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28 June 1999

Cricket World Cup – Next time, let the real fans have a chance to watch

By Simon Heffer

On my way into Lord’s on the morning of the World Cup final, I and others heading for the turnstiles were addressed plaintively by an Australian (at least I think he was an Australian, for he was clutching a rubber kangaroo, which would seem an extreme measure for someone who is not) who claimed he would pay £1,000 for a ticket. It was raining heavily, and the offer might have made one or two of my fellow spectators pause for thought. Once I had found my place in the grandstand I told my friend, the grateful recipient of whose corporate hospitality I was, of the riches that had just flashed before me and which I had manfully refused. “I’d have taken it,” he replied, a statement that shocked me at the time but which I now appreciate indicated just how blessed with second sight he was.

We agreed at stumps that a couple of things alone had made it worthwhile: Mark Waugh’s spectacular catch to dismiss Wasti, needing such a long dive that 95 batsmen out of 100 would have reckoned to get away with it, and Adam Gilchrist’s six over the slips. In cricketing terms the day confirmed a couple of things most of us already knew – that once Australia put their minds to it they can beat anybody and that Pakistan, as Corporal Jones so memorably put it, don’t like it up ’em. The moment things started to go badly, they simply surrendered. Admittedly a target of 132 was never going to be easy to defend, but when the Pakistanis started to treat fielding as though it were an optional extra, and Gilchrist began to make the already legendary Shoaib look ordinary – even when bowling at 96mph – you sensed that most of the boys were mentally already on the plane home.

I dare say the Pakistanis might have done better had a few more of their supporters actually been able to get into the ground. I can’t believe that a system could not have been devised whereby a large proportion of tickets – say 10,000 out of the 30,000 available – could have been held back to the last few days and sold through agents of the Australian and Pakistani cricket boards to bona fide fans. Some typically intelligent soul from the English Cricket Board came up with the pathetic excuse that people who decide at the last minute that they want to watch a World Cup final should not be given priority over those who have decided and paid up months in advance. What bollocks. If, for example, 30,000 Japanese businessmen had decided three years ago that it would make an interesting corporate cultural experiment for them to fill Lord’s last Sunday, would that have been good for the game? I think not. What the arrangements meant to a country with a large Pakistani community and a not negligible Australian one was that the “carnival of cricket” managed to exclude thousands who would otherwise have developed their excitement for the game and then gone out and evangelised about it – even after so one-sided a final.

Anyway there was no mistaking on whose side the largely English crowd was, and it was not Wasim’s. In some respects the Pakistanis should have taken this as a challenge, a golden opportunity to do some good PR on behalf of a cricketing nation that badly needs it. They have all the artistry necessary: what they lack is the attitude. When Inzamam, after being given out caught behind, took so long to leave the wicket and then actually get off the field that you suspected he had just contracted quadriplegia, you could hear all the familiar mutterings about bad Pakistani sportsmanship. Sadly the resumption of judicial examination of match-fixing allegations once the cricketers return home and the salivating way in which it will be reported in the cricket press mean that the long journey back to sporting respectability is still far from completed.

For all the spectacular displays by the Australians – not just their fielding and pyrotechnic batting but also the supremacy of McGrath and the brilliance of Warne – it was disappointing to have so one-sided a game. In our corner of the hospitality suite the conversation among the captains of industry turned to just why the Australians are so good. They certainly have an advanced sense of playing for their country, a country in which sport takes so high a priority. The same is true of the South Africans, the Indians and the Pakistanis, though in the last case it has gone beyond patriotism to be bound up with the murky worlds of politics and, it seems, crime. Our cricketers see what they do too much as just a job; and too many are, absurdly, in it for themselves. I say absurdly because if I were in something for myself I’d make sure I tried a bloody sight harder to make a success of it than many of our boys do.

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Sir Viv Richards, interviewed on television, made a highly relevant point about the decline of the West Indies team that applies also to England: that the side has lost sight of just how much cricket means to people in the West Indies. Richards’ mission is to re-inform players of that and to ensure that it reinforces their attitude to the game. Perhaps here cricket does not mean so much to us now; but if that is so it is because years of failure, complacency, incompetence and underachievement have forced the public to decide that it does not matter to them. The same could so easily happen in the West Indies, where, with the growing popularity of soccer and basketball, it could prove terminal – though not if Richards has anything to do with it.

But, we think, it could never happen here. Well it could and it will unless we learn from the Australians that doing well at this most cerebral of games is not just about physical ability. English cricket refuses to accept that it is in the last-chance saloon. If it doesn’t change soon and start to replace financial self-interest with a bit of enthusiasm for a sport that we gave to the world, we should spare ourselves further embarrassment and not bother to turn up in South Africa for the next carnival, in 2003.

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