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The 2003 World Cup in South Africa

Superb Australia leave others trailing

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The hosts of the eighth World Cup wanted it to be the greatest yet. In financial terms, it was – profits of $US194m represented a huge increase on the $51m made in 1999 – but in other respects, it fell short. Indeed, this traditional organisers' boast rather came back to haunt the South Africans, who headed a pan-African triumvirate also including Zimbabwe and Kenya. A great tournament needs dramatic tension, and the brilliance of the Australians never allowed it. In winning all their 11 matches, the champions repeatedly displayed talent, audacity – and a superiority over all rivals. Not since West Indies ran away with the prize in 1979 (like Australia, to retain the trophy they had won four years earlier) had anyone won the World Cup with such ιlan.

The nearest Ricky Ponting's side came to losing was in their final group match, at Port Elizabeth, when England had them 135 for eight needing 205. Doing no more than was necessary to keep up with an asking-rate that only once crept above six an over, Michael Bevan and Andy Bichel saw them home with breathtaking coolness. Ponting was outspokenly critical of the St George's Park square, and no wonder: its slow surface hinted at one way the gap between Australia and the others might be narrowed and, as Ponting feared, the favourites again hit trouble in two subsequent games on the ground. Even so, they still ran out decisive winners in both, against New Zealand in the Super Six and Sri Lanka in the semi-final.

On true surfaces – and these were in the majority – Australia were unstoppable. Runs poured from their bats while disciplined bowling drew opposing batsmen to their ruin; out of a possible 110 wickets, Australia claimed 101. Never was this truer than in the final at the Wanderers, one of the most bountiful grounds for batsmen. With the two strongest batting sides on show, including the player of the tournament, Sachin Tendulkar, there were high hopes of a taut, run-filled finale. But Australia, surprisingly put in by Sourav Ganguly in a move that betrayed Indian nerves, ran up too many runs. Ponting himself led the way with an unbeaten 140 from 121 balls that was a masterpiece in measured ferocity: off his last 47 balls he hit eight sixes and 90 runs in all. This was a record individual score for a World Cup final, as was Australia's team effort of 359 for two. Tendulkar fell in the first over of the reply and India, though they hit spiritedly, were never in the game.

Ganguly's side nevertheless emerged from the tournament in credit. Not fancied to do well in the conditions, they steadily grew in confidence after a shaky batting performance in their opener with Holland and put together a winning streak of eight matches – including one in their first meeting with Pakistan for almost three years – with some of the most entertaining cricket on show. An eleventh-hour decision to restore Tendulkar to the opener's role he favoured proved inspired. He ran up a record run aggregate of 673, more than 200 ahead of his nearest challengers – his own captain, Ganguly, and Australia's captain, Ponting.

Australia would have beaten a Rest of the World XI had they been asked. They swatted away difficulties like troublesome flies. Predictions that the middle order was suspect, and that they would regret selecting Andrew Symonds ahead of Steve Waugh, proved unfounded. As well as a crucial innings in the semi-final, Symonds played the innings of his life – an unbeaten 143 off 125 balls – to carry his side from a precarious 86 for four to 310 in their opening encounter against Pakistan. It set up a resounding victory in a game that began with Australia at their most vulnerable.

Hours earlier, Shane Warne, their match-winner in the semi-final and final of 1999, had returned home after failing a drugs test taken during the VB Series in Australia the previous month. Warne's "A" sample – later confirmed by the "B" – showed he had taken two banned diuretics, hydrochlorothiazide and amiloride. Warne said he got them from his mum and took them out of vanity, wanting to lose weight before his return to the Australia side after injury. But diuretics can also mask steroids, which could have expedited Warne's swift recovery from a dislocated shoulder. A fortnight into the tournament, he was handed a one-year ban. It was the highest-profile drugs case to afflict cricket and sent shock waves through the game but, as with everything else, the Australians rode them well.

Then, before the second phase, Australia lost another key bowler when Jason Gillespie's right heel succumbed to tendon damage. Nathan Bracken became the second addition to the party (and the second Nathan, after Hauritz had replaced Warne), but Gillespie's place in the eleven had already gone to Bichel, an experienced and pugnacious character who never doubted his worth. No other attack could have coped with two such losses; Australia simply continued on their all-conquering way, Bichel's staunch contributions epitomising their supremacy better than anything else. He bowled his heart out to finish pretty much top of the averages and the economy ratings; played three vital innings and brilliantly ran out Aravinda de Silva in the semi- final. Australia may not have liked Port Elizabeth, but to their immense gratitude Bichel, wise to low seaming pitches after two seasons with Worcestershire, did.

If Bichel epitomised Australia's depth of resources, Brett Lee illustrated their brilliance. Despite being rested against the Dutch, Lee finished with 22 wickets in ten matches, second only to Chaminda Vaas, whose 23 – a record for any World Cup – included nine against Bangladesh and Canada. Beforehand, Lee was targeted by Shoaib Akhtar, the fastest bowler in 1999. "Lee is not a match-winner," he said. "Only when he starts winning matches will he be compared with me." But, although Shoaib won the race to break cricket's speed-barrier with a 100mph delivery against England, he was proved wrong.

Lee was a match-winner, time and again. Growing in confidence and stature as the event unfolded, he was devastating in the Super Six, claiming 11 wickets in three games before adding three more in the semi-final (bowling Marvan Atapattu with a delivery a fraction under 100mph) and two in the final. He probed everyone's resolve: Sri Lanka's was tested when Sanath Jayasuriya retired after being struck on thumb and forearm, as was Kenya's when he performed a second-over hat-trick. No wonder Ganguly put off facing Lee in the final by fielding first.

