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On the evidence of yesterday in Pallekele, Muttiah Muralitharan is quite popular in this part of the world. A jam-packed stadium paid noisy tribute to the great man as Regis Chakabva and Chris Mpofu became the newest names on Murali’s Batsmen-I-Have-Dismissed list. There are not many lists on which Regis Chakabva and David Boon both appear, but that is one of them (although I admit that I write this in ignorance of Chakabva’s airborne beer-guzzling capabilities, nor have I ever seen anyone repeatedly attempt to shove him over in an effort to join Boon in the upper echelons of the Least Topplable Sportsmen chart).
It is easy to understand Murali’s popularity. An even shorter list than the list of Lists Containing Boon and Chakabva would be the catalogue of people in the world who argue that Murali is not the finest spin bowler the Kandy area has produced. This features only crackpot North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who claims that honour for himself (and, as well as stating that he shot 38 under par in a round of golf, I like to think that Kim also lists 1,243 Test wickets at an average of 6.34 in the ‘Other Achievements’ section of his CV, with best figures of 11 for 3 against West Indies in 1985-86), a couple of gratuitously argumentative Australians who claim that Shane Warne was in fact born there, and hardcore fundamentalist fans of 1990s off-tweaking all-rounder Ruwan Kalpage.
And perhaps the shortest of all is the list of cricketers who have played an international in a stadium named after themselves. Perhaps ex-Worcestershire opener Gordon Lord used to play with an extra spring of pride in his step whenever he played against Middlesex at Lord’s, but he must have known he was kidding himself, and it is doubtful that he had 25,000 people cheering his every move.
I have seen some fairly high-level adulation at this tournament – Tendulkar in Bangalore, the concept of cricket in Dhaka, and now Murali in Kandy. At least, I assume the adulation was for Murali yesterday. It might have been for the ticket prices, which were equally impressive. The cheapest seats were 30 Sri Lankan rupees, which equates to approximately 17 of Her Majesty’s finest British pence. A ticket to a day’s play of this summer’s England v India Test at Lord’s will set you back £90. For 90 overs. Meaning that for the price of a ticket to see the match at Pallekele yesterday, you could afford to watch one ball at the Home Of Cricket in July. (And if the price of snacks at Lord’s follows the same hot-dog-to-match-ticket price ratio as Pallekele, a sausage in a bap will cost you £300.)
Sri Lanka put on a strong if not flawless performance, with Dilshan’s one-man homage to the number 4 – 144 runs with the bat (including 16, or 4 squared, 4s), and 4 for 4 with the ball ‒ making the Man of the Match adjudication process as straightforward as awarding a Fastest Man certificate in a contest between Usain Bolt, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Miley Cyrus.
I took my two young children to yesterday’s game, for their first experience of live cricket. As I wrote recently, the first match I ever went to was the legendary India v Zimbabwe game at Tunbridge Wells in 1983. That day, Zimbabwe had their more illustrious opponents reeling like a drunken roll of sewing thread trying to project a cine film about fishing at a traditional Scottish dancing contest, at 17 for 5. My children, at their first ever cricket match, also saw Zimbabwe rip through an Asian giant’s top order, taking 6 for 26 in 21 balls. The only, but crucial, difference was that on this occasion, they had shipped 282 more runs and bowled 266 more balls before taking the first of those wickets than their predecessors had done 28 years ago. Upon such slender threads…
Sri Lanka, then, have duly inked in their place in the quarter-final line-up, albeit that the ink was barely discernible over the extremely heavy pencil in which the quarter-final line-up had been written ever since the draw was made. There has been enough good cricket and spectacular individual performances to camouflage the weaknesses of this World Cup’s format, shortcomings so glaring they can be seen with the naked eye from space.
However, three weeks into the tournament, Australia have faced 84 overs of bowling, India have played only one of the world’s top-8 ranked teams, and there have arguably been only two “must-win” games, both featuring Bangladesh and one of which was done, dusted and plonked on a plinth of embarrassment within an hour-an-a-half of ineptitude. There have been some “would-quite-like-to-win” games, some “would-be-quite-embarrassing-to-lose” games, and some “could-not-possibly-fail-to-win-without-a-superhuman-effort” games.
Bangladesh face an “absolutely must-win” showdown with England in Chittagong today. I hope they score more than 58.
● There has been much talk of the wickets in this tournament being too favourable towards batsmen, particularly those in India. I am becoming slightly concerned that, as a spectator, I myself am too batsman-friendly. I have been to eight matches, and seen ten centuries. In the other 18 matches, there have been just three hundreds, all by Test players against Minnows.
Whilst it is always a delight to watch a great batsman unfurling the full majesty of his art, as Tendulkar did against England, or an eruption of match-winning powerclouting, such as those given to the cricket world by O’Brien and Taylor, the great game needs a fair balance between bat and ball. The evidence of this tournament suggests that me watching games is as much a problem for cricket as the pudding pitches so prevalent in modern cricket with as much in them for bowlers as there is for crown green bowls fans in the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan.
● My children had gone back the hotel for bedtime by the time Sangakkara took a fantastic one-handed catch to dismiss Taibu, to partially redress the wicketkeeping balance on a ground which had been defiled two days earlier by Kamran. On current form, Kamran could not have caught the plague in a medieval rat hospital. I doubt the adoration for him in his hometown of Lahore can currently match that garlanded onto Murali as he bade his international farewell to his home public.
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.