The best team won

RICKY PONTING'S destruction of an overwrought Indian attack in front of a partisan and understandably appalled crowd at The Wanderers ensured that the strongest team in the competition took the trophy home.

PETER ROEBUCK

Andy Bichel was easily the leading all-rounder in the recent World Cup and he had not previously been seen in this light.-Pic. AP

RICKY PONTING'S destruction of an overwrought Indian attack in front of a partisan and understandably appalled crowd at The Wanderers ensured that the strongest team in the competition took the trophy home. It was an appropriate end to a competition that started with a rush of controversy before settling into a slow-moving exploration of the teams before finishing predictably as the Australians proved that a powerful side will overcome anything in its path. Like murder, class will out. In the end all of the other sides were pretending. None of them could survive the rigour of the Australian cross-examination. Australia won the eighth World Cup because they were the best side in the tournament. It was as simple as that. After six weeks of controversies about rain and politics, six weeks of wrangling and tears still the game managed to produce the right result. There is something about World Cups that prevents bogus teams rising beyond their legitimacy.

Along the way Ponting's side overcame numerous setbacks, including the loss of two top class bowlers, blows a resilient party took in its stride. Now and then the batting collapsed and put the team in perils from which it recovered in style. Unsung players like Andrew Bichel and Andrew Symonds produced decisive performances at telling times whilst Brett Lee was the most destructive fast bowler seen in a longwinded statement of the game's strengths and weaknesses.

Australia won 11 matches in a row in the World Cup and has prevailed in 17 successive 50-over matches. Considering the somewhat arbitrary nature of these contests, this is an astonishing record. As much as the final, these facts confirm that the Australians are far ahead of any opponent. Not even on their best days could rivals hold them. Inevitably, the Aussies romped home whenever challengers fell a little below their capabilities.

And yet Ponting's side did not begin convincingly. Only in the latter stages of the competition did the men in green and gold start to look invincible. Rivals did not take the chances that arose in the first week and in Port Elizabeth where the aggressive Australian game was compromised by a slow surface. Watching Ponting cut loose in the final with a thrilling and inspired array of strokes it was easy to forget those early days as Darren Lehmann served a sentence for rude remarks, Michael Bevan recovered from an injury and Shane Warne flew home in disgrace. It was an odd tournament that way, with great men and strong teams failing whilst minor players and teams took the limelight. Pakistan and India could have cut down the Australians in that opening week. Instead Pakistan were a shambles whilst the Indians only found their form as the shadow of elimination hung over them. The World had its chance and stepped back. Accordingly, the Australians were able to gather momentum till, at last, there was no stopping them. In truth, the margin of victory in the final defined the gap between the champions and the other contenders. The rest was an illusion.

India improved as the tournament went along. Although several countries complained and others felt luck had frowned upon them, none had anything to grumble about. England and New Zealand foolishly expected the governing body to rearrange matches against all precedent. At least the Kiwis were consistent. Much the most pathetic part of the competition was the sound of Englishmen trying to defend a self-indulgent protest and then trying to demand recompense in points. Despite this pompous conduct England could still have advanced had the players and especially the captain kept his head as the Australians floundered in an early match. Instead Hussain took his eye off the ball, his team lost its way and the holders escaped. As a result of this debacle the least popular side in the tournament went home nursing grievances, an outlook encouraged by a deteriorating group of apologists that whined endlessly about night matches after Ashish Nehra had routed them in Durban with a brilliant spell of bowling.

New Zealand also paid the price for timidity as it failed to reach the semi-finals. Afterwards its esteemed captain admitted that his side had not produced its best cricket. Chris Cairns' inability to bowl upset the balance of the team. It was not much of a tournament for allrounders. Suffice it to say that Bichel was easily the leading allrounder and he had not previously been seen in this light.

