Rare hat trick

Print edition : May 18, 2007

Ricky Ponting's team puts up a ruthless, all-round performance, mocking predictions that Australia would face many challenges.

THE victory over Sri Lanka in the 2007 ICC (International Cricket Council) World Cup final has possibly established Ricky Ponting's side as the greatest team to have ever played one-day cricket. Certainly, Australia has drawn alongside Clive Lloyd's dominant team of the 1970s that won the inaugural World Cup in 1975 and the next, in 1979.

Australia's hat trick of World Cups was, coincidentally, secured against the three great Asian sides, each of which was meticulously despatched in successive finals. Mahela Jayawardene's men performed creditably but were swept aside by a side that was better on the day and, indeed, consistently superior through the course of two consecutive World Cups.

Australia, now a four-time champion, has not lost a World Cup encounter this century. Since a 10-run loss to Pakistan in 1999, it has gone undefeated in 29 World Cup games, the sort of record one frequently associates with Pete Sampras or Roger Federer at Wimbledon. As it happens with great sides, slumps have been few and far between. The losses against New Zealand in the Chappell-Hadlee series this year came as a surprise but did not, as many believed, signal the end; it reinvigorated Ponting's ageing operatives, who put up an all-round performance at this World Cup that was at once ruthless and awe-inducing and mocked predictions that Australia would face many challenges.

Australian captain Ricky Ponting, Player of the Tournament Glenn McGrath, and Man of the Match Adam Gilchrist pose with the trophy the day after their triumph. For McGrath, it was a glorious end to his international career.-RICK RYCROFT/AP

Notwithstanding Adam Gilchrist's once-in-a-lifetime 149, it was perhaps inevitable that the final should end on such an abbreviated, farcical note. Instead of citing the rulebook and proceeding with a 38-over-a-side contest, the ICC should have allowed for a complete match on the spare day; this was, after all the most important match in cricket's quadrennial calendar.

Easily the most soporific and drawn-out world championship across sports in recent memory, this tepid tournament was tainted early on by the murder of Pakistan's coach, Bob Woolmer. It would have been impractical to call off the tournament at that stage, given the financial implications of such a decision; nevertheless, this was a shabby advertisement for a sport that wishes to market itself around the world. Then, there were other disasters of a less sinister nature. Bangladesh and Ireland helped knock out India and Pakistan respectively; the exit of the two Asian powerhouses spelled trouble for broadcasters, who were presumably relying on either to make at least the semi-finals stage. Also, the high proportion of one-sided games rendered this whole exercise - already soiled by the organisers' disregard for Calypso culture - forgettable.

It is entirely to Australia's credit that through all this, it remained impervious to mediocrity. Matthew Hayden finished the tournament with a tally of 659 runs; Glenn McGrath, declared the Player of the Tournament, took a record 26 wickets. This extraordinary run of success, in both forms of the game, during John Buchanan's tenure as coach owes much to a strong structure guided by a scientific system - aspects that the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) ought to examine closely. Evidently, hiring an Australian coach - even one as widely respected for his acumen as Greg Chappell - will fail to produce results unless he is given a free hand to implement his method.

Individual brilliance must unfailingly contribute towards the larger team cause - something that the Australian side manages and the Indians do not. If comparisons may be drawn, both sides have match-winners, but there is a growing perception that Yuvraj Singh and Rahul Dravid aside the Indians are weak on teamwork. On the other hand, Australia rarely loses momentum.

In the broad scheme of things, Ponting has propelled Steve Waugh's legacy, which was itself shaped by Mark Taylor and bore the imprint of Allan Border. Like the legend of Kit Walker, the Australian cricketing identity continues to grow into something mythical. Already, Michael Clarke is being groomed for great things; he will build his team around men like Shaun Tait and, fitness permitting, Brett Lee. The present side was an ageing one that was expected to lose, but as previous incarnations of this side have effectively demonstrated, "spent juggernaut" is an oxymoron.

Opposition sides might dare to hope for a win against Australia but usually they expect to lose, and even a positive approach is negated by Australia's vetted counter-tactic of steady strangulation. For sure, Australia is not a popular champion and it does not win pretty most of the time - that might be asking too much of this clinically efficient group, especially since the retirement of Mark Waugh and Damien Martyn - but Ponting should not care. Each performance in this World Cup was as precise as the last, as synchronous, and the series culminated in that final crescendo. Australia was never in any danger of losing a game - not even in the final when Sri Lankan Kumara Sangakkara found some form and made a courageous half-century to keep Sri Lanka's hopes alive. Sri Lanka was doomed to play catch-up; Gilchrist would prove the difference between the two sides.

