Saturday, March 22, 2003

My World Cup Final Preview

England has idiotic licensing laws when it comes to pub opening hours. Pubs are generally allowed to sell alcoholic drinks from midday to 11.00 pm (10.30pm on Sundays) and that is it. It is actually possible for pubs to get extended licences, but in doing so they are at the mercy of local councils, who generally want to impose all sorts of onerous conditions (and charge substantial amounts of money) for pubs that wish to do this. (Scotland has always had much flexible laws than England on this score).

This isn't normally a huge deal. I don't generally want to go to the pub before lunchtime, and most pubs don't want to open before lunchtime. There is one exception to this. If a major sporting event is on, I often want to watch it in a pub, because it's social and fun, and also because I may not have the pay television channels that are showing the event. Obviously, the licensing hours get in the way of this if the event is on late at night, as is often the case with events in the US, or if the event is on in the morning, as is the case with events being played anywhere in the eastern hemisphere.

When the football world cup was on last year, the British government was very aware of this problem, and changed the law for the course of the event so that pubs could sell alcohol in the mornings while the tournament was on. Lots of people met up in pubs, had a nice time watching the match, and then went about their days.

The present cricket World Cup has also faced this problem. Day matches have mostly started at 8am. Pubs have been closed until midday, and for day matches we have only been able to watch the second innings of matches in pubs. (Day/Night matches have started at 12.30pm and everything has been good). This has been annoying.

Tomorrow, of course, we have the final. Australia versus India. There isn't that much interest in it from English people, but there are lots of Indians and Australians in town to fill up a few bars where the match is showing. (The Australian themed "Walkabout" bar in Croydon has been filling up with steadily more excited Indians as the tournament has gone on). Pubs are perfectly welcome to open at 8am if they want to, but they may not start selling alcohol until midday. With this the case, quite a few pubs that might fill up with people if they opened early for the match will not do so, because they will not make much money selling breakfast and Coca-Cola. As far as I know, there is nowhere in Croydon that will be doing this, so I am going to have to go to central London. I know that the Walkabout bar in Shepherd's Bush will be open (and full of Australians, rather than just being Australian themed), and | may risk finding out that the shepherds in Shepherd's Bush are as dangerous as Neil Gaiman warned and go there. Sill, this is going to mean I have to get up at 6.30am on a Sunday. Mr Blair, it is time to change the law.

Any way, onto the match. Scott Wickstein has given a good preview, so I will just offer a few thoughts. In recent years, Australia's best seam bowler by far has been Glenn McGrath. One thing in particular that makes McGrath a great bowler is his tendency to pick out the best batsman in the opposing side before a series, and target this player specifically. He has done this with Lara, Atherton, and Teldulkar before, usually with great success. And he will be targeting Tendulkar tomorrow. McGrath has bowled extremely well in this tournament without really getting much publicity (18 wickets at 14.33 from ten games is outstanding just the same). However, I don't think that will matter tomorrow. I think McGrath will be pulling something special out of the fire for Tendulkar. I think this is his job, and he will rise to it.

As for the rest of the Indian side, Ganguly and Dravid especially are fine batsmen, but Bichel, Hogg, and Lee are good enough to stop them from getting too many runs. Lee started the tournament slowly, but since then has been improving. If he can produce another of those killer spells like he produced against New Zealand and Sri Lanka, that could almost win the game. Note also that he produced those spells on the slow pitch of Port Elizabeth. The Wanderers will suit him much better. I'm looking forward to watching him bowl.

As for the Australian batting, the Australian top order has had a little difficulty in its last few games. Ponting and Hayden in particular didn't really get the hang of the slow pitch in Port Elizabeth, and got out to inappropriate shots. Gilchrist looked better, but even so didn't put together a big innings, partly due to his honesty in the semi-final. (The fact that these highly rated players had difficulty and Andrew Symonds managed to get the hang of the pitch says enormously positive things about Symonds. His innings in the semi-final was in the end so impressive that I think he deserves serious consideration for test selection because of it). However, tomorrow in Johannesburg, the conditions will suit Ponting and Hayden much better. I expect a big innings from one of them. In fact, I expect a very big innings from one of them. After that, Australia have Symonds, Bevan, Bichel, hopefully Martyn to finish things off. I think Australia will score a lot of runs tomorrow. The test will be whether India can score a lot of runs too.

In December, I wrote a preview of the World Cup. I predicted Australia to win. However, I didn't do very well otherwise, getting all the other semi-finalists wrong (I predicted South Africa, New Zealand and Pakistan). The reason I predicted what I did was that in recent years teams from the subcontinent have done badly on the fast pitches of South Africa. As it happened, though, the pitches have been much slower than expected, and this helped India and Sri Lanka to do better than I expected, and hindered South Africa, New Zealand and Pakistan. The more I think about it, the more I realise that the types of pitches we have encountered have turned the tournament upside down. With all the publicity about defaults, upsets, the Duckworth/Lewis rule and so forth, this fact has been lost a little in all the noise, but it is absolutely crucial. This ultimately is what has caused many of the fancied teams to stumble. The more I think about this point, the more impressive it becomes that Australia have not stumbled.

In December, I said this about India.

India are the great frustration of world cricket. They have on paper the best batting side in the world, although their bowling is ordinary. In India they can be magnificent. Elsewhere they are very inconsistent. (Actually, that is wrong. Outside India they lose consistently). Their present performance in New Zealand is not inspiring. I don't expect them to go very far in the tournament either. For them to have a shot at winning the tournament, one or more of their world class batsman (probably Sachin Tendulkar) is going to have to have an absolute blinder of a tournament, by which I mean he is going to have to score four or more centuries. He is going to have to do this against the bowlers of South Africa and Australia, which will be hard. To win, India have to score large totals consistently and prevent their opposition from doing the same. They do not have the bowlers to win low scoring matches. A win by India in the tournament is unlikely, although not actually impossible.

I think I at least got the qualifications right. India's world class batsman have performed. Tendulkar has indeed had a blinder, and although he has only scored one century, he has a couple of other scores in the high 90s. Ganguly has three centures, so a player scoring four is still possible, although I hope not.

What is impressive about Australia is that despite the pitches not suiting them, they have won every game anyway. You can criticise their performances in Port Elizabeth with the bat, but they still managed about 210 in each of the three games. This is better than anyone else has managed in Port Elizabeth. And the fact is, the pitch in Johannesburg tomorrow will suit them much better. And Australia's record playing in Johannesburg is superb. Australia to win tomorrow.

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