Four novels rolled into one

Just a week into the World Cup and with a twist at every turn, it felt like four novels rolled into one.

BY HARSHA BHOGLE

New Zealand's Stephen Fleming celebrates his century against South Africa in Johannesburg. It was a gem of a knock.-— Pic. AP

Just a week into the World Cup and with a twist at every turn, it felt like four novels rolled into one. The pride of South Africa dramatically arriving at the doors of another team; the tale of three outstanding innings and two great ones; the exit of two charismatic cricketers and the sordid story of England and the ghosts they see in Zimbabwe. A week is a very long period.

The fate of South Africa was in many ways, the most unbelievable of them all. They are a proud cricketing nation and are very good at what they do. And they will reflect on the week and realise how little they did wrong. In spite of a wonderful innings from Brian Lara, and it really was heartwarming, they were one boundary hit away from a win. And at Johannesburg, they got the worse of the weather and the interruptions.

But they are bowling badly. Lance Klusener is no longer a dangerous bowler at this level and Jacques Kallis has suddenly tapered off. These were their two giants and if they are now reduced to being just a slogger, as Klusener now is, and a batsman, which is what Kallis is, their balance gets upset greatly. It hasn't helped that Nicky Boje, another whose batting seems the more impressive half of his game, hasn't been able to rise to the challenge of being a lead bowler but it is the form of Allan Donald that has hit them the most.

At this World Cup it is the bowlers who are coming behind the new ball who are proving to be crucial. That was Donald's job in his last tournament. Sadly, coming off a short run, he doesn't seem to generate the momentum that has rocked so many batsmen. Maybe he should have gone earlier for watching him in the first week was like seeing a caged serpent. The fear was gone, the fangs seemed to have been removed. He has been a genuinely great cricketer but his affair with the World Cup seems jinxed. He was denied a wicket with South Africa's first ball at the World Cup in 1992, blanked out in the semi-final of 1999 and now seems spent. Age is a cruel thing but maybe he needs to go back to the top of his real run-up one final time.

It has been a great week for lovers of good batting and how appropriate that the volatile temperament of an artist should kick it off. At Newlands, Brian Lara's scintillating century stood out against the soporific Opening Ceremony the previous night. It will count amongst his best and that alone makes it a great event. Sanath Jayasuriya cut and slashed New Zealand as we have come to expect off him and Herschelle Gibbs, now a genuine world star, showed off his great talent against New Zealand. Andrew Symonds, whose life threatened to be an unfulfilled story, suddenly rode on the back of the captain's confidence in him to play the innings of a lifetime. That is why Australia are a great team. In times of peril, they find a statesman. Symonds has always been a wonderful athlete but this might be the making of him as a batsman.

But wonderful as those innings were, and to get four in a week is more than a cricket lover can ask for, they were bettered by Stephen Fleming's effort at the Wanderers. Fleming is a good man, firm and decisive, and you could see the leader in him as he played the greatest innings of his life against South Africa. For the romantics, Lara's innings and this one, will linger like a pleasant perfume. Fleming had to keep wickets intact to stay ahead on the Duckworth-Lewis target, he had to keep scoring at six an over in case the rain stayed away long enough for a full match and he had the decision to forfeit the game against Kenya at the back of his mind. Fleming is no Lara but in the lives of leaders come moments like these; when will and character overcome natural ability. It was an unforgettable day.

The batsmen, and the fast bowling of Brett Lee and Jason Gillespie, were the glory moments in the first week. The departures of Shane Warne and Jonty Rhodes provided the poignancy. Warne's exit, like his bowling, had the element of mystery to it. As a bowler, he has often pulled wool over the eyes of his opponents, as a person he has sometimes exposed his feeble side and that is why his latest foray into the greyer side of life carried an air of inevitability to it. Warne must return, maybe later in the year, for he is an intoxicating cricketer, but his temporary absence will make the game stronger.

The end of Jonty Rhodes' career though must tug at every heart. For one who spread happiness, his glory moment has produced such sadness. Like Karna at the wheel of his chariot, denied his skills when he most needed them, Jonty must ponder over his fate. He is a breezy character though, willing to submit to what comes his way, and the kind who scrapes joy out of every event. There is much to learn from Warne's skill but still more from Jonty's attitude; one was a magician the other a conjurer of joy. For all the brilliant cricket in the first week, the World Cup is poorer. But is a huge cup we drink from and this too shall pass.

It was good to see England play at last. There was far too much posturing and far too many people saying things without taking responsibility for their actions. The politicians who sought to make cricket an issue while allowing businesses to go to Zimbabwe were the worst off. They should have been telling England what to do, not dumping the decision in the hands of na�ve cricketers. And certainly the England Cricket Board, and not the England captain, should have been the public face of English cricket. England's cricket captain needs to know whom to pick and drop, how to make bowling changes, how to set fields, how to balance the batting order but it seems he also needs to be a security expert, a seasoned political observer and wise grandfather to his team. It is asking for too much.

Sadly the worst was reserved for the end. India's cricket fans showed their ugly side by attacking homes of cricketers. We love too much and we hate too much but this is a game. Nobody is killing anybody and while expression of disappointment, even disgust, is valid anything beyond that goes into the realm of the uncivilised.