Despite Australia's domineering ways, cricket is not nearly as popular in that country as it is in India. In Australia, sports plays a central role in popular culture. Prime Minister John Howard is a famously vocal fan of Australian cricket, but soccer and tennis equally flourish alongside Australian rules football. The country's hockey team is the current Olympic champion. The cricket team is not heaped with so much pressure of public expectation.

The performances of successive Indian teams, on the other hand, have fuelled emotions ranging from euphoria to depression. The team proved infuriatingly inconsistent in the space between the last two World Cups, first unexpectedly stringing together a world record 17 wins while chasing and then lapsing into the old ways and struggling to shoot down targets.

India's loss to a reasonably strong Bangladesh was not unforgivable even if it was unexpected. Bangladesh's subsequent success in the Super Eight stage against South Africa showed that teams can no longer afford to dismiss it as a minnow. Meanwhile, an in-form Sri Lanka was always going to be a challenging opponent for any side, but it was India's inability to raise its level for the crucial group game that was most disappointing. A win might have redeemed reputations, but after that loss, India did not deserve to progress to the next round.

Kumar Sangakkara (right) and Sanath Jayasuriya during the final. This pair raised hopes of a great Sri Lankan fight-back.-PRAKASH SINGH/AFP

India was undoubtedly one of the weakest fielding sides in the fray. Playmaker-in-chief Rahul Dravid's approach as captain has proved largely uninspired, but hypothetically speaking, even someone as astute as Stephen Fleming would find it hard to rouse this lot of talented under-performers, given that so many seem complacent about their spots. After public displays of angst and much talk of infusing fresh blood into this side, the board has deemed it fit to pick a more or less familiar squad to tour Bangladesh, which is already being billed, ridiculously and somewhat predictably, by a section of the media as a Revenge Tour. Debate persists over whether players of the stature of Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly should be considered "dropped" from the one-day side; maybe it is time for someone like Tendulkar to consider focussing on Test cricket.

Just as great performances at such a high-profile event will be feted, poor results are bound to be punished. Soon after the tournament, players across the cricketing world were axed - some possibly for good - while several coaches, including those of England and hosts West Indies, were compelled to resign. South Africa and New Zealand copped some flak - some of it fair, some unfair - after failing to make it past the semi-finals once again; New Zealand's Stephen Fleming, widely acknowledged as the best leader in contemporary cricket, felt he could not carry on as one-day captain.

In the shoot-out of recriminations, it is just as well that Team India should stand exposed as a product of propaganda and hype that was, for a while, successfully marketed to a naive and trusting audience. Whether Rahul Dravid, given the freedom, can effect a turnaround remains to be seen, but the appointment of Ravi Shastri, one of the game's sharper analysts, as team manager is a step in the right direction.

In contrast, Sri Lanka left the Caribbean with its head held high, having performed with elan throughout this tournament. Coach Tom Moody has instilled an admirable rigour without dispensing with the flair so closely associated with Sri Lankan cricket. The Arjuna Ranatunga-led Sri Lankans were surprise finalists in 1996; such was not the case here. Jayawardene's side is thick on talent but fortunately thin on superstars. A harmony in team composition - so precious in the shorter format - has been reached; every player has at some stage adequately compensated for another's failure. Sri Lanka's bowling attack displayed the most variety in the tournament; the fielding of this supremely fit squad was exemplary. The precise and aesthetically pleasing performance in the semi-finals against New Zealand demonstrates that self-belief has transformed it into a coherent unit capable of elegantly dismantling the best.

BRIAN LARA BIDS goodbye to the game.-TOM SHAW/GETTY IMAGES

This was the last World Cup for several great players including Brian Lara and Inzamam ul Haq and possibly Tendulkar; sportsmen are almost never as lucky as the 37-year-old McGrath, who has bowed out of international cricket with a 5-0 Ashes sweep and three World Cups on his resume. It would have been fitting to mark this tournament as a reminder of their contributions, but the positives to emerge from this tournament were relatively few.

Malcolm Speed's empire is a decadent one, bloated beyond recognition and clearly on the decline. After this insipid edition, the World Cup itself risks being devalued. That has only so much to do with one country's domination: with the one-day format spiralling out of control, it has grown increasingly difficult for players to keep mind and body fresh. Common sense should force the creation of more gaps in the cricket calendar, but one discovers there are other compulsions, like money, for instance. The Twenty20 World Championship - a further refinement of the concept of instant gratification - is to be staged in South Africa come September, and cricket could experience the biggest revolution yet since Kerry Packer's intervention in the 1970s.

Whether that could kill the sport is another thing altogether.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor
×