The Sehwag factor


NEVER mind the result of the final, India must acquire more than pride from the ICC Champions Trophy. Their victory against South Africa in the semi-final ought to bind those players who took part into a solid team.

Whenever they find themselves facing defeat in the future they will have the memories from the Premadasa Stadium to urge them on. When a youngster comes into the side the heroes of Premadasa can tell him, as Wellington's veterans told the new boys at Waterloo: "We have won battles that seemed to be lost. Now it is your turn to produce miracles too." After that victory every additional win will be a medal to hang on the honours board with the success against South Africa at its centre.

You will have detected by now that I have fallen in love with the exotic brand of one-day cricket that is India's trademark. They are a side filled with gifted, brilliant and yet superbly orthodox batsmen, they have two improving left-arm quick bowlers, and their spin bowlers are two of the best in the world. Oh, and by the way, Virender Sehwag can bowl off-spin so slowly and so accurately that even the most ambitious batsman is reduced to a leaden-footed quiver.

Australia does not possess such an wide array of talent because their side rely on strong opening batsmen, three fearsome fast bowlers and Shane Warne. They are still the best side in the world; now is the time when India can mount a challenge.

England had such a triumph two years ago in the Karachi Test when Graham Thorpe and Graeme Hick batted in the dark to beat Pakistan.

There was a glint in the eyes of Nasser Hussain when I met him in the hotel lobby later that night and again a few hours afterwards in Dubai Airport - where he was happy to look ridiculous as he carried the giant cup around - that promised further victories to come.

They achieved one notable success in Sri Lanka but then, in two hours at Old Trafford, all their hopes were dashed. Between tea and the close on the final day eight wickets went down. They lost to Pakistan and drew that series 1-1.

Apparently as this collapse continued the Australians were travelling across England. It did not take that super-confident team long to realise that, as one of them put it, "It's the same old England." They had arrived expecting a surging new side; instead the team that has not held the Ashes for 13 years was as prone to collapse as ever.

The result was another England defeat at the hands of the Australians and another 15 months in which it has become increasingly unlikely that the Ashes will return.

Which bring us neatly back to the tragic figure of Graham Thorpe who has now decided that he will not travel Down Under this winter because he cannot concentrate on his cricket as fiercely as he would like. His decision has brought a wave of sympathy.

Briefly, Thorpe was caught by a tabloid newspaper with a girl he met in New Zealand several years ago and then greeting his wife and children affectionately just a few days later.

That story rocked the marriage, his wife then formed a relationship with his best friend and the Thorpes divorced.

There has been acrimony over his rights to see his children which has distressed him but even though his wife's new relationship has ended the problems with the children continue.

I understand. I have been down that path and I know the heartache. Thirty years on that personal business still causes me distress.

Perhaps it was as well that I could not afford to give up work. I simply got on with writing about sport to earn enough money to keep the whole family from disintegrating.

Don't think for a minute that I insist that Thorpe should follow the same pattern. That is for him to decide; but in a country where one marriage in three ends in divorce I, and others like me, have been able to bury their worries at work. Thorpe feels he cannot and that is perfectly reasonable. Many of his team-mates with Surrey and England have said they want him to do what is best for him. I feel the same.

The secondary effect has been to halt the progress of team building which, in the absence of a great new star, is the way forward for England. Perhaps Michael Vaughan will fill the void but Thorpe's ability to run the good ball into the gaps and the bad balls to the boundary will be missed.

His left-handedness and his words of advice to Nasser Hussain after ten years in Test cricket, have also become an invaluable part of the England pattern over Hussain's time in charge. Hussain looked upset when he heard the news and it was not just his friendship with Thorpe that caused him grief.

By the time Thorpe walked off in the darkness at Karachi, he had taken Mike Atherton's place as England's senior batsman, he was able to speak with authority to both the media, the players in his own dressing room and the opposition. He was probably captain in waiting.

He has allowed all that to slip away and here's the tragedy. Thorpe has known nothing except professional cricket since he left school. He has no trade, scholarship nor qualification to fall back on and the lisp that embarrasses him so severely makes him an unlikely candidate for the commentary box.

We must just wish him a speedy recovery from a spell in which he must have been close to a nervous breakdown.

Everyone will also wish Geoff Boycott, now being treated for cancer, a quick return to health. His blunt words are a blessed change from the successions of "he must be disappointed" and "he will think he has made a bit of a mistake there" and "he's out of form a little bit" which are the common parlance of less forthright commentators.

John Arlott's poetry and Brian Johnston's ribaldry have not been replaced in either radio nor television here; although Jon Agnew tries hard to tell it the way it is and Henry Blofeld is the nearest British imitation of Bill Lawry and his all-the-facts-in-one-burst brand of delivery.

Now come hints that Richie Benaud will not continue much longer. We had dinner with him and his wife Daphne recently in which he spoke so fondly of his home in France that we imagined he would soon spend all his time there.

When that happens we will have a look at Benaud's influence on the game which I suggest has been wholly for the good. In the meantime, who takes his place? In England with 444 for four and in Australia with four for 444 this remarkable man has filled the airwaves for more than 35 years and he will leave a wide gap.

Who fills the void? Mark Nicholas, the languid former Hampshire captain, so beloved of television, a place where the ability to place oneself at the centre of events is almost as important as it is on the playing field or the stage?

Ian Smith, the cheeky chappie who used to be New Zealand's wicket-keeper and who is just as inventive in front of a microphone, may be too young. Tony Cozier, one of my favourites, and Ian Chappell, who is almost as outspoken as Boycott, and Bill Lawry, my all time hero, will be considered too old as they face life on a pension.

My own choice, on the day when I confess to a new admiration for all things Indian, is Ravi Shastri, tall, elegant, superbly turned out and now not just a spokesman for the players on the financial front but able to express his views succinctly and forcefully, characteristics many of his fellows lack.

His recent brush with authority which increased the size of his shadow and enabled India to send their strongest team to Sri Lanka may, like India's victory, be the push he needs to grasp the biggest microphone.

The role is pivotal in an era when television controls sport and its sponsors. "I'm afraid that unless you change the itinerary, we will not be able to cover the next Test," I heard a television executive tell a Board member not long ago. The venue for the next Test was changed for without television there would be no sponsor, no advertising hoardings and therefore a glimpse of bankruptcy.

Yes, that powerful, that important, that necessary.