South Africa did not beat any of its serious opponents, a feebleness that allowed supposedly weaker sides to pass them by. Its campaign will be remembered more for the pain and confusion of its ending than for the dropped catches, erratic bowling and distracted air that put the hosts in peril. Shaun Pollock's team had been poorly chosen, with too many old players and political appointees. Throughout, the team seemed to be trying to lay the ghost of 1999 with Allan Donald, Lance Klusener and Jonty Rhodes all desperately attempting to end their careers on a high note. Cricket rarely accommodates the aspirations of individuals. Donald lost form, Rhodes broke a bone and Klusener scored one run in 8 balls at the critical moment at Kingsmead. South Africa's defeat was due to its own errors and not to the Duckworth-Lewis system about which, in any case, it had been in<147,2,1>formed. Afterwards South Africa sacked its uninspiring captain but not senior officials who had been using an elite sport as their plaything. Not until black and white leave the past alone can this country return as a force in the game. Promisingly, the new captain announced that he had never met Hansie Cronje and regarded his legacy as mixed, a balanced response to a man who continues to provoke extreme reactions.

West Indies started with a bang but faded as Brian Lara failed a couple of times and the rest could not make up the leeway. Upon reaching home Carl Hooper said West Indian cricket was still creating monsters, presumably a reference to the arrogance of emerging players, a criticism that does not apply to Ramnaresh Sarwan who was forced to retire hurt in Cape Town and returned with a head swathed in bandages and wearing only a cap and promptly played the most dashing innings of the entire competition as he came within a handful of runs of taking his team to an extraordinary victory.

Pakistan thought it was enough to arrive with good intentions but paid for poor preparations and the headstrong nature of a side ripe for renewal and apparently beyond the control of any mere mortal.

Sri Lanka surpassed itself because the other teams played badly and its top men found form at the same time. Sanath Jayasuriya was amongst the men of the tournament, Chaminda Vaas bowled beautifully with a white ball that helped the swingers throughout and Murali took wickets whilst looking more ragged than usual, in which regard he was not alone. Aravinda de Silva played some scorching strokes and might even have carried his side into the final had not an athletic bit of fielding from Bichel cut him short. Aravinda batted marvellously and will be missed.

Amongst the minnows, Zimbabwe was broken by internal struggles, national and within the party, Bangladesh were dreadful and should lose their elevated status, Holland and Namibia were game and entertaining and Canada relied upon a middle-aged Australian who suddenly produced some of the most compelling innings ever seen in these finals. John Davison counted amongst the men of the tournament and only his modest past record prevents him being put alongside the great men of the game. Still, his performances were the stuff of dreams.

Last but not least come the Kenyans with their dignity, sense of fun and skill. Collins Obuya was the leading performer in a team that respected the basics, feared no-one and took its chances. Obuya sent down leg-spinners that turned and bounced and landed on a length, not a bad combination since the dawn of time, and a fine achievement from a previously obscure young man of 21 years from a country that hardly knows the game. Cricket was searching for champions and found them in some surprising places. No one pretended that Kenya was one of the top four sides in the competition but they did beat three Test-playing nations and the rest was not their fault.

Of course, the game did find a true champion as Australia dictated terms from the first over of a one-sided final. It had taken too long to reach this denouement and there had been too many unnecessary squabbles but the eighth World Cup did produce a worthy winner. Overall, it was not an inspiring tournament, largely because of the boycotts and the departures of important teams in the early stages. From the start, though, the Australians set the standard and it was fitting that they took the trophy back with them. Cricket is a very popular game in India and Australia and now must spread its wings. Whether or not this African World Cup helped the game grow as much as had been hoped remains to be seen. Afterwards it was hard to avoid thinking the tournament had failed to fulfil its highest hopes. Apart from the boycotters, no-one was to blame, least of all the organisers. Sometimes, things just go wrong. Fortunately, Ponting and comrades made sure the competition ended with a bang. To begin with, the competition had relied on brilliant contributions from Tendulkar, Lara and others to carry things along. In the end, though, even these mighty cricketers could not resist the power of the Australians.