Prejudiced views and bigoted friends


I HAVE a friend who is wise, witty and warm. A generous man. Unhappily, he has a design fault, unacceptable in the 21st century, even though it lurked under the name of patriotism when he was born.

There is in his soul no time for the coloured races and he expresses his views in crude, unnecessarily crude, terms whenever he is among people he perceives to be of like mind.

He also believes - in common with many cricketers of his age and stature - that no bowler nor batsman worth talking about has been born since the Second World War. Biased, prejudiced and bigoted. All these terms apply. Unfortunately.

I still like the man for all his faults. So imagine my surprise when he rang me one day and announced: "I've just been watching Curtly Ambrose. Now he is a great bowler." I almost fell off my lap top.

It is the most telling commendation of that wonderful bowler I have ever heard since it came from the lips of a man least likely to hold such an opinion.

I met my friend at Headingley after England's abject failure to take advantage of the swinging, seaming, lifting, vicious pitch that should have seen India bowled out for no more than 180.

"What about that little lot then?" I asked him, pointing to the scoreboard. "Impressed?"

"If proper bowlers had been operating the batting side would have been dismissed for 100, perhaps less," he grumbled.

"And if Ambrose had been bowling?"

"Any batsman would have been lucky to make nought."

Having said all that we have to pay tribute to the Indian batting. Indeed, after intelligent captaincy from Sourav Ganguly, good outcricket and determination at Leeds we have every reason to think their time may be now.

Better still their Under-19 team have just conquered England's one-day side decisively; 3-0, with thunderous batting from their 16-year-old opening batsman Ambati Rayudu who made 177 not out in the third game and won it with a six. What batting, what cricket, what sport. What a 16-year-old.

There have been two outstanding performances at Leeds in the last 12 years. Graham Gooch with the century that beat the West Indies in 1991 and two undefeated innings by Salim Malik a year later. The Indian batsmen played innings fit to be rated alongside Gooch and Malik.

At Lord's when they set out to make the unlikely fourth innings total of 568, I found myself sitting next to Mihir Bose, author of A History of Indian Cricket, now sports-news reporter with The Daily Telegraph.

Soon a bet was struck. I backed India to make the runs. The loose change in my trouser pockets, enough money to buy a small family an ice cream apiece, against some mythical figure Mihir conjured from his imagination. It may have been the contents of Fort Knox, or a lottery prize, dinner for two, or 100 pounds. No matter; my loose change was soon in his trouser pockets.

My own impulse was based on the power of those top six Indian batsmen. "Mark my words," I said as I handed him his paltry winnings, "they will make massive runs sometime in this series."

At Leeds Mihir was good enough to acknowledge that - at last, some will say - the six had come good.

Heavens, how well they played. Even though Virender Sehwag fell into the trap set by Matthew Hoggard's wide ball and V. V. S. Laxman missed out, Sanjay Bangar, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly showed they understood cricket's oldest principle.

They defended until it was safe to attack. Then they let fly. I have rarely seen better orthodox batting in the 200 Tests it has been my privilege to watch in the last 20 years.

England's bowlers, guided by their charismatic captain, advised by their coach, bowled the wrong line and length.

My quarrel with their performance was not that four of the best five seamers in the country failed to unsettle this mighty batting line-up but that there were ordinary county pace bowlers who would have expected returns of five or more wickets on this pitch. Never mind Alec Bedser, Maurice Tate or Syd Barnes; here was a straightforward job for any journeyman bowler versed in the ways of a typical English pitch.

Martin Bicknell at Surrey, Ashley Cowan of Essex, the Lancashire quick Glen Chapple, even Gus Fraser now sitting in the Press Box; anyone of them would have bowled better.

It was a pitch on which to attack the stumps, with full-length balls and let the lift and movement do the rest. Instead England bowled as if they were attempting to control batsmen on a plumb wicket.

As a result the common sight was of men shouldering arms, the ball pitching wide and moving wider and Alec Stewart being forced to dive legside and offside. He allowed 12 byes off deliveries so far away that he could not have stopped them with a fisherman's net.

From the moment India reached the close of the first day with two wickets down, they had only to keep going to win the Test. Thus Ganguly could declare on the third morning at 628 for eight. He had the luxury of enforcing the follow-on, of knowing that time and the tide of events were on his side. He was able to throw the ball to spinner or seamer assured that the pressure of such a huge score must make England batsmen despair.

At the end he had more than four hours in hand as he led India to a rare victory abroad: their fourth and their most convincing in England, a morale booster after so many disappointments, a joy to the large crowd who took advantage of the low prices on the final day.

India are, like England, a flawed team. They have three great Test batsmen; the men who made the centuries at Leeds. They have two outstanding spinners who captured 11 of the England wickets in this famous victory.

Their coach John Wright must weep at the fielding which varies between brilliant and lackadaisical and the running between the wickets too often turns threes into twos based on a slow first or a casual second.

To their credit, India's stars managed to shrug off the concerns and pressures that came with all the talk of contracts, ambush sponsorship and the coming ICC Trophy in Sri Lanka.

This obsession with money is far removed from sport, although I have every hope that players can grow rich. The rest makes my head hurt. I cannot believe that ICC did not see the problem coming.

Remember "Nothing Official About It" in 1996? Surely six years is long enough to sort out the money men, especially when the World Cup is just around the corner and the whole future of the game is in the balance.

Fingers crossed, while we get back to the issues around Headingley. India won without the help of Javagal Srinath who was quietly accumulating wickets for Leicestershire while his erstwhile companions where mopping up England 70 miles north. How well would he have bowled on this pitch? Would his potential have been enough to persuade Ganguly to field first?

Finally, there was the odd juxtaposition of the two wicket-keepers. Stewart, 39, was playing for Surrey before Parthiv Patel, 17, was born. No need to look in the record books. Here we had the widest gap in wicket-keeping age and experience in Test history.

I especially liked the moment when Patel was injured and Ganguly would not let him leave the field lest he miss the triumphant moment that came with victory. He was a tough captain showing a lad how hard you need to be to succeed. Stewart has given Patel a pat on the back too; and Stewart does not dish out praise nor encouragement lightly.

But, if I may indulge a sentimental moment, that is a best of this game. Foes can praise one another, opponents have a drink together when the battle is over, and men can forget their prejudices.

Even my blighted friend was impressed. "At least India played proper cricket," he said, pointing over his shoulder at the celebrating Indians. "Our lot got everything wrong. Not that it's a surprise."

Tom Cartwright, a shrewd medium pacer of 30 years ago but not a man who holds the modern cricketer in contempt, summed it up best. "Our bowlers don't have control of the ball," he said recently.