A mixture of light and shade

THE first stage of the World Cup had its fair share of thrills and spills, although the fans would have been disappointed at the early exit of South Africa, West Indies and Pakistan. That's the way, the game goes sometimes.

SRIKKANTH

Ashish Nehra celebrates the dismissal of England captain Nasser Hussain, with Virender Sehwag.-Pic. AP

THE first stage of the World Cup had its fair share of thrills and spills, although the fans would have been disappointed at the early exit of South Africa, West Indies and Pakistan. That's the way, the game goes sometimes.

As I had said earlier in this column, India and Sri Lanka have done well in this tournament and, with all the points they are carrying into the next stage, they should progress to the last four stage. Pakistan, the other leading Asian side, failed because it could not get its batting organised. The internal turmoil in the side, did not help matters either.

From a personal point of view, Sachin Tendulkar's magical knock against Pakistan was the highlight. What an innings it was in a massive game, and how well he handled the pressure.

The feature of Tendulkar's cricket has been the fact that he can lift himself for the big occasion. The manner in which he took on the Pakistani paceman, and hit them out of the attack, will stay in my mind for a long time.

Ashish Nehra's spell, during which he sliced through the English line-up was the other highlight of the Indian performance. The left-arm paceman is definitely a yard quicker now, and the fact that he is able to swing the ball both ways, works in his favour.

The above two were the stand-out performances, though it was a team-effort from India with Rahul Dravid and Yuvraj Singh coming up with crucial contributions with the bat, and pacemen Javagal Srinath and Zaheer Khan, operating quite superbly.

Australia was the best side in the first stage, and it is a team with so many quality players. Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist are destructive openers and there is a considerable amount of confidence in the side. Ricky Ponting has led the team well too.

Even on the rare occasion when most fail, as it happened in Australia's final league game against England, Michael Bevan, the man for crunch times, will come good. The depth in the side is quite phenomenal, so too is the reserve strength.

What can I say about someone like Andy Bichel? The fact that the Australian attack consists of Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, and Brett Lee, three world class bowlers, means Bichel often has to sit on the sidelines. However, whenever he has been given an opportunity, the man has made it count.

He was quite sensational with the ball against England as his seven wickets would testify, and I was quite impressed at how easily he batted under all the pressure when England appeared to have a stranglehold on the game.

The Australians are hard to beat, but the game against England showed they too are vulnerable. In one-day cricket any side is beatable, and it is the form on the day of the game that matters. All we can do is to make predictions on the basis of the form.

Sri Lanka, suffered a shocking defeat at the hands of Kenya, however, Sanath Jayasuriya's men rose to the occasion during the big matches, and wins over New Zealand and the West Indies were indeed creditable. Jayasuriya and Marvan Atapattu sparkled with the bat, but the Lankans have problems in the middle-order where the talented Mahela Jayawardene is finding runs hard to come by.

In the Lankan attack, left-arm paceman Chaminda Vaas has been brilliant, moving the ball around, and being persistent and accurate, and champion off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan, was outdone for once.

The advantage Sri Lanka has here is that it possesses so many batsmen who can turn their arm around more than usefully. Jayasuriya is a prime example and men like Aravinda de Silva, and Russel Arnold can keep the batsmen tied down with their off-spin too.

New Zealand is an efficient side, and there is plenty of depth in its ranks, with several players who can both bat and bowl. Stephen Fleming's century against the South Africans in a desperate situation for his team was a sensational one, and he really took on Shaun Pollock & Co. smashing them to all corners of the park.

It is important for the captain to inspire his men when the chips are down, and Fleming was not found wanting. Nathan Astle and Chris Cairns are the other key elements in the New Zealand side, but do not discount men like the combative all-rounder Scott Styris, who has been a revelation in the tournament. The Kiwis are outstanding on the field and have a match-winning bowler in Shane Bond. The paceman struggled to find his rhythm in the first stage, but is just the type of bowler who can be dangerous in the knock-out matches.

Zimbabwe and Kenya, the other two sides that have made the `Super Six' may have benefited from England and New Zealand forfeiting matches, however, that is hardly their fault. The odds may have been against them, but you still cannot rule out an upset. Did Kenya not pull the rug from under the feet of the Lankans in Nairobi.

Zimbabwe did put up a good fight against Australia, although, the side, going through a difficult time, is not jelling together as a unit, which is not surprising considering the off-field events in the country. On the field, Andrew Blignaut did manage to make an impression as a fine striker of the ball, who can make an impact lower down the order.

Kenya deserves some credit for its displays and this is a side with some talented cricketers like captain Steve Tikolo, openers Ravindu Shah and Kennedy Otieno, off-spinner Maurice Odumbe and all-rounder Thomas Odoyo. The blossoming of younger players like Collins Obuya only augurs well for the future of the game in the country.

Among the teams that were eliminated, South Africa was unlucky to miss out again so narrowly, however, apart from opener Herschelle Gibbs and paceman Mkaya Ntini, the cricket the Proteas dished out was hardly inspiring. The side has a lot of rebuilding to do, especially in the middle-order and the pace bowling departments.

England had a tough job after refusing to fly to Zimbabwe, yet it could have progressed, had it displayed better cricketing sense, when the Australians were on the mat. The West Indies was badly let down by the middle-order, the side collapsing against both New Zealand and Sri Lanka. It must be said though that a `no-result' when it was well placed to defeat Bangladesh handsomely, hurt its chances no end. Rain turned out to be a big factor in the first stage, South Africa and the West Indies would vouch for this. It rained and they went out of the tournament.