March 24, 2003

Predictable end to a long, long tournament

In the end it was a tame, rather predictable finish, although nothing like the anti-climax of the 1999 World Cup final. Sourav Ganguly's decision to field first at least provided the sell-out Wanderers crowd with some magnificent batting, as Australia emphatically proved their global superiority. Four years ago Pakistan were finished almost before their innings had started, ensuring the dampest of squibs.

This time only England and New Zealand - and fleetingly Pakistan in their first match all those weeks ago - managed to give Australia so much as a hint of their mortality. Their approach was encapsulated in the climax; stylish and aggressive batting, electrifying running, leonine fielding and bowling of predatory precision. India, so assured in their progress against all others, simply had no answer.

So the tournament that began with such a flourish in Cape Town last month has meandered a chequered way to its conclusion. The build-up was dogged by the wretched Zimbabwe affair, which in the end - leaving aside arguments about morality and security - almost certainly cost England their place in the Super Six. The other team to forfeit, New Zealand, managed to go through, but also helped to propel Kenya to the semi-finals in the shock of the tournament.

Kenya's achievement in beating Sri Lanka was uplifting, after early signs that this World Cup might be remembered for all the wrong reasons. The bizarre drugs affair, for which Shane Warne was perhaps too harshly punished, and an early injury to Jonty Rhodes robbed the event of two stellar performers. Of those left, Brian Lara asserted himself in felicitous manner at the outset, while Sachin Tendulkar was peerless until his early demise in the final.

As to other teams, the suspicion that Bangladesh are not worthy of Test status was weighted by their winless run, in which they lost not only to Kenya but, if you please, Canada as well. As they do frustratingly often, Pakistan lacked cohesion, while Zimbabwe's progress to the last six belied their frailties. Sri Lanka relied far too heavily on a handful of seniors, and England, worthy performers for the most part, could not capitalise when they had Australia at their mercy.

Unfortunate though the West Indies were to lose two crucial points to rain, they still look like a team in transition. New Zealand - widely viewed as Australia's likeliest conquerors - lacked depth in bowling, particularly at the death. In the event India came a comfortable second, but nothing like as comfortable as Australia, who remain in a class of their own.

The saddest fate was reserved for the host nation. With one or two shining exceptions South Africa looked like yesterday's also-rans, and of questionable mathematical ability to boot. Re-building is a matter of pressing urgency for them, but the summary dismissal of Shaun Pollock looked hasty and poorly managed.

It seems an age since the tournament started. Even Ali Bacher, who organised it, admitted it was too long. The inclusion of Canada, the Netherlands and Namibia, wonderful opportunity though it was for them, meant too many meaningless matches in the early stages, and some distorted individual records. Why, for example, should Craig Wishart (172 against Namibia) head the individual innings list ahead of Andrew Symonds (147 against Pakistan) and Ricky Ponting, who reached new levels of splendour in the final? I know which of these innings I shall remember.