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May 6, 1999

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Cricket comes of age

If ever a sport needed reminding that the new millennium is just around the corner it's cricket.

With a mountain of history and tradition behind it, cricket still evokes scenes of genteel games on village greens, punctuated by ripples of applause and shouts of "good show'', "well played.''

This cricket World Cup will change all that.

The last international cricket championship of this millennium could blast away much of the historical folklore of the game and drag it into the next century.

Whichever of the 12 teams wins the World Cup final at Lord's on June 20 isn't necessarily the best team on the planet. But it will prove to be the strongest in terms of commitment and will to win at the end of a five-week tournament which will bring out the best and the worst in players and fans.

Bowlers will growl at batsmen, national pride allied to blatant intimidation will overwhelm the well-meaning policy of fair play. There could even be cries of "cheat''.

Cricket is going through a dark spell right now and badly needs to improve its image.

The finely-poised one-day series between the Windies and Australia exploded into frightening scenes last month when local fans, angered when an Australian bowler deliberately obstructed a Windies batter, threw scores of bottles into the field.

And the other worrying aspect was that the incident followed a similar on-field clash the game before when hundreds of fans ran into the field before the match had actually ended.

Allegations of bribery abound in the game and some have been aimed at a current member of the Pakistan team, Salim Malik. The accusations came from big-name Australians, including Mark Waugh and leg-spin star Shane Warne and are still being investigated while the same two Australians were punished by their cricket board for breaking the rules by giving information to a betting company.

Sri Lanka defends the title even though the administration back home is in disarray. A court in Colombo suspended the country's cricket board because of feuding officials but later lifted the suspension so that the team could travel to England to defend its title.

The nation's star bowler, Muttiah Muralitharan, has to carry the stigma of being branded a thrower by Australian umpire Darrell Hair even though the International Cricket Council has cleared his bowling action as fair.

The English team is going through a depressing spell of form, losing seven one-day games in a row in the buildup to the championship, yet the players feel they aren't being paid enough by the English Cricket Board.

Alec Stewart, who still has to carry the burden of captain, opener and wicket-keeper, hopes that star players such as fast bowler Darren Gough and one-day specialists Neil Fairbrother and Graeme Hick, will win the title and prove they were right.

The Windies, two time winners of the trophy, are recovering from a major slide. A first ever 5-0 thrashing in a series by South Africa was followed by a 2-2 tie with the Australians on home soil with team captain Brian Lara sparking a fightback with some typically attacking strokeplay which included match-winning scores of 213 and 153 not out.

But Lara has lost one of his most experienced players, middle-order batsman and spin bowler Carl Hooper, who has decided to retire. The Windies have replaced Hooper with an untried 20-year-old Ricardo Powell, and still rely on the fast bowling prowess of the aging Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh.

India's form at Test level has been disappointing but Mohammed Azharuddin's team, which also includes another batting genius, Sachin Tendulkar and mesmerising spin bowler Anil Kumble, is always dangerous in one-day competitions. A victory here will spark national celebrations.

The Australians will be out to underline that they are strong at all levels of cricket. With many of them used to English conditions, having played here for the counties as well as on tour, they have nothing to fear.

The Waugh twins, Steve and Mark, remain two of the best batsmen around, big-hitter Tom Moody could be a force lower down the order and a strikeforce of Glenn McGrath, Paul Reiffel and Brendon Julian will revel in the English conditions even if Warne struggles.

New Zealand's record at Test level is poor but it has players such as all-rounder Chris Cairns who can shine in the one-day game.

South Africa has the players to top then all.

The first ever winner of the Commonwealth Games cricket gold medal, South Africa has strength throughout the lineup, is probably the best fielding side and has masses of experience.

Hansie Cronje and daryll cullinan star in a strong batting five, Shaun Pollock has joined Jacques Kallis and Lance Kluesener as a genuine all rounder, and Allan Donald is still a fearsome fast bowler.

Pakistan could be the team South Africa meets in the final.

The hugely experienced Wasim Akram has an immensely talented batting lineup that includes big-hitting Inzamam-ul-Haq, Saeed Anwar and the man at the centre of the bribes allegations, Salim Malik.

And he leads a bowling attack which includes the fastest man around today, Shoaib Akhtar, and wily spinner Saqlain Mushtaq.

Of the outsiders, Zimbabwe hopes to prove that it is developing as a Test-playing nation while Kenya aims to show that it deserves a place among the elite, especially having upset the Windies in the 1996 World Cup.

Scotland managed to persuade talented yorkshire all-rounder Gavin Hamilton play for the team even though he's aiming to play for England at Test level. AP

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