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May 22, 1999

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White Lightning strikes England

Prem Panicker

They -- as in, the British media and television commentators -- were calling this the match of the tournament; a preview of the finals, and all that kind of jazz.

A better label would have been mismatch of the tournament, as England slid to a 122 run defeat against South Africa at the Oval. And in the process -- this from an Indian perspective -- did Azharuddin's men a huge favour by messing up England's net run rate, just in case that calculation comes into place in case of a tie. In the process, South Africa streaked into the Super Six ahead of the pack, with three wins in three games.

However. The favourites, while winning, showed renewed signs of an Achilles heel that could still be the reason why they, performing so flatteringly now, could deceive by the time this tournament runs its course. And that vulnerable heel belongs to its batting -- yet again, Lance Klusener had to come to the rescue with some late order big hitting, to bat his side out of the jail the earlier batsmen had put it into.

The line you hear said most often is, wow, the Proteans bat real deep, lookit, take out seven batsmen and they still have a Klusener coming in. Cool, but flip that argument on its head a bit and look at it this way -- thus far, it has been only Klusener. And the trouble with that is, he is the kind who hits hard and often without much regard for defensive technique -- and with that kind of batsman, it is either hit, or miss. Thus far, it has been 'hit' -- but given the laws of probability, if you assume the miss is round the corner, the side looks very vulnerable in the next phase of the tournament.

Herschelle Gibbs and Gary Kirsten, both needing runs against their name, did play very well at the start of the innings -- in fact, the 111 they put on in 25 overs ranks as the best opening partnership of the tournament thus far. Both had their share of nerves and, more importantly, of lives -- Gibbs was put down twice, simple catches both, while Kirsten had the benefit of a drop and a muffed stumping. Gibbs apparently decided early that he was going to look for the aerial route out of trouble, and to his credit, took it well, hitting with a lot of authority and power and looking increasingly ominous towards the end of his innings. Kirsten was more circumspect and more unimpressive, concentrating on chipping them around, getting his eye in and treating himself to a long bat out in the middle.

The English bowlers in the first 20 overs were accurate without being penetrative, and the opening partnership prospered. Then Mark Ealham teamed up with Allan Mullally, and everything turned on its head. The two bowlers hit a nagging length and line on a pitch where the ball wasn't coming on, and runs suddenly dried up. From being 105/0 at the end of 21, South Africa went to 111 in 25 -- and that kind of pressure, at a time when the Proteas were probably eyeing a total up around the 300 mark, told in a series of rash shots that triggered a slide. Gibbs fell pulling to midwicket and hitting too hard, Kirsten inner edged to the keeper (a change, for a batsman who loves to inner edge onto his own stumps); Kallis got a lovely yorker from Mullally that held a line of off, swung in late and went through the gate to take out the middle stump; Cullinan, who never looked at ease out there, mishit Mullally's final ball up in the air for mid on to hold; Cronje pushed at one from Flintoff with static feet and bat away from body and found Stewart behind the sticks; Rhodes whacked the slower one from Gough out on the off for a simple take at cover and Pollock, first ball, got the Gough special, a reverse swinging yorker that sent middle stump cartwheeling.

What does that tell you about the ability of this lineup to handle pressure? At the end of 32 overs, the Ealham-Mullally bowling partnership had given away 22 runs in 11 overs, and taken out four -- a tribute to good, intelligent bowling. Between 21 overs, when they were on 1-5, and the 41st over, when they lost Pollock, they made 63 in 20 overs for the loss of seven.

Then Klusener came along and, with Boucher keeping him intelligent company, hit out with vim and characteristic vigour. The good thing about this guy is he has no doubts in his mind -- he backs his eye, and his arms and goes for pretty much anything you bowl to him. Yet again, in this tournament, he remained unbeaten with an effective cameo and South Africa ended on 225 for seven off 50 overs.

On the day, with the start they had, the batting side was a good 50 runs at the least short of where they should have been, and this increasingly must be worrisome to the Protean management as the sterner tests of the Super Six stage approach.

England came out to chase and its problems began in the very first over. Stewart, who seemed to have halted a miserable run in the previous game, went back to his routine as soon as he came up against stiffer opposition -- LBW first ball he faced, to Kallis.

Hussain's dismissal was fortuitous, Kallis slipping one down leg, the batsman wafting at it, Boucher holding and appealing an Venkat, strangely, putting up his finger though there was daylight between bat and ball.

Then Donald came into the attack, and England pretty much gave the rest of the game away. The main problem the English faced was in the mind (now why does that remind us of a team closer to home and heart?) Psyching themselves into the belief that the Protean pace battery was a killer, they insisted on playing predeterminedly off the back foot, and in the process got themselves into all kinds of trouble. The real irony of the situation was that not only was the ball stopping on this pitch, but was actually taking the pace away. Had they come forward, they would have done a much better job of handling the bowling -- by going back, they set themselves up for the ball stopping on them, and precipitated their own downfall.

Thus, Thorpe was out flicking across the line, playing too early and being trapped in front; Hick was out pulling fiercely and getting the toe of the bat for Gibbs to hold superbly at midwicket (again, the slower pace off the pitch meant he didn't get the middle of the bat); Flintoff opened his bat face and pushed square, again the slower pace off the pitch ensuring that the batsman misread it and played it more in the air than he meant to (all the invitation Rhodes needed to dive forward and hold a beauty)...

You get the idea. Allan Donald produced a spell of 8-0-19-4 and ruined England's hopes. But had the batsmen gone out there and played as the pitch demanded and not according to the reputation of Messers Pollock, Kallis, Donald and Elworthy, you could well have had a different result out there.

But this report wouldn't be complete without celebrating Jonty Rhodes. The Proteans have in Gibbs a better all round fielder in that he can field at any position and still look incredibly good -- but when it comes to point, Rhodes appeared to have made that position his own in the way his predecessor Colin Bland put his own unique stamp on the cover region, or Eknath Solkar worked his magic at short square leg.

It is difficult to describe a Rhodes miracle, but let's give it a shot. Picture this: Croft slashes at a ball wide of the off stump. Rhodes, as always, is moving in. The ball flies off the thick top edge, high above the fielder's head.

The best fielders in the world would have anticipated it, leapt high, got fingertips to the ball and seen it go past them. Jonty though is on a different planet from the best. Up he went, realising even then that he couldn't jump high enough to curl his fingers around that one. So in the fashion of a football goalkeeper tipping one over the crossbar, he palms the ball up, regains his feet, spins around, dives and takes.

Electric reflexes. Incredible presence of mind. Body and mind so finely attuned to the job of point-patrol that no situation is beyond him.

In years to come, there will be point fielders of extraordinary ability. But when the coming generation raves about the latest wonder-worker, we greybeards will go, Ah, he is good, but then you should have seen Jonty!

Meanwhile, for Indian fans, a thought -- with England's winning streak halted, and with Lanka pipping Zimbabwe, the group has been thrown wide open. Which, in effect, means that if Azhar and his men want to, if they have the nerve, the guts, the pride and the passion, they can still pull it right round.

Will they? Tomorrow, when India takes on Kenya, we will get the first instalment of the answer -- with two more instalments to come after that. And if you are still looking for silver linings, then look at this one -- the only team thus far that has handled the Protean pace attack with seeming ease is India. (Looked at another way, you realise how criminal it was for the team to have thrown that game against Zimbabwe the other day.)


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