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April 28, 2007
The numbers themselves are staggering enough. Three World Cup wins on the bounce, 23 successive triumphs since that famous 1999 tie at Edgbaston, and 29 matches without defeat stretching back to Pakistan's 10-run victory at Headingley in the same competition. But what Australia did in the Caribbean though was annihilate the opposition, and it's a reflection of the yawning gap that separates the best from the also-rans that the 53-run margin in the final in a rain-reduced game was the closest we got to a genuine contest once Ricky Ponting's men got into their stride.
"We've dominated this tournament like no team has dominated a tournament before," he said later. "We've never really been tested. In '03, there were a few situations where it looked like we were going to lose. In '99, it was the exact opposite. After two or three games, we had to win every game from there on in."
In the euphoria surrounding the latest feather in an already well-plumed cap, it would be easy to forget that Australia were a team in some disarray in the build-up to the competition. Having lost the three-nation CB Series final to England, they were beaten 3-0 in the Chappell-Hadlee series, prompting the soothsayers to predict the most open of World Cups.
It was that, but only as far as second place was concerned. Ponting stressed that resting players during the CB Series and the games in New Zealand had been part of the grand plan, one intended to ensure that key performers arrived in the Caribbean in the best possible physical condition.
Ponting himself wasn't part of the reverses in New Zealand - Michael Hussey led the side - but he admitted that it had been a wake-up call of sorts. "Losing five games in a row was a bitter pill to swallow," he said. "Some of the players went away and took a good hard look at themselves."
That introspection clearly worked. Apart from 20-over stretches when Graeme Smith and AB de Villiers and then Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell briefly furrowed Ponting's brow, the path to the final was traversed in a canter. Along the way, a small score was settled too, with New Zealand subjected to a 215-run humiliation.
Sri Lanka, with the variety in their bowling ranks and batsmen in form, were always likely to offer a sterner test, and Ponting accepted that they had, even though Adam Gilchrist's epic 149 had appeared to pour cold water on any thoughts of a fiery contest.
"When you have guys like [Sanath] Jayasuriya and [Kumar] Sangakkara, you're always in the game," he said. "They were on track for a while. They're quality players and we needed a breakthrough at that stage to get our noses back in front. Hoggy [Brad Hogg] got a wicket and then Michael Clarke got one. Then it got dark, it started to rain [laughs]."
The Australians certainly won't dwell too much on those climactic moments, when the ignorance of match officials turned their finest hour into high farce. Glenn McGrath, who finished an unparalleled career with a typically tidy spell and man of the tournament honours (26 wickets at 13.73) wasn't even interested when asked about the denouement.
"I'd be disappointed if the focus is on 15 or 20 minutes at the end rather than the way we've played throughout the tournament," he said. "It's been a natural progression, to not only win every game but to win every game convincingly." His thoughts were echoed by Gilchrist, who said" "I'm certainly not going to let events at the end there tarnish what we've done here."
What the confusion did however was deprive McGrath of one final flourish. Having bowled seven overs for 31, and the wicket of Russel Arnold, he was taken off, with Ponting admitting later that he had wanted him to bowl the final over.
But with the light so poor that they might have needed a glow-in-the-dark ball, Ponting had no choice but to bowl the part-time spin of Andrew Symonds and Clarke once Mahela Jayawardene agreed to bring his players back out for a last act that wasn't even needed.
"The speed I'm bowling at, some would say they're all arm balls anyway," said McGrath with a self-deprecatory chuckle. "But really, the catch with Gilly was the perfect way to finish."
Traumatised batsmen the world over will breath a little easier now that he's gone, with 381 one-day wickets to supplement the 563 he took in Tests. Wasim Akram had more variety, Curtly Ambrose was more intimidating and Allan Donald was quicker, but no one was even in McGrath's slipstream when it came to the business of knocking over the world's best batsmen match after match.
Asked what he would take away from his time with a team that surmounted just about every cricketing mountain, McGrath spoke of "the enjoyment I've got from playing with these guys" and "the self-belief that we can win every game we play".
Gilchrist might follow him down Retirement Road sooner rather than later, at least as far as the one-day game's concerned. "I'm getting close to Pidge [McGrath] as far as my situation's concerned," he said. "But I've never made a decision when feeling really low or after a great high."
McGrath apart, the other long kiss goodnight went to John Buchanan, whose eight years in charge yielded two World Cups and series triumphs in every Test-playing nation. Ponting was especially keen to emphasise Buchanan's contribution. "He's always been overlooked," he said. "It's not easy to come in to a team that's been winning and make it even better. But myself, Gilly, Glenn, Matty.all those players elevated their game after he came in."
With very little cricket on the Australian horizon in the immediate future, an era has surely passed. Ponting though remains incredibly bullish about the future, and with good reason given the progress made by the likes of Shaun Tait at this tournament.
"I'm not worried about it at all," he said with a certain degree of smugness. "It will be an exciting time with younger guys in and around the team. It'll be a challenge for me and the senior players. But I fully expect Australia to win every game. I know the quality of those players."
McGrath was asked what it might take to beat Australia, but instead of showing his hand, he only said: "I don't think I'll give it away for free!" Like the formula for 7X, the secret ingredient in Coca Cola, that knowledge is priceless.
Dileep Premachandran is associate editor of CricinfoFeeds: Dileep Premachandran
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