from a country, and a system, where they play cricket in an extremely organised manner, and Pakistan would have thought that he would be able to inject some discipline into what is a richly talented but wayward side. That is fine in theory, but in practice I suspect he would struggle because Pakistan cricket operates within a kind of chaos that works pretty well for them but which is completely unfathomable to someone who comes from another culture.

That is also why, in spite of being given a far longer period to work with, Bobby Simpson is struggling with the Indian team.

 Javed Miandad
Both these appointments, of course, made Javed Miandad see red. Some of the Pakistani players might suggest that it doesnít take too much for him to see the colours of the rainbow, but they could not afford to disillusion Miandad at this stage. He resigned immediately (and I must confess that my first reaction was that this was his old petulance coming up and all that he wanted was for someone else to be removed) and short of having to play without Akram, Pakistan could not have asked for a more serious setback.

And of course, Justice Qayyum immediately followed that up with another request for hearings and cross-examinations and that meant Pakistan cricket was almost back to where it was before they left for their amazingly successful tour of India.

If Pakistan are oscillating between success and turmoil, so are the West Indies, whose spectacular attempts at rediscovering themselves have been given a sock in the eye by Carl Hooperís sudden decision to retire from international cricket. Now, on the cricket circuit, Sir Carl, as he is sometimes referred to in the West Indies, has often been greatly envied for his natural ability. It has also been said, and you might consider that disparaging, that if he had combined intelligence with his talent, he would have been counted among the greatest players of his generation.

 Carl Hooper
But for all his unpredictability, the West Indies needed Hooper. He is clearly their best batsmen after Brian Lara, is the best slow bowler in the team and by far the best slip catcher, a position where he is undeniably world class. And he has been enormously successful for Kent on the English county circuit. His presence gave the West Indies the flexibility of playing the extra bowler or all-rounder. Now, apart from Simmons and Arthurton at numbers six and seven, they must play four full bowlers, none of whom bat too much.

The West Indian drama -- whether in refusing to go to South Africa until the team was paid more, or returning late from Australia -- illustrate the huge problems that confront cricket in that country. Whenever they have had solid, committed leaders, the West Indies have played well. Today, they are full of wayward personalities, with the captain himself being so unpredictable.

Still, they would be satisfied with the 2-2 result in the Test matches against Australia, even though it was really Lara, Walsh and Ambrose versus Australia. They would be happier though with the 3-3 result in the one-dayers against a team that counts itself among the front-runners for the World Cup. It would be interesting, though, to see what Australia make of that result. I suspect they will be very disappointed and more than just a bit concerned with some aspects of their cricket.

On paper, their batting looks very good though it has crumbled a little too often for comfort; and Australia would be hoping that the enormous experience of English conditions that the batting-order packs in would prevent similar occurrences at the World Cup. Their fielding is sensational, but take Glenn McGrath out of their bowling and suddenly they look an ordinary attack.

Damien Fleming gets the odd break-through and hopefully, Paul Reiffel will bowl better in England. Shane Warne has produced some decent figures in recent times but he isnít yet the bowler he was before the operation. And the support cast of Shane Lee, Tom Moody, Brendon Julian, Damien Martyn and Steve Waugh would seem to be inadequate against batsmen who are well set.

But with McGrath around, they get ten very good overs and the batsmen are forced to take chances elsewhere. That is why Fleming bowls so much better when McGrath is at the other end. And the other bowlers suddenly seem to acquire more teeth. In fact, he is to the Australian bowling what Tendulkar is to the Indian batting, and given that he doesnít seem too far away from injury, Australia must think they are a wicket-taking bowler short.

You would have to back Australia, Pakistan and the West Indies to qualify from Group B because the only real challenger is New Zealand. But they donít seem anywhere near as good overseas as they are at home.

Oops, that sounded a bit like India didnít it !

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