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April 28, 2007
Australia put the seal on the most dominant campaign in World Cup history, securing their fourth title and their third in a row since 1999 thanks to Adam Gilchrist's scintillating 149 from 104 balls. But that, sadly, is not what the final of the ICC World Cup West Indies 2007 (to give it its full and fully deserved title) will be remembered for. In a display of cack-handedness that heaped new levels of farce upon a farcical seven weeks, the final overs of a broken contest were played out in near-darkness, penetrated only by the glow of the pavilion lights and the bewildered blinking of 20,000 flash bulbs.
Whatever went on in those overs is anyone's guess. It was too dark for the fielders to see anything, let alone any of the fans in the stadium or the press in the gantry, and besides, the Australians had already celebrated their moment of victory. That came after the sixth ball of the 33rd over, when the Sri Lankans - to all intents and purposes - accepted an offer for bad light, and appeared to have conceded the game with an improbable requirement of 63 from 18 balls.
What happened next will doubtless be the subject of blame-games, buck-passing and recriminations. Australia's celebratory huddle was broken up by a tap on the shoulder from the umpire Aleem Dar; the groundstaff who had been unpegging the onfield logos were told to nail them back down and reposition the pitch markers, and out trooped the players to block their way into the twilight. It was asinine, undignified, and entirely appropriate for a tournament that long since detached itself from the origins of sporting contests.
But let's concentrate on the onfield action, because - surprising as it may seem amid such a torrent of embarrassment - there was some pretty good cricket on display until officialdom stepped in to wreck everyone's memories. For all the romantic notions that Sri Lanka brought to their second final appearance in four tournaments - the mysteries of their bowling attack and the impishness of their batsmen - Australia's ruthlessness was absolute, as they extended their unbeaten run in World Cup matches to 29 since May 1999.
And it was Gilchrist who stormed to the fore, demonstrating an eye for the big occasion that is the preserve of few. This was his third scene-stealer in consecutive World Cup finals. Against Pakistan at Lord's in 1999, he cracked 54 from 36 balls; four years later against India at Johannesburg, he made 57 from 48. But nothing quite compared to this. Once the sun had come out and Gilchrist had gauged the pace and bounce of a rock-hard and true surface, there was no reining him - or Australia - in.
Gilchrist's innings was the highest ever made in a World Cup final, beating the mark of 140 set by his captain, Ricky Ponting, four years ago, and it was launched in a stand of 172 for the first wicket with Matthew Hayden, who made 38 from 55 balls before picking out Mahela Jayawardene in the covers.
Hayden's innings took his tournament tally to an incredible 659 runs at 73.22 - second only to Sachin Tendulkar's 671 in the 2003 World Cup - but today he was as anonymous as at any time in the past seven weeks. It did not matter a jot, for his performance as a quick-sprinting second fiddle was second-to-none. By the time of Hayden's dismissal, Gilchrist was already sitting pretty on 119, having faced almost five more overs than his partner.
Though Jayawardene had prevaricated at the toss, admitting he had been in two minds as to what he'd have done if he had won, Australia were in no doubt whatsoever. Five times in this tournament they had batted first and posted scores in excess of 300, and that would have been six in a row in a full-length contest. Gilchrist set the tone by clubbing Chaminda Vaas for four and six in the second over, while Lasith Malinga - the deadliest weapon in the Sri Lankan armoury - opted for accuracy over explosiveness.
Malinga went for just six runs in his first spell of four overs, but he was clocking an average of 84 mph, a good 10mph slower than in his devastating semi-final performance. It meant that the early breakthrough Sri Lanka so needed never materialised, especially when Dilhara Fernando - who began tidily enough from round the wicket - dropped a sharp return chance down by his shins when Gilchrist had made a run-a-ball 31.
The moment was lost and with it went Sri Lanka's best hope of controlling the tempo of the match that had been reduced to 38 overs by early rain. Fernando was a broken man after that - his next three deliveries were clubbed for four, four and six, the last of which very nearly took out the fire engine next to the 3Ws stand at long-on. It can only have been there to douse the ardour of Australia's batsmen, because Gilchrist was absolutely smoking. He brought up his 15th ODI hundred from just 72 balls with a drilled four over long-off, and thereafter heaved through the line with impunity, trusting his eye, the surface and the fact that the fight had gone out of his opponents.
Sri Lanka's batsmen did their best in the face of a spiralling run-rate, swinging the blade with gusto even as the cameras in the crowd betrayed the fading of both the light and their hopes. While Kumar Sangakkara and Sanath Jayasuriya were adding 116 for the second wicket, the contest was alive, but Sangakkara miscued Brad Hogg to Ponting at midwicket, before Jayasuriya, in the final appearance of a competition he has graced since 1992, was bowled by a flatter, faster delivery from the part-time spin of Michael Clarke.
Glenn McGrath, another man making his final bow, then seized another segment of the limelight by striking with his penultimate delivery in international cricket. It was not his greatest ball by any means - a legside full-toss that Russel Arnold (another retiree) popped off his hip to a diving Gilchrist. But it took his tournament tally to 26 wickets - a record - and his overall World Cup tally to 71 - another record.
Australia were the deserved winners of this contest, and in truth Sri Lanka were worthy runners-up - they plugged away with composure in the face of overwhelming odds, and the margin of Australia's victory was their slimmest in both the tournament and in their three latest World Cup wins. But the manner in which the victory was signed and sealed will continue to grate long after the teams have flown home. Such is the nature of the modern-day game of cricket.
Plays of the day from the fifth ODI in Ranchi
Shorter tours don't allow you time to get into form, and domestic cricket isn't demanding enough