March 24, 2011

A Ming vase in a tumble-dryer down a bobsled run

Or what West Indies resembled when they stormed the World Cup Roll Call of Rubbish in Mirpur

The long-awaited quarter-final stage began with the kind of grotesque mismatch that was supposed to have been confined to the group phase. The Shere Bangla began this tournament being adorned by a trademark 175-run Sehwag powerblast. Since then, this apparent batting paradise has been scarred with three batting performances of stratospheric incompetence. Bangladesh’s 58 and 78 were joined in the 2011 World Cup Roll Call of Rubbish, in the Catalogue Of Crud, and in the Inventory Of Inept by a West Indian 112, a performance so poor it needed a whip-round in the ICC office just to be able to be able to afford a room for the night and a bowl of soup.

This was an excellent display by Afridi’s increasingly confident-looking Pakistan team. If you exclude New Zealand’s Pallekelle powerblast, off which Pakistan conceded 113 runs in 33 balls of unprecedented mayhem (two words that, contrary to popular belief, are not officially in the PCB’s corporate mission statement), Pakistan’s bowlers now average 19 in this tournament, with an economy rate of 3.6.

Battle-hardened by the rather tougher tests against the more creditable batting opposition provided by, for example, Canada and Kenya, the Pakistan attack was too much for the Caribbean team, who batted with all the steel of a spoonless grapefruit. Reports that the West Indies players were seen after the game throwing stones at their own bus remain unconfirmed.

In their two games in Chennai, West Indies at least looked a reasonable team who did not know how to win. They played some good cricket, only to undermine themselves with decisive bursts of ineptitude later in the games. Yesterday they got their ineptitude in early, hard and often. Having looked dangerously fragile in their games with England and India, against Pakistan they shattered like a Ming vase in a tumble dryer going down a bobsled run.

The most rational explanation is that Sammy and his men were racked by guilt at having spoilt Bangladesh’s World Cup on two counts – by skittling the Tigers for 58, then by tanking a winning position against England. They knew that the sellout crowd had bought their tickets in the hope of seeing two things: (a) Bangladesh play at the Shere Bangla; and (b) a team in green winning. West Indies duly, as an admirable exercise in bridge-building, duly did their best possible impersonation of Part A, and generously facilitated Part B.

Pakistan has produced great opening bowlers – Fazal Mahmood, Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis ‒ but if someone had asked you a year ago which of their players was most likely to take 2 for 13 in eight overs with the new ball in a World Cup quarter-final, few would have guessed Mohammad Hafeez. Even Mohammad Hafeez would not have guessed Mohammad Hafeez. If he had, people would have told him to go and have a cup of tea and a sit down until he was feeling better.

Hafeez has had an excellent tournament as a bowler (in the last five games he has taken 5 for 100 in 35 overs), but West Indies have written a new chapter in The Art Of How To Play Spin. Unfortunately, that chapter is entitled: “How Not To Play Spin”.

In this World Cup, in games between Test teams, opposition spinners have taken 28 West Indian wickets at 16.2, with an economy rate of 3.60. Pakistan’s slowies took 8 for 64 yesterday; in Chennai, India’s tweakers took 6 for 134 and England’s spinsters 7 for 84; in Delhi, South Africa’s three-prong lack-of-pace attack took 6 for 138. Scoring 34 runs without losing a wicket to Bangladesh’s spinmen in their now-slightly-surprising successful chase of 59 is starting to appear a remarkable achievement in hindsight.

West Indies have lost more wickets to spin in these matches between Test nations, at a lower average, whilst scoring more slowly, than any other team. (The table does not make particularly promising reading for England ahead of their Colombo quarter-final on Saturday, nor for Jason Krejza before today’s India-Australia showdown.)

All in all, it did not feel like a World Cup quarter-final. The crowd were noisily supportive of Pakistan, but there was an atmosphere of What Might Have Been over the ground. If Bangladesh had made it, there would have been tumultuous pride and excitement. At least for a while. As it was, the ground slowly filled up, and by the time the majority of the spectators arrived, the game was already lying in a vegetative state, merely awaiting the formality of having its plug pulled. From a cricketing point of view, it was a World Cup quarter-final. It might have been a thrilling game of cricket. It became a gory exposition of the long-standing decline of West Indian cricket.

It was all deeply dispiriting to watch for cricket supporters. Watching the once-great West Indies, the team that gave the sport its most iconic dynasty, playing with this painful level of ineptitude prompted similar feelings to seeing Bob Dylan singing advertising jingles for children’s toothpaste, or Italy’s No. 1-ranked sculpture whizz Michelangelo creating porcelain figurines of cats wearing pink bonnets, or champion racehorse Red Rum being pan fried by a low-grade French chef.


- If one man exemplifies the sad decline of West Indies, it is Kieron Pollard. He continues to intrigue and mostly disappoint as an international cricketer. In four innings against Test opposition in this World Cup, he has passed 1 only once. Against India, he played a shot so stupid it would not have been allowed to sit an exam, let alone fail it. But the other three times he has been dismissed defending, so the problem seems to be mostly a lack of technique rather than of application. He hit two sixes against England of phenomenal power. He has the physique of an Olympian god and the tax bracket of a rock god, but an ODI record on a par with Scotland’s Gordon Drummond.

Pollard could become a West Indian Andrew Flintoff. Flintoff was a cricketer who similarly struggled in his early career. In his first 26 ODIs he averaged 22 with the bat and took nine wickets at 38; after 20 Tests his averages were 20 and 50, which would have been great had they been the other way round. He then flourished into probably England’s finest ever limited-overs cricketer, and for a couple of years before the injuries took their toll, a great Test allrounder. Can Pollard do the same? Flintoff’s own efforts were facilitated by a well-organised and supportive coaching structure, a strong team of fellow bowlers, and mostly through his own application and phenomenal physical efforts. Will Pollard be driven and assisted by any of these three factors? His career will reveal much about West Indian cricket.

- Yesterday’s Mirpur mauling was enlivened by a stirring and potentially unbeatable addition to the list of Most Pointless Words Ever Spoken. In between the two innings, the stadium PA man announced with admirable enthusiasm and in considerable detail that, in the event of the match being delayed and an extra day’s play being necessary, spectators would have to keep their ticket stubs to be allowed entry to the stadium. These words floated across the Shere Bangla as the West Indies total of 113 gleamed red-facedly from the scoreboard, and as the cloudless Dhaka sky looked on in considerable confusion, checked that it was indeed as cloudless as it thought it was, and muttered to itself: “What is this guy talking about?”

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer