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March 16, 2007
The arguments against the minnows have raged all week and are about to get louder. In the space of three days, three of the biggest thumpings in one-day history have been administered. First the Scots lost to Australia by 203 runs, then the Bermudans succumbed by 243 to Sri Lanka, and now the Dutch have topped the lot, with a beating so brutal that the International Court of Justice, back home in the Hague, might just have found its interest in cricket going up a notch or two.
It's inevitable and, in the eyes of some, it's unedifying, a slur on the great game to reduce the biggest tournament of all to such a caricature. And yet, today at least, there can be no denying the entertainment. To witness Herschelle Gibbs in full flow was to see a force of nature at his reckless best. When a man is in that sort of mood it makes little odds who the opposition happens to be.
If you doubt that sentiment, just ask Ricky Ponting, who arrived at the ground today just as history was being made. The last time he saw Gibbs at such close quarters he risked getting neck strain at mid-off, as blow after blow rained into the stands at the Wanderers, in the course of Gibbs' eye-popping 175 from 110 balls in that run-chase.
"It doesn't actually surprise me that much," Ponting shrugged. "It's a fairly rare feat but having played out there the other day it is a pretty small ground. The way some of the players are hitting the ball these days, if you've the wickets and small grounds, that style of play certainly becomes an option."
None of the pitifully small crowd who witnessed the onslaught - from the orange-clad Australians in the party stand who'd swapped their allegiance for the day, to the knot of long-suffering Dutch wives on the grassy bank by the pavilion - had any complaint about the enjoyment the day's events had engendered. "It's been quite dramatic, but they are No. 1 in the world," said Els Bodde, the wife of the Dutch physiotherapist, Jim, who will doubtless be working overtime this evening. "I guess we knew really what to expect."
So too did the ICC who, at the fourth time of asking, have (it would seem) hit upon the perfect formula for achieving that elusive balance between developing the lesser lights and showcasing the elite. In 1996, the first time that The Netherlands appeared at a World Cup, their matches were even less than irrelevant. England played a memorably appalling match against them but still made it all the way to the quarter-finals (where they were righteously whupped by Sri Lanka). In 1999 and 2003, on the other hand, too much significance was given to the small-fry - one of whom, Kenya, exploited too many loopholes to wriggle all the way to the semis.
This time, the balance is ideal. The Netherlands dared to dream in the build-up to this match, both on Thursday afternoon when Luuk van Troost proclaimed his victory ambitions, and again this morning, when heavy overnight rain threatened to reduce the match to the dimensions of a Twenty20 slugfest. In hindsight, that upshot would have suited Gibbs even better, but when, after five incredibly probing overs from Billy Stelling, South Africa had been restricted to 4 for 1, there were eyebrows being raised everywhere.
"They've got to improve after today," Graeme Smith said. "From our point of view, it would be nice to see them try and contribute, try to get to 250 and not just sit back and hope to bat through 50 overs. That's the way they can move forward. We understand what the ICC is trying to achieve. Obviously days like today people are going to say it's a waste of time but as cricketers we've all got a role to play to try to take the game to other countries."
Holland has just 7000 active cricketers in the country, and only a handful of turf pitches. They have next to no access to cricket on the television, now that the BBC has lost interest, and as van Troost spelt out on the eve of the match, the amateur set-up means that most of the players - himself, as a headmaster, included - have to take unpaid leave to pursue their dream. But arguably, the tournament would be all the poorer without even a cursory nod to globalisation. A map of the 16 World Cup contestants suggests a healthy diversity, even if the reality needs a bit of work.
But can the events of the last few days be described as boring? Not a bit of it in my opinion. Bermuda, bloated by excessive funding and smaller than most of the islands that form the West Indies, are as close to pointless as the competitors get, but even they - in the guise of their super-size spinner, Dwayne Leverock - have a personality on which to hang a tale or two.
And what of the Irish? Their exploits against Zimbabwe yesterday were glorious and culminated in one of the greatest World Cup contests of all time. They have perpetuated their dream for yet another day, and the volatile Pakistanis will have to be on their guard. The minnows produce thrills, spills and all the mess and joie de vivre of a creche. For every John Davison-esque feat of shotmaking, there is an equal and opposite capitulation - take Bangladesh's first-over hat-trick in that same 2003 contest, for instance. The results may be largely inevitable, but the scenic route is followed more often than not.
The list of graduates from the minnows' school of hard knocks is impressive. Sri Lanka won from a position of apparent obscurity in 1996, as did India in 1983. Tomorrow Bangladesh, weaklings of tournaments past, take on India in Trinidad in an encounter that they could, very conceivably, win. Nothing is as inevitable as this past week's results have demonstrated, and given the utterly justified hype surrounding next week's big clash between Australia and South Africa here in St Kitts, the presence of the lesser lights is doing nothing to diminish this particular contest.
Plays of the day from the fifth ODI in Ranchi
Shorter tours don't allow you time to get into form, and domestic cricket isn't demanding enough