November 12, 2006

Curse of the one-sided final

It's time opposition teams learnt how to compete with Australia in tournament finals



For the third time in a row, Australia turned a big final into a one-sided one © Getty Images

Most players quickly adapted to the conditions at the Champions Trophy but the one lesson opponents haven't learnt is how to compete with Australia in big matches. The last three major one-day finals are an indictment on the other major teams, as they appear to be waiting for Australia's standard to slip rather than trying to attain their level of excellence.

Australia won the 1999 World Cup final by eight wickets with Pakistan bowled out in 39 overs. India was only marginally better in 2003 being beaten by 125 runs and they capitulated in 39.2 overs. And seven years on, in the 2006 Champions Trophy final, Australia again won by eight wickets and the West Indies collapsed in only 30.4 overs. This is not Australia versus Holland or the USA; these are finals, supposedly between the two best sides in the tournament.

Lop-sided finals should be a concern to administrators and a sharply worded "please explain" letter would be on its way to all the major countries bar Australia if the ICC was really a ruling body and not just a gathering of officials mainly interested in politicking, power broking and the "bottomline".

When the West Indies was the dominant team in world cricket there were at least some serious challenges to their one-day supremacy. The current situation is bleak, with no indication of a team seriously challenging Australia at Kensington Oval in five months time. The aftermath of the Champions Trophy was dominated by reports of Australia's behaviour at the presentation ceremony; any problems with a superiority complex are the result of too many crushing victories over opposition that folds too easily.

The tournament itself was an eye-opener; cricket is always at its best when tactical battles are involved and thanks to the even nature of the contest between bat and ball these were regular rather than rare occurrences. The most important lessons to be learnt were at the Mohali Stadium. In the Australia versus India match the pitch was a cracker and gave every player a chance to display his skills. Apart from that lesson (wherever possible cricket should be an even contest between bat and ball), the other notable aspect of the game was the number of sixes hit - none.

Minimal boundaries encourage even the shortest hitters to consider clearing the rope. On the other hand, decent-sized boundaries deter most players because they feel a miss-hit could be caught and only the seriously long hitters attempt to clear the rope. There were a total of fifteen sixes hit at Mohali in 460 overs with some of the biggest hitters in the game involved in the matches. Contrast that with a ridiculous 26 that were hit in one game this year when both Australia and South Africa broke through the 400-run barrier at the Wanderers.

When the West Indies was the dominant team in world cricket there were at least some serious challenges to their one-day supremacy. The current situation is bleak, with no indication of a team seriously challenging Australia at Kensington Oval in five months time

If the administrators are trying to attract people mainly interested in big hitting to ODIs, they will soon discover the bulk of the audience is the "in crowd" - the types who frequent an establishment because it's the place to be seen and, when a better option comes along, quickly take their custom elsewhere.

Larger boundaries like Mohali not only encourage an even contest between bat and ball, they also allow players to display skills in out-fielding and running between wickets. When the pitch also provides bounce and pace a tactical battle is almost certain to develop and if the two teams are evenly matched, a good game ensues. Standardising short boundaries generally only provides big-hitting exhibitions, while the variety in cricket occurs when all skills are encouraged.

The other aspect that should be concerning the officials is the matter of television rights. If the cost of the rights is such that the television companies can only re-coup their outlay by adopting a policy of "the cricket is an interruption to the ad breaks" then a lot of fans will literally turn off. This is a serious consideration when new fans are mainly attracted to the game by first seeing it on television.

Big money is required to develop the game but it's hard to believe the cash is being spent wisely when one team is dominant. The administrators would do well to remember why the upcoming Ashes series has sold out in a hurry; because the cricket in 2005 was exciting and competitive.