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February 13, 1999


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The Cup that chills...

Michael Holding

So the World Cup is returning to where it all began -- it should be interesting, watching how the various teams cope.

The last three World Cups, and specially the 1987 and 1996 editions, were played on the sub-continent, and participating teams have got used to conditions where a score of even 300 does not ensure a win.

In England, it is a completely different ball game. And the most important phase of the tournament will be played in weather that is not ideal for cricket. England in May is cold, the conditions are damp, the pitches will be damp as well, the ball will swing a lot in the air and seam around off the deck.

And this is what will make all the difference. In the last three World Cups, batsmen have got used to picking the line and playing through it, without worrying too much about lateral movement -- they just picked their shot and went through with it.

In England, shot selection is going to be the real key -- batsmen will have to cut down on those big backswings, play the ball late, judge the movement much later. Here in the subcontinent a lot of shots are played away from the body -- in England, the batsmen will need to get a lot closer to the ball, get behind the line and then read movement in the air and off the track before deciding on their shots. The premium is not going to be on muscle, it is technique especially against the seaming, swinging ball that will make the difference in England.

This is going to cause a rethink in strategy. In 1996 especially, teams treated the first 15 overs as the slog overs and kept going over the top, even sending in pinch-hitters to take full advantage of the field restrictions.

I think in England, they will have to go back to the way the first three World Cups were played -- conserve your wickets in the first 10-15 overs, consolidate, look for placements to keep the board moving, and if you can keep wickets in hand, then the real acceleration will have to come in the last 10-15 overs. I think 240, or anything more, will prove a tough total for the chasing team to overhaul.

Bowlers too are going to have to do a rethink for this one. On the sub-continent, where the ball doesn't move much in the air and only very little off the seam, a three quarter length was the way to go, it meant the batsmen wouldn't get the length to drive, and the ball would also not be short enough to hook, pull or cut. But in England, they will need to pitch it much further up, get the batsmen driving at them so that the movement can find the edges.

It is not going to be easy to do, though. With the cold, fitness becomes a problem, especially for the quicker bowlers. A lot of bowlers don't realise the importance of warming up first, before they try to bowl fast -- you don't do that, you are asking for injuries.

Another major problem for both spinners and quick bowlers is that their fingers will be numb from the cold, which means they won't be able to really grip the ball, they won't get much sensation in their fingertips, won't be able to feel the seam on their fingers. That really makes a difference to the way they bowl -- I liked to get a good feel of the seam, be sure of how it was placed as I ran in to the bowl, and not being able to do that hampers your bowling, so bowlers will need to keep their fingertips warm. That sounds like a little thing, but it is one of those things that will make a huge difference to the end result.

Fielders, too, are going to need to keep an eye on the cold factor -- especially the guys in the slip cordon. The slips are going to be important positions, because of the way the ball will seam around -- but when it is cold, the ball seems to hit your hand harder, it stings more, and because your hands and fingers tend to be numb with the cold, you are not able to grasp the ball as well.

I don't think captaincy and tactics will differ all that much, except in the way teams will approach the first fifteen and last ten overs. More than being a strategist, the captain in England will have to be a good nanny, he will need to keep a close eye on player fitness, he will need to be careful in who he picks for each game -- picking a talented player even when he is half-fit won't be as good a gamble as it is on the sub-continent, because the conditions will sap his energy and he will end up being a pedestrian.

The most talented team won't necessarily win this Cup -- I would tend to pick the side that adapts, adjusts best to the conditions instead. It is going to be very important to get there early, to play a lot of warm up games. Nets won't do it for you -- you have to get out in the middle, into a match situation, get used to playing in the cold, get used to the challenges those conditions present.

I don't think a lot of teams have really thought of this aspect yet, though -- I saw some of the practise schedules, and India for instance doesn't seem to have enough practise games lined up, and I think that is bad.

The players, and the teams, have to tune themselves up for this contest, and they can only do it by getting there ahead of time. With only three teams coming through from each group, you can't afford too many mistakes, you can't figure on using the early games to play yourself in -- you've got to peak on day one.

And this means that your preparation before the tournament is going to be as important as the way you actually play each match.

Earlier Interview:
'Maan, if I was bowling today I would have been an off-spinner!'

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