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February 15, 1999


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Something to Crowe about

Ramiz Raja

When I think of the World Cup and captaincy, I think of Martin Crowe, who to my mind was the most outstanding skipper we have seen in the last six editions of the tournament.

Crowe was leading an average bunch of players in 1992, but he read the conditions superbly well, he adapted to them, had the courage to innovate, and he ended up getting the very best out of his team that it was possible to get -- which in my book is the hallmark of a good captain.

To my mind, a good theoretician is not necessarily going to be a good captain. To lead successfully, the greatest requirement is presence of mind, an alertness to onfield events, and an ability to adapt the overall gameplan to the situation as it emerges, ball by ball and over by over.

The 12 teams taking part in the upcoming World Cup are aware that it is going to be held in England -- but are they awake to all that it implies? That for me is a key question. I have played in England in May, and it gets very cold in those parts at that time. Bowlers won't be able to grip the ball properly, fielders with their numb hands will invite misfields, while their chilled bodies won't move as fast, batsmen who can't 'feel' the bat in their hands will tend to grip too tight and find their fingers cramping after a bit...

Playing cricket in England during the period in question involves a tremendous amount of adjustment. Teams like South Africa, England and Australia are very professional, and will do whatever it takes to adapt to the conditions -- which is why I think they will have an edge over teams from the sub-continent. I think it is very important for India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka to get to England as early as possible.

In 1992, Pakistan was the first team to land in Australia, we played lots of practise games before the World Cup actually kicked off. We lost most of the games we played, but just the fact of being out on the field, playing and getting used to the conditions, helped us peak at the right moment. It was expensive for the Pakistan board, sending us to Australia almost a month before the tournament began -- but look at the results, and you have to admit that the expense was justified. After all, we won the Cup!

That is why I think it is important, vital really, for the teams from the sub-continent to spare no expense, to get there well ahead of time. After all, we are the ones who will have the most difficulty adjusting to the cold -- the sooner we get there, the more time we will have to adapt, to get the colds and fevers and other illnesses out of the way and be match fit at just the right time.

If you look at the last two World Cups, 1992 was the year of Dipak Patel, and 1996 belonged to Sanath Jayasuriya. The use of Patel in the first 15 overs by Martin Crowe, and Jayasuriya's batting to get Sri Lanka off to incredible starts in the first 15 overs, were the outstanding features of those two competitions. Somehow, I don't think the coming World Cup will see that kind of batting blitz, however -- in England, we are likely to see scores around 250 proving to be match-winning scores.

What this means is that the technically proficient batsmen are the ones who will do well, not the blind hitters. Similarly, bowlers who are well versed in their craft will be the stars -- unlike in 1996, when the very best bowlers in the world would find themselves being tonked by ordinary batsmen.

In terms of strategy, I think we will see a return to the sort of tactics that were in use during the first three World Cups. The teams that do well will be teams who conserve their wickets, who use the first 15 overs to blunt the swing and seam movement with the new ball and deny opposition bowlers early breakthroughs, teams who can work singles well and keep wickets in hand towards the slog overs.

Attitude is going to be the real key to success. In 1992, nothing was going right for us. But our lack of success was our biggest advantage in the end -- it brought the team together, we found ourselves facing a do or die situation, and like cornered tigers, we fought back.

It is obviously too early to tell, but at this point I would rate South Africa as my favourites to take the World Cup. Hansie Cronje is the best among contemporary captains, and the team has a bunch of dedicated professionals, all of whom perform at more than one hundred per cent. I remember when we first toured South Africa in 1993, they were new to cricket and often, after getting into winning positions, they tended to choke. Now, they are mentally the toughest team in the world, and that is another reason I back them to win the World Cup.

For the individual player, the World Cup is the greatest possible stage, the best incentive to perform. I hear of people talking of the pressures of playing in the biggest tournament of them all, but I don't agree -- I remember when I was in Australia, I used to feel all pumped up about being able to perform on the world stage. And this time the Cup is being held in England, where cricket coverage is tremendous -- your achievements always last longer, they are remembered longer, if they come on English soil.

It could be premature, but I think we can at this point take a quick look at the three teams from the sub-continent. For Pakistan, Inzamam, Ijaz and Saeed Anwar will form the nucleus -- all three are technically capable of coping with the problems of playing in England. Azhar Mahmood is another player I expect great things of, he is a fine bat and his medium pace will come in very handy in England.

When it comes to bowling, Akram is going to be the real key to our chances. Younis? I frankly am not sure yet -- his form and fitness are issues, though if he is on song, the movement he gets in the air and off the wicket could prove decisive. then there is Saqlain Mushtaq -- but frankly, I think his effectiveness will depend on the pitches, and climatic conditions, you have to remember that he is going to find it very hard to grip the ball, in England in May. And then there is Afridi -- his confidence is high, but is he technically capable of delivering? I think that is going to be a crucial question -- and while on delivering, I suspect the youngsters in the side are going to struggle, they are not technically up there with the best.

India, well, I think technically speaking, they are the best of the three teams from the sub-continent when it comes to batting. What India lacks, however, is impetus. If Afridi fails, Anwar can kick start our innings, if he fails there is Ijaz, or Inzy, all of whom are capable of really rocketing along and taking charge of the game. India has only Sachin Tendulkar -- while Ganguly, Dravid and Azhar are very good batsmen, none of them has the ability to take charge, like Sachin can. And that kind of dependence on one man can cause concern for the side.

The trouble with Ganguly, Dravid and Azhar is that none of them are really willing to experiment, to change their game according to the situation. They play very well, but they are also very predictable -- and that makes it easy for opposing captains to set fields, to choke them up.

With the ball, I think Prasad will do wonderfully well with his ability to move it around, Srinath will also prove a handful. Kumble? I have my doubts -- he does bowl very tight, but that alone is not going to do it for you in England. Ganguly is a wild card -- he can be unplayable on bad wickets, as we found out in Toronto, but when conditions don't favour him, he is easy to hit around. So at best, he can be a supporting act -- which means that depth in bowling is lacking in the Indian lineup, and that could be your biggest problem.

Then there is Sri Lanka. Jayasuriya and Aravinda were the stars for them in 1996, and they are the key again, this time. Arjuna Ranatunga is another player who will play a very big role -- to my mind, he is a left-handed Javed Miandad, a master of keeping the board moving against the tightest of bowling and fielding.

But overall, I think Sri Lanka has a problem. Not enough youngsters are coming through -- the three players I named are, after all, three years older than they were when they led Sri Lanka to the Cup win in 1996, but you don't see any new players emerging to help share the seniors' load. Another major problem is with the bowling. Vaas is capable, Muralitharan does well in English conditions, but Sri Lanka remains a batting-centric side. That worked brilliantly for them in 1996 -- they could overhaul any total, or putting up totals that other teams couldn't reach. But in England it is going to be a different ball game, the totals are not going to be that imposing, and I think that when you get down to it, Sri Lanka's problem is that they will struggle to defend totals -- and their World Cup title.

With this piece, former Pakistan star Ramiz Raja begins the first of a regular series for Rediff's World Cup site.

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