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1. Australia 2. Sri Lanka 3. South Africa
Unexpectedly beaten in the first of the finals, Australia stormed back in the last two to crush Sri Lanka and take the VB Series. The tournament, the most evenly contested in four years, saw some startling cricket, though it was soured by unfair scheduling and, more worryingly, bad crowd behaviour. Racism had emerged as a key issue of the Australian summer: riots in the Sydney suburb of Cronulla were reported around the world, as were the racial taunts crowds hurled at the South Africans during the preceding Tests. Things didn't improve much during the VB Series. Spectator ejections for poor behaviour had been a common occurrence in the 26 previous tournaments, but this time more were kicked out for what they said than what they did - a sign that Cricket Australia were clamping down on abusive language on and off the field.
Both visiting teams suffered abuse during the series though, unlike the South Africans, the Sri Lankans chose not to make their protest official. A constant target was Muttiah Muralitharan. Wherever he went, he had to endure constant shouts of "no-ball" - and worse. Murali believed the blame went wider than just the spectators. "The crowds and the journalists in Australia are the worst in the world," he told the Sydney Morning Herald, "I shouldn't be playing here." His former captain, Arjuna Ranatunga, advised him not to return.
What did return, puzzlingly, were the three extra group games sensibly dropped the previous year. Less surprisingly, the victims of the board's decision to squeeze 12 qualifying matches into an already cramped summer were the visitors. Sri Lanka were forced to play five matches in a row, South Africa four, while Australia never had more than two in succession. It allowed them to wriggle clear after all three teams reached the competition's midpoint with two wins each.
Despite that advantage, the Australians needed to fight hard, particularly with the bat, to see off their opponents. Three times they set targets beyond 300, and five players - led by Adam Gilchrist, with 432 - hit more than 300 runs for the series, admittedly against bowling that seldom posed serious questions. The home attack, however, was cause for greater concern, and Glenn McGrath's withdrawal before the finals due to the recurrence of his wife's cancer left them struggling to dismiss any side cheaply. Australia turned to several less familiar bowlers, but none was frightening, and the bulk of the heavy lifting fell to Brett Lee, who responded with aplomb: 15 wickets at 19.40 in the group games, though he went wicketless in the three finals. In the end, it was Nathan Bracken, with 17 at fractionally less, who grabbed most wickets.
Sri Lanka, coached by the Australian Tom Moody, grew throughout the series and, although they lost heavily in the last two finals, their achievement in winning the first was well beyond pre-tournament expectations. Sanath Jayasuriya flew in mid-series to provide a significant adrenaline boost, Tillekeratne Dilshan was a livewire in the field, and Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara had quietly fruitful series. It was the emergence of several younger performers, however, that would have given Moody most pleasure, especially the seamer Nuwan Kulasekara and the promising smiter Chamara Kapugedera.
Murali bowled irresistibly at times, but he also seemed distracted by the incessant crowd chants. During the series, he took himself off to the University of Western Australia and had his action scrutinised for the umpteenth time, before once again getting the all-clear. But in the second final he conceded 99 runs, at the time the most expensive ten-over spell in one-day internationals.
South Africa failed to live up to their potential, but they were badly handicapped by injuries. Captain Graeme Smith's barren run spilled over from the Tests, and Herschelle Gibbs batted carelessly when more was required. There were runs from Boeta Dippenaar and Mark Boucher, but they could not compensate for a threadbare pace attack. With a couple of exceptions, the depleted bowling was forgettable.
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