March 24, 2003

Invincible Australia tower above the rest

It took 54 matches to do so, but the World Cup has eventually confirmed that Australia are the best team on the planet, and by a distance. The great thing for cricket was that the title was decided on the field of play and nowhere else. It would have been a tragedy had the rush to get the game decided to fit in with the world's television schedules forced Duckworth/Lewis to be applied when there were spare days available. So much else was controlled by such factors and had more to do with business and politics than cricket.

So what will be the abiding memories of this World Cup? There were some thrilling performances, individual excellence and yet a catalogue of blunders that will leave a slightly unsatisfactory after-taste.

There was the brilliance of Sachin Tendulkar who confirmed himself as the best batsman around, the fast bowling of Brett Lee throughout and the historic 100 mph ball by Shoaib Akhtar.

Not all the outstanding moments were provided by the big boys though. Remember that innings by John Davison of Canada against the West Indies. And Asif Karim being congratulated by umpire Steve Bucknor on a miserly and skilful spell against the Australians. The Kenyans reaching the semi-final gave hope to underdogs everywhere, the Namibians had their moments and the Dutch radiated good fellowship as their orange kit radiated sunshine.

One of the great comments of the tournament came from the Dutch captain Roland Lefebvre who could justifiably deemed conditions unsuitable to play at a sodden Potchefstroom. But, he said, his boys would learn nothing for the future sitting in the pavilion and so went out to face the might of Australia.

If that action brought out the spirit of the World Cup, there was the sadness of seeing Jonty Rhodes being forced into premature retirement through injury. There was sadness too at the absence of Shane Warne when the results of a dope test revealed that he had been just that - a dope.

There was Adam Gilchrist walking in the semi-final, and Ricky Ponting claiming that he had not really walked but had failed to hear the umpire say not out. To do otherwise might have had Gilchrist on a charge of betraying the carefully honed image of Australian cricket.

How sad that Sourav Ganguly chose Gilchrist in the final to display a woeful ineptitude when it comes to judging the path of a ball from bat to hand. When a ball from Harbhajan Singh went off Gilchrist's thigh-pad onto the ground some inches short of Ganguly's hand at slip, he claimed a catch. If he was not inept, believing the ball had gone from the edge of the bat straight into his hand, he was guilty of cheating and thoroughly deserved the crowd's derision when the incident, including the appeal and celebration, was shown on the big screen.

When it comes to cheating and replays, it would seem that the technology is available to determine the legality of a bowling action, even if the will to use it is not. It is an emotive issue, but the use of baggy three-quarter length sleeves and claims of congenital deformities to mask actions that are questionable at best cannot be good for the long-term health of the game.

Then there was the political posturing without which no major sporting event can take place nowadays. For all their effervescent joy, it is unlikely that Kenya would have got as far as they did had New Zealand been prepared to go to play in Nairobi. Similarly, there is little doubt that Zimbabwe are not one of the top six sides in the world, but they were projected there by England's refusal to play in Harare and the rain in Bulawayo.

New Zealand had genuine fears about going to Nairobi. England knew that their presence in Harare would have sparked off more serious demonstrations than had any other side been due to travel there. The credibility of the World Cup organisers was dented when, shortly after Deputy Commissioner of Police Andre Pruis went on television to dismiss the letter from the "Sons and Daughters of Zimbabwe" as no more than a hoax, Interpol reported that they considered the organisation to be a serious threat.

It was the same unsophisticated mentality that put the heavy hand of the law on an innocent spectator found drinking a can of Coca Cola and charged with "ambush marketing" when the official sponsor was Pepsi. He was not so much guilty as thirsty.

The most uplifting aspect of the whole Zimbabwe affair was the bravery of Andy Flower and Henry Olonga in their much-publicised protest against the regime in their country. A simple act of courage that put other protests and political stances in deep shade.

On the field too there was much about which to enthuse. Brian Lara came back to something near his best while the West Indies have started on the long road back to becoming a cricketing force. Shane Bond spearheading New Zealand's continuing ability to punch above their weight - a campaign superbly orchestrated by Stephen Fleming. Aravinda de Silva still showing class and giving hope to the over-35s. England could take solace from being the only side to run Australia close.

But, at the end of a long tournament, there can only be one abiding memory. It is of the players in the green and gold around their captain Ricky Ponting holding the World Cup. Those Australians look invincible. They were invincible.

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