1. Australia 2. Pakistan 3. West Indies
West Indies and Pakistan joined Australia for the traditional triangular tournament, but after 26 years of this event since "Packerisation", it was played against a backdrop of declining public interest. The three teams had six preliminary matches each, rather than the usual eight, an attempt to reduce the number of dead fixtures; even so, Channel Nine's reluctance to give the two touring sides prime time meant that their three head-to-head games were all played in daylight. There was a feeling that the format was becoming terminally tired; and Twenty20's successful Australian debut added fuel to the thought.
Australia won the Series for the 13th time in the last 16 years, which might have added to the weariness. But the most pertinent talking point thrown up by the competition was the perceived decline of the team rather than the tournament. Over four weeks, Ricky Ponting's men lost a considerable amount of authority, despite continuing to win and remaining easily the best team on show. The batting was a particular worry. Andrew Symonds began with no form whatsoever, Darren Lehmann ended that way, while Matthew Hayden suffered an extended bout of lethargy and was dropped for the finals. All struggled whenever the ball swung, and only youngster Michael Clarke and Damien Martyn could be satisfied with their efforts. Fortunately for Ponting, his new-ball bowlers enjoyed sublime patches of form. Brett Lee revisited the speed, swing and menace he had shown at the 2003 World Cup, consistently getting the better of the opening bats. Glenn McGrath conceded only 3.25 runs per over and collected 15 wickets at less than 12 each.
Pakistan were on the brink of collapse before finishing on a feisty note. Injury to Shoaib Akhtar, a report querying the action of Mohammad Hafeez, and press stories of a rape allegation against an unnamed player made for a galling start. When the bowlers suffered a fearful thrashing at the cultured hands of Brian Lara, there seemed no hole deep enough to crawl into. But a handful of small positives - Inzamam-ul-Haq and Yousuf Youhana with the bat, Naved-ul-Hasan with the ball, Abdul Razzaq and Shahid Afridi with both - grew into large ones. In the final week, Pakistan won a pair of scrappy encounters, and only an lbw decision or two separated them from plucking one of the two finals. Sadly, two players lost their fathers during these closing stages: Younis Khan returned home, while Naved stayed on at his mother's request.
For some time there was doubt that West Indies - shock winners of the Champions Trophy in England four months earlier - would even arrive in Australia, after a sponsorship dispute pitted the players against their board. Several might have done less damage to their reputations by staying at home: Chris Gayle, in particular, fell far short of his advance billing. The side was not eliminated until the last preliminary match, though; this was due to the batting of Lara, Ramnaresh Sarwan and Shivnarine Chanderpaul, and to the left-arm seamers Pedro Collins and Ian Bradshaw, who presented a compelling argument for swing as a means to defy Australia.
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