When the four best teams in this World Cup lined up for the semi-finals, the expectations were of three mouth-watering, keenly contested games as the world's best pitted their skills against each other in games where everything was at stake. The reality, sadly, has been quite different: the first semis was over the moment New Zealand lost a rash of wickets in the middle of their run-chase, while the second one was a horrible mismatch, with South Africa slumping to 27 for 5 within less than an hour of the match commencing.
Throughout the tournament, the cry has been getting increasingly desperate for close finishes, and with each passing game, the prospect of getting one seems increasingly unlikely. There have been a handful of needle matches - Zimbabwe and Ireland played out a tie, Ireland sneaked home in a low-scorer against Pakistan, Sri Lanka played out two exciting finishes against South Africa and England, while England and West Indies were involved in a thriller in a match of no consequence, but the rest has largely been one-way traffic, even between teams which on paper look evenly matched.
The table below clearly shows that the last two editions of the World Cup have produced the highest number of drab, insipid matches. Even after taking a rather conservative definition of a one-sided match - a margin of at least 50 runs, or five wickets with 30 balls to spare - the two World Cups in this decade have seen more than 70% one-sided games, which is much more than the previous editions (except the first one). The best tournaments were in 1987 and 1992, when the percentage of such matches went down to around 40%.
A big reason for the number of easy games in 2003 was the performance of the non-Test-playing teams - remove them from the equation, and the percentage of one-sided finishes drops to 56. However, even that can't explain why so many games in the current tournament have failed to excite - even among games involving the Test-playing teams, the number of one-sided finishes is in an incredibly high 68%. Compare this with the 1987 figure of 28.57%, and it's easy to imagine why this tournament has failed to capture the imagination of fans.
It should also be a matter of serious concern for the game's caretakers that the number of close finishes in ODIs has been gradually diminishing - in this decade around 50% of the games each year have been absolute no-contests, which is hardly the ideal advertisement for the game.
Over the last three decades, the number of close finishes in ODIs has reduced significantly, as the table below indicates. From a manageable 35% in the 1980s, the number of one-sided games have bloated to nearly 49% in the 2000s. It's hardly surprising, then, that fans are shifting their allegiance to the twenty-over format. One-day cricket badly needs an injection of excitement - a last-over finish to the World Cup final on Saturday will be a pretty good start in that direction.
(For the purpose of this exercise, one-sided games have been defined as ones where the victory margin is at least 50 runs, or five wickets with at least 30 balls to spare.)
Hogg and Tait prove their class
Glenn McGrath, Shaun Tait and Nathan Bracken have proved to an awesome fast-bowling combination for Australia in this World Cup, but an equally vital cog in their campaign has been Brad Hogg, who, at 36, is playing some of his best cricket. He had an unenviable job to do, replacing Shane Warne as Australia's main spinner in the squad, and so far he has done a fabulous job. The table below compares the career stats for both, and the numbers are remarkably similar - Warne has a slightly better average and economy rate, but their strike rates are exactly the same.
Hogg has been especially lethal over the last couple of years. In his first 50 games he was effective enough, but his ability to take wickets has increased sharply over the latter half of his career.
In fact, so splendidly has he bowled in this World Cup that his numbers stack up very well when compared with the best of them all, Muttiah Muralitharan. Sri Lanka may be good players of spin, but given the form he is in, Hogg could well prove a handful too. The battle between the two leading spinners in this competition should be a fascinating one on Saturday.
If Hogg has proved to be an excellent replacement for Warne, then the same can be said of Brett Lee's substitute. The worry about Shaun Tait has been his tendency to sometimes spray it all over the place, but with 23 wickets against his name he has been well worth the few extra wides. Check out the comparison between the two over the last two World Cups - thanks to Tait, Australia haven't missed the firepower or Lee at all.