A foolish attempt

Everyone else knew that England should not have surrendered to the blackmail within the death threat letter from the Sons and Daughters of Zimbabwe, an offshoot of the Zimbabwe opposition party. Once you surrender to the threats of a blackmailer there is no way back.

TED CORBETT

At the end of the first week of World Cup action and immediately after England's twitchy win against Holland, skipper Nasser Hussain was at such a low ebb that he claimed that only the prospect of playing and "the cricket I watch on TV" were keeping him going.-— Pic. REUTERS

AS usual, the non-cricketing Greeks have the words to fit the occasion. "Better lose your eye than your name," they have been saying for the last 3,000 years. Someone should have told England's players, administrators and officials as they began their foolish attempt to avoid playing Zimbabwe in Harare.

Unhappily, they did not just lose their name. They lost their battles against the International Cricket Council. They lost four points after failing to turn up for their first World Cup tie and they lost their dignity. The England and Wales Cricket Board's suits lost the respect of their players and huge amounts of money by their repeated efforts to gain the moral high ground and a tactical legal position in a bid to avoid compensation.

The rest of the world looked on in amazement. Everyone else knew that England should not have surrendered to the blackmail within the death threat letter from the Sons and Daughters of Zimbabwe, an offshoot of the Zimbabwe opposition party. Once you surrender to the threats of a blackmailer there is no way back.

All England have done, in the long term, is to give credit to any other fan, madman or criminal who wants to achieve a result.

What happens the next time a crucial match comes up? England need to win to reach the final of a tri-series, for instance. A bookmaker decides he needs, let us say, Holland to get there instead so he fires off a threatening letter to England's leading player, which says his family will be in danger if he turns up for the final.

What happens next, as they say in Question of Sport? Do England withdraw whatever the advice of the police, the security men and the local authority? Surely in the name of consistency they have no choice. Their decision is made already. This whole sorry episode will weigh heavily with England for a long time to come.

Instead of standing up to the blackmailer, defying anyone to hurt them or their family and playing the game against Zimbabwe they tried to have the game played in South Africa where they felt safe.

They would have been in no more danger in Zimbabwe than we were thousands of miles away. The Sons and Daughters of Zimbabwe played a low card and won a jackpot; but they were not the only political organisation to have a game of strip poker with England and leave them without their clothes.

The British government used them, the ICC left them struggling aimlessly and the World Cup organisers have taken every trick.

That is not the worst news. Unless I am very much mistaken England will also lose Nasser Hussain, their captain. No, not just their captain, but their finest since Mike Brearley held the reins in 1981, a man of principle, a leader who backs his men and looks after their welfare first, a Pom who has earned the respect of the Australians as he kept his sense of humour and his reputation during three months of international defeat Down Under.

After the final game ended I described the tour as the worst time of Hussain's life. I had no idea that events would then go into freefall. He and the ECB have clearly come to the end of the road; only victory in the final of the World Cup will stop him resigning as England captain when the tournament finishes.

At the end of the first week of World Cup action and immediately after England's twitchy win against Holland, Hussain was at such a low ebb that he claimed that only the prospect of playing and "the cricket I watch on TV" were keeping him going.

I know just what he means. Watching cricket on television, often from dawn to dusk, is a surreal experience. Especially when there is frost on the ground outside and the temperature nearby is the same in Fahrenheit as the cricketers are experiencing in Celsius. And I don't just mean trying to translate the Kiwi voices that insist batsmen are caught "in the slups."

Even at this distance it was the most exciting of all the World Cups in the past 20 years. So far we have had every form of excitement save an allegation of bribery and corruption. I suppose we will have to wait a couple of years before that surfaces.

The tournament had hardly begun when we had the extraordinary revelation that Shane Warne had tested positive for a diuretic. It was a shock but not a surprise; after all Warne has form. He has publicly admitted dealings with an Indian bookie and lost the vice-captaincy of Australia after allegations about phone calls to a nurse.

To his credit, Warne went straight into a Press conference and gave his side of the story. The tablet had been given to him by his mother leaving me to wonder if he had been due for one of those ritual weighing sessions so beloved of team physios and thought it a good idea to get rid of some surplus liquid.

Like every athlete who tests positive, Warne swore he had never taken performance enhancing drugs and said he would wait for the result of the B test before deciding how to react. There is no record of any B sample being different from the A sample — they are part of the original sample — and as I write he is expected to be given a two-year suspension.

Does it mean the end of his career? Not automatically. A two-year rest might heal his shoulder completely and at 34 he would still be a young man by the standards of such spinners as Clarrie Grimmett, who was still in line for a Test place aged 48 just before the Second World War, or Wilfred Rhodes, playing for England at 49 in 1926.

Two days later Waqar Younis bowled two beamers in the same over and was ordered to stop bowling by umpire David Shepherd one of the few in the limelight for his good decisions rather than his mistakes. As for Waqar he was clearly losing his grip as he attempted to bowl a slower ball rather than trying to knock the batsman's head off. Shepherd was, as usual, right to give him cricket's equivalent of a red card.

Within a few hours Jonty Rhodes had been withdrawn from the South African squad with a hand injury and announced his retirement. Cricket will miss Rhodes who brought a new dimension to fielding in the point region. "I can't get over how quickly he moves sideways," said Phil Simmons, who should know since he was no slouch in that part of the field.

Roger Harper, now the West Indies coach, was the best I saw; Chris Lewis, now lost to cricket for several years and still aged just 35, was not far behind him. Rhodes was undoubtedly the king. His speed, his accurate throw and his wonderful hands frightened batsmen into immobility so that their very hesitation caused them to be run out by this remarkable fielder.

No more Hussain, no more Warne, no more Rhodes; how empty the world seems. No doubt this tournament will mark the end of the road for others. Waqar and Wasim Akram cannot expect to continue long and Allan Donald is also near the T-junction of his career.

I don't suppose we will see umpire Shepherd in the World Cup again either; more's the pity. Shep is a nice man, quietly passionate about cricket, helpful, appreciative and always ready to chat about the game. When I was trying to make my way in this game he once said a few words to me that enabled me to push ahead; I owe him a big debt.

The truth about cricket is that it is full of people like Shep: doing their job effectively, considering how their actions will impact on those around them and determined that the game will not lose its good name.

Cricket is also the better for the human bravery of Henry Olonga and Andy Flower in telling it the way it is in Zimbabwe and risking their freedom as they spoke.

It has a higher rating for the courage in a sporting sense of the New Zealanders who lost their first match to Sri Lanka and then showed their steely determination by coming back hard against West Indies and South Africa.

They went to South Africa believing they could win the trophy and, led by Stephen Fleming, the best captain of the dozen in the World Cup, have iced the World Cup cake for all of us, whether we are on the sunny slopes of Johannesburg or watching from a centrally heated lounge in mid-winter.