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May 24, 1999

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Windies pip Kiwis

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The 7th World Cup has brought together an array of the best of contemporary fast bowlers: Akram and Akthar from Pakistan, Srinath from India, Donald, Pollock and Kallis from South Africa, Glenn McGrath from Australia... And every one of them have already done enough to justify their ratings and bring the fans to their feet.

Yet for me, there is no better sight that Courtney Walsh and Curtley Ambrose bowling in harness. I notice that each successive time they are out there together, I tend to watch more and more closely -- perhaps because subconciously, I know that this is one pleasure that may not be available for much longer.

Today, on a hard wicket with a hint of bounce, at Southampton, the two were unplayable, their combined 20 overs costing 42 runs for two wickets.

Those bald statistics, though, do not even begin to tell the story. They are such contrasting bowlers, yet they complement each other so perfectly that you somehow imagine they were created to bowl together: Walsh with that smooth, easy run up that clones Michael Holding, all ease and grace and Ambrose, ungainly as a daddy-long-legs yet all controlled fury as he goes into the pre-delivery gather.

Today, with Lara winning the toss and giving them first use of a pitch that afforded them some assistance, the two veterans enjoyed themselves to the hilt -- though the Kiwi batsmen at the receiving end of their attentions might cavil a bit at the use of the word 'enjoyment'.

Walsh is the chess grandmaster in bowling togs, revelling in outthinking batsmen, his expressive face creasing when a particular thought didn't quite pan out as expected, eyebrows and mouth dropping in a smile when he got one right. Ambrose is the emotional one and when he is on song, a childish delight is the most visible emotion. Today, Craig McMillan came in for his attention -- time and again, Ambrose produced the unplayable deliveries, leaving the bat late, or cutting in sharply, or kicking up, or straightening off the seam... and each time McMillan groped, Ambrose stood in mid pitch, a broad grin lighting up those features.

Who cares for the outcome, when such legends still walk among us strutting their stuff?

The Kiwi batsmen were sandbagged. First by Lara winning the toss and inserting on a lively track. Then by Walsh and Ambrose singing a lethal duet that took the heart right out of the batsmen. And finally by the demons in their own minds, as they got progressively into shells so commodious that they refused to leave that shelter even when lesser lights like Dillon and Simmons dished up some ordinary stuff.

You've got to believe, as you review the Kiwi innings in your mind, that the cricketing gods have a perverse sense of humour. Walsh and Ambrose were given a wicket each, as sop for their extraordinary performances on the day. And Dillon, the worst of the five bowlers on view, got four -- two of those to balls that were flashing way down to leg when frustrated batsmen -- first Parore, then Allott -- waved at them to get either edge or glove onto ball.

The Kiwi top order crumbled under the withering spell of the two veterans and first change Reon King, who supported the stars with admirable length and line stuff. McMillan, whose technique wouldn't bring him too many invitations to contribute to coaching manuals, hung on through sheer cussedness before lashing out in relief when part-timer Simmons came on, and giving Jacobs one of his five victims behind the sticks. Skipper Stephen Fleming and Roger Twose, the batting hero in the game against Australia, appeared completely clueless as the ball, in the hands of Walsh, Ambrose and King, did pretty much everything but recite Hamlet's soliloquy. Cairns appeared in the mood for one more big innings, but only ended up mis-hitting a Dillon long hop to Lara at mid off, Parore and Harris did the best they could but with wickets falling and the pitch showing no sign of easing off, their dismissals were always on the cards, and New Zealand folded for 156 with 1.5 overs to go.

Much has been written about Lara's innovative captaincy, but based on this game, I just don't get it. Check out his bowling sequences: Walsh bowls five overs with Ambrose at the other end. Then Walsh gave way to King. Ambrose continued, bowling out his ten. King at the other end bowled out his ten, while Simmons picked up the attack once Ambrose was done...

The trouble with that kind of thing is twofold. Bowl a good fast bowler for 10 overs on the trot and chances are, he will strain something. In any case, the longer he bowls, the less incisive he gets. And further, by the 29th over, he had bowled out both Ambrose and King, while Walsh had only 5 left -- leaving just Simmons and Dillon to bowl at the death. Had the Kiwi batsmen kept an eye on the situation and hung in there, conserving wickets with a view to milking the weaker bowlers (Dillon, remember, has been the most erratic of the Windies bowlers in the earlier outings as well), they could well have put up at least another 30, 40 runs, and that in turn could have made things interesting for the chasing side.

Another inexplicable element was why, with wickets going down at regular intervals and Ambrose bowling like he had something to prove, the Windies skipper failed to keep more than one slip in place -- leading to innumerable edges down to third man.

The sun was out in force in the second half of the game, the Windies also got the benefit of the between-innings roller, but yet managed to make such heavy weather of the chase that their most ardent supporters would be hard pressed to find grounds for optimism concerning their future prospects.

Sherwin Campbell's footwork is never at its best early on, and today it was non-existent. Leg before always seemed the way he would go, and Nash nailed him with a straight ball on off. Ridley Jacobs, whose forte is big hitting, was reduced to fishing, missing, and hanging on for dear life -- a task he performed so admirably that he ended up undefeated on 80 off 130 balls, scoring off the long hops and half volleys and playing circumspectly to just about everything else.

Jimmy Adams, in such fine touch in the earlier games, appeared clueless against tight bowling and inspired fielding by the Kiwis, and it was finally left to Brian Lara to play with trademark freedom and open up the field.

Like Tendulkar, Lara has the knack of quickly dispersing a close set field, and making batting easier not only for himself but also his partner -- Jacobs being the beneficiary here. Patience, however, is not his forte. He raced to 34 off 36 balls, then got bogged down a touch by the accuracy of Larsen and Harris. Attempting to break loose, he first mis-pulled, then under-edged a cut, both times to fielders. Ball three, down he came, lashing an on drive without getting to the pitch, for the ball to flare high in the air off the leading edge for Nash to take a superb catch, running full tilt ahead of the ball, keeping his eye on it and taking it as it fell in front of him.

Sherwin Campbell, brought in to bolster the middle order -- a further sign that the Windies think tank is not comfortable about its batting lineup -- then saw the side through in tandem with Jacobs, the latter finishing a particularly satisfying day that saw him claim 5 behind the sticks and follow up with an unbeaten 80.

Fleming marshalled his resources very well but with just 156 backing him on the board, his biggest strength -- the economy of his bowlers -- was of no use. Wickets were needed and in this side, Allott looks the only one capable of getting them.

From the point of view of Group B standings, the West Indies win opens up the group. Pakistan, with three straight wins in three outings, are pretty at the top with six. Australia, with two points in three outings, are struggling. Bangladesh and Scotland are out of the equation. New Zealand had 4 in 2 games going into this one -- a win here would have put them on par with Pakistan and ensured that they progressed into the Super Six.

Instead, the group now has the Kiwis and Windies locked at four points in three games each, Australia down, but not entirely out, at two off three. With two games each left to play, the stakes for all three teams just got higher.

But after all the calculations are done, the enduring image of the day is this one: King Curtley lopes in, leans away from the stumps on delivery to get a slight in-slant towards the off stump, draws Cullinan forward, and leaves him heartstoppingly late. He then stops in his follow through, leans over to put his hands on his knee, and laughs -- the playful, gleeful laugh of a little child revelling in his own precocity.

A sight to be savoured to the fullest now -- for all too soon, it will be just a memory.


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