It is a tribute to Australia that the tournament will be remembered for their cricket rather than the off-field disputes that plagued it. These were rarely out of the headlines; indeed, the drawn-out schedule meant they were latched on to as talking points more lively than much of the cricket. There were really only two brief periods when the cricket held the stage. The first was towards the end of the pool matches, as teams fought for qualification and four enthralling games unfolded in as many days. The second was in the lead-up to the final, which to the relief of sponsors and television companies involved two high-profile teams. Prize money was much greater than before – Australia took $2m for winning the final – but there was a suspicion that the real financial winners were the lawyers, who were rarely out of action and, unlike the players, never succumbed to fatigue.

The run-up to the tournament was fraught with problems, with countries courting damages claims from the ICC for failing to fulfil contractual commitments. An intractable dispute between the Indian board and their players, over product endorsement, threatened their participation, while the issue of whether it was safe to play in Zimbabwe and Kenya – and whether it was morally right to do so in Zimbabwe, given the violent and repressive nature of President Robert Mugabe's regime – spilled over into the event itself.

The heat could have been taken out of these disputes had the ICC shown more imagination and willingness to compromise, but Mal Speed, overseeing his first World Cup as ICC chief executive, stuck to the disingenuous line that the ICC were concerned only with cricket-related issues, not politics. His background as a Melbourne lawyer seemingly made Speed wary of setting precedents that might unpick the delicate political tapestry of world cricket, not to mention a rich television deal with the Global Cricket Corporation that extended to the 2007 tournament. Overall, his was the least impressive performance by an Australian at the event.

In the end, India took part, with the ICC withholding their share of revenue until the contracts problem was resolved. However, the issue of safety and security was more complex. The ICC strove to convince doubtful participants that it was safe to play in Kenya, where there had been recent terrorist atrocities, and Zimbabwe, where economic and social conditions were seemingly deteriorating by the week. Inspection delegations, made up of senior ICC officials and board representatives from teams due to play there, were sent to both countries, and a security directorate was appointed to monitor the day-to-day situation. Kroll, an independent risk assessment firm, were called in to review procedure. It would have been logistically simpler and unarguably better for the tournament as a spectacle had the six matches scheduled for Zimbabwe and the two in Kenya been moved to South Africa, but the ICC feared it would set an awkward precedent and betray promises made years earlier.

In the event, New Zealand refused to play in Nairobi, and England in Harare. The ICC appeals committee predictably rejected their cases and awarded "victory" to the hosts – "results" that skewed the tournament off its axis. Had England gone to Harare and avoided defeat they, rather than Zimbabwe, would have reached the second phase. By winning four of the five pool matches they actually played, New Zealand reached the Super Six anyway, but the forfeiture enabled Kenya – the surprise package of the tournament and the second-most memorable participants – to go through at the expense of the improving West Indies and eventually qualify for the semi-finals.

New Zealand dealt with the crisis more smoothly than England. Their board decided against playing without consulting the players, whose response was to keep their prospects alive by unexpectedly routing South Africa. England's withdrawal was far more tortured. They had a noble record of fulfilling fixtures in political hotspots, but a vigorous public and media campaign proved too much for Tim Lamb, chief executive of the ECB. The turning point came when the players issued a statement through their high-profile representative, Richard Bevan, asking for the match to be relocated on "moral, political and contractual" grounds. Mindful that they would be liable if they sent their players into danger against their will, the ECB had little choice but to support their request.

Any appeal was likely to be expensively futile, but the process proved more damaging than anyone could have imagined. The day after England's first appeal failed on February 6, Patrick Ronan, head of the World Cup security directorate, personally assured players that Harare was safe: he dismissed a letter from a group calling itself the Sons and Daughters of Zimbabwe, which threatened to send England players "back to Britain in wooden coffins", as a hoax. This was undermined by evidence from an official from Kroll, Pete Richer. Asked to provide evidence that the letter was indeed a hoax, Ronan eventually produced an email which, when it arrived, only convinced Lamb and David Morgan, the ECB's chairman, that their concerns were indeed justified. England formally withdrew from the game. For some people, the ICC's integrity was now as much an issue as security, a point highlighted when Nasser Hussain, the England captain, rounded on Speed during a meeting in Cape Town and accused him of having let down his team. Speed later admitted the two forfeitures damaged the credibility of the cup. The ICC believed the ECB had completely mishandled the situation.

England and New Zealand both faced compensation claims for lost television and sponsorship revenue, with the ICC withholding $3.5m from England's share of revenue and $2.5m from New Zealand's, pending settlement their financial support for the domestic game – and the counties soon felt the draught.

The ICC's hope of keeping cricket and politics separate did not survive the second day of the tournament, when two prominent Zimbabwe players, Andy Flower and Henry Olonga, one white, the other black, took the field against Namibia in Harare wearing black armbands after issuing a statement "mourning the death of democracy in our beloved Zimbabwe". The ICC asked them to desist from making political gestures; Flower said he was not making a political statement but a humanitarian plea. For what turned out to be Zimbabwe's next match – against India nine days later, after England's game was abandoned – the pair wore black wristbands, Olonga in his capacity as twelfth man, having been dropped in what looked like retaliation. He was also expelled from his club, Takashinga CC.

As the tournament continued, it became plain Zimbabwe's team selection had become highly politicised, with preference given to those not critical of Mugabe's regime. Andy Pycroft, a selector, resigned after being told the team was "non-negotiable". Unsurprisingly, the team failed to ignite as a unit and it was no great surprise when they lost to Kenya. It was also clear Flower and Olonga's days as Zimbabwe players were