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What an odd team England are. They are comprehensively prepared, and admirably focused. They are honed with scientific exactness, and led with calm assurance by an irrefutably level-headed captain-and-coach combination. And they are wildly inconsistent. They are like a man who dresses like an accountant, talks like an accountant, lives in a comfortable suburban house, and sleeps in spreadsheet-print pyjamas. But who is actually the lead singer of a thrash metal band, with an unrivalled collection of exotic snakes.
I did not see much of yesterday’s match, as I was travelling from Colombo to the hills near Kandy, past innumerable impromptu cricket games (few of which, it must be sadly reported, were being played with ICC-regulation equipment, accurately measured creases, or properly qualified umpires). We left Colombo as Ian Bell was trudging back to the pavilion, and the cricket world was wondering whether Robin Peterson had been injected with a special serum made out of the DNA of Hedley Verity, Bishen Bedi and Derek Underwood. We stopped for lunch in time to find out that Jonathan Trott and Ravi Bopara’s steady recovery had evaporated in a nostalgia-tinged England collapse against leg spin. We departed post-lunch with Graeme Smith and Hashim Amla seemingly intent on securing a merciless 10-wicket drubbing, against an England team looking more stony-faced than an Easter Island statue.
So it was with considerable surprise and, from an English perspective, delight, that I discovered that England’s hitherto struggling bowling attack had turned the game on its head, with Stuart Broad and James Anderson, arguably England’s two most important players in this tournament, to the fore.
Most had predicted one win and one loss from England’s last two matches. Even the most soothy of sayers had not foreseen that the loss would come against Ireland, especially after spending three-quarters of the game cruising to an efficient victory, and that the victory would be against South Africa, having spent the majority of the match subsiding to a comprehensive defeat which confirmed all the doubts about their tournament credentials. Suddenly, England are a team to fear again. At least until their next match.
However, the other teams watching the event in Chennai unfold may be even more concerned about South Africa. A Proteas team that has already got a spectacular choke out of its system could well be unbeatable. They have learnt from their 1999 and 2003 implosions – like an addict acknowledging his weakness and trying to live with it rather than conquer it, South African cricket has stood up bravely in front of its peers and proudly announced, “We are South Africa, and we are chokers. We will choke, and choke hard.” They have thus been able to time their choke for a safe stage of the tournament.
The group stage of this World Cup has proved to be more interesting that I had feared. There still have not been enough matches where the result really mattered – even in defeat against Ireland, England knew they had three further matches to compensate for Kevin O’Brien turning into a peak-era Hercules ‒ but as it has progressed, each of the contenders has unfurled a potentially fatal flaw. South Africa’s uncharacteristically long tail yesterday joined India’s bowling and fielding, Sri Lanka’s over-reliance on Lasith Malinga, England’s lack of penetration on subcontinental wickets, Pakistan’s being Pakistan, and the rest, as reasons why, logically, no-one will win this World Cup. There could be an awkward presentation in Mumbai on April 2 as Haroon Lorgat presents the trophy to himself.
Only Australia have not had a significant wobble or worse, but they are in danger of reaching the cut-throat knock-out phase more undercooked than a roast chicken that arrives at your table on the phone to its personal injury lawyer complaining of mild heat rash. So far, they have had two simple wins and a wash-out. They have a week of unnecessarily-scheduled heel-kicking now, followed by games against Canada and Kenya to come, then a match with Pakistan by which both teams will have comfortably qualified.
In the 2007 Rugby World Cup, the New Zealand All Blacks waltzed through a simple group against the feeblest of opposition, before being ambushed by a battle-hardened France in their first knock-out match. There were two things my parents taught me to beware of when I was a child: 1. Wolves dressed as grannies; and 2. beginning the elimination stage of a tournament without at least one competitive match under my belt.
Saturday’s Colombo 1996-final-rematch between Sri Lanka and Australia promised to be a sizzling match, and began with a fascinating showdown between the world’s fastest pace attack and two of modern cricket’s finest batsmen, before turning into a drowned squib as the heavens rather inconsiderately emptied themselves on the Premadasa, and Hydrogen, Hydrogen and Oxygen teamed up to score a comfortable victory over cricket.
(It should be noted that the game would have proceeded unhindered had it been taking place in Delhi. There is no way the ground authorities there would have allowed those clouds anywhere near the ground without first confiscating their water.)
It was a spectacular deluge, although I am sure I heard the ghost of Freddie Trueman muttering, “We’d have played through this in my day”, as the groundsman rowed across the pitch to check that the covers had not dissolved.
I spent a hugely entertaining first hour of the match standing on a terrace attempting to pole-vault over a fairly sizeable language barrier with some ecstatically excited Sri Lankans, who, having established that I was not Australian, welcomed me into their throng for another glimpse into the power of cricket in the Asian subcontinent. As I stood with my broad-brimmed hat, factor 50 suncream and one language amongst the dancing, flag-waving, face-painted mania, I have seldom felt quite so irredeemably English. I fear that when I next watch cricket at home, the experience may seem rather pallid by comparison.
● When I was 18, I would be excited about watching the world’s leading cricketers on television. If I had trapped two of them lbw in a World Cup match, I think I would have exploded. That is, of course, a big ‘if’. A very big ‘if’. So congratulations to George Dockrell not only for tweaking Sachin Tendulkar and MS Dhoni back to the pavilion, but for not combusting on the spot.
When Sachin made his World Cup debut, Dockrell was still working out how to make the ball grip and turn in amniotic fluid. I do not know anything about Mr and Mrs Dockrell’s courtship, but it is possible that his parents had not even met when the Mumbai Master played his first international. Which says a great deal both for Dockrell, and for Tendulkar.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writerFeeds: Andy Zaltzman
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Andy Zaltzman was born in obscurity in 1974. He has been a sporadically-acclaimed stand-up comedian since 1999, and has appeared regularly on BBC Radio 4. He is currently one half of TimesOnline's hit satirical podcast The Bugle, alongside John Oliver. Zaltzman's love of cricket outshone his aptitude for the game by a humiliating margin. He once scored 6 in 75 minutes in an Under-15 match, and failed to hit a six between the ages of 9 and 23. He would have been ideally suited to Tests, had not a congenital defect left him unable to play the game to anything above genuine village standard. He writes the Confectionery Stall blog on Cricinfo.