Cheer for the underdog February 12, 2007

Thanks for the glorious uncertainties

Fazeer Mohammed



A shock win against Australia in the finals of the CB Series ensured that Andrew Flintoff didn't return to England empty-handed © Getty Images

This is why so many people around the world are so passionate about sport, for there really is no such thing as a sure, sure thing in any truly competitive arena.

England's clean sweep of the CB series finals against hosts and world champions Australia, India's stumble in pursuit of a relatively modest total against Sri Lanka, the see-saw series between South Africa and Pakistan, and Trinidad and Tobago's ability to almost snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in Jamaica all served as ample confirmation on the cricketing front this weekend - if any was needed - that nothing can be taken for granted on the field of play.

The cynical and suspicious will be concocting all sorts of conspiracy theories to explain reversals of the formbook, but if we go that way every time there is an upset result, then we might as well pack up and go home and be satisfied with getting our thrills from completely predictable pastimes, like sunrises, sunsets and road-paving works just before elections.

That passion for sport inevitably sparks overreactions in both directions. So just two weeks after they were the butt of widespread condemnation, England are now touted as a genuine chance to challenge Australia's hold on the World Cup on the basis of three consecutive wins over Ricky Ponting's side in what is being hailed as a remarkable turnaround by Andrew Flintoff's beleaguered troops.

Of course, we in the West Indies know all about prematurely heralding the arrival of a turnaround. We've been doing it for the last 12 years, and still haven't learnt how to recognise a false dawn from the real thing.

Steamrolled 5-0 in an inept defence of the Ashes, there was always the chance that the English, as with any other team, would be more competitive in the shorter form of the game once they overcame the mental obstacles of being so humiliated a mere 18 months after they were feted through the streets of central London in the manner of gallant soldiers returning home from a successful battle.

That they lifted their game when it really mattered in the CB series confirms that there is both talent and character in the squad. It may not be enough to lift the World Cup for the first time, but neither had English cricket suddenly plummeted into the very deepest pit of doom and gloom in the wake of the Test series, as many seemed all too keen to suggest.

As on the 2005 tour of England, Australia's cricketers will now find themselves accused of carelessness and complacency in the latter stages of the home campaign, while the upcoming three-match series in New Zealand will be another challenge to outgoing coach John Buchanan's efforts to restructure the team in the continued absence through injury of invaluable allrounder Andrew Symonds.

If an arrogant smugness was beginning to take root in the Australian camp, that has now been replaced by a desire to show that the setback against the old enemy was just an aberration. I expect that their World Cup group matches against Scotland and the Netherlands in St Kitts next month will almost be too brutally one-sided to watch, so ruthless will they be in seeking to extinguish any doubt over their status as world champions and tournament favourites.



'In the West Indies we know all about prematurely heralding the arrival of a turnaround. We've been doing it for the last 12 years' © AFP

Marlon Samuels must be the happiest of all that India are back at it on the field, so that the media there can get off his case, at least for a while, and return to the regular business of living and dying as the national team goes. The most inconsequential detail in yesterday's five-run loss to the Sri Lankans in Rajkot would have been microscopically analysed by an assortment of experts and Bollywood aspirants, so setting the stage and building the pressure for the next match on Wednesday and the World Cup hasn't even started.

What do you make of the series in South Africa? The hosts romp to victory by more than a hundred runs, Pakistan then return the favour, before crashing to a ten-wicket defeat yesterday. Just to add spice to a series where there is obviously little love lost between the sides, Herschelle Gibbs was slapped with a ban following an allegedly racist outburst during the Tests, while the mercurial Shahid Afridi will miss the first two matches of the World Cup after pointing his bat threateningly at an allegedly abusive spectator in the opening one-day international.

Not even the creative match-fixers can come up with stuff like that. Maybe some of them have already come over to the Caribbean to lay the (under)groundwork for the World Cup. That may explain Trinidad and Tobago's effort to try to lose Saturday's final round-robin one-dayer at Sabina Park after openers Lendl Simmons and Denesh Ramdin had knocked off more than half of the required target inside the first 20 overs.

Amid all of the suspicions, though, the comforting thing is that, long before English county captains were contriving to bring boring first-class matches to life on the last day, long before the likes of MK Gupta, John and Mukesh Kochar were allegedly lurking in the shadowy corners of pavilions and team hotels, supposedly invincible teams were getting their tails well and truly cut by the unlikeliest of opponents.

Ever since David slew Goliath we have been cheering for the underdog. Long may it continue, even if we are now increasingly suspicious that the latest glorious uncertainty was scripted the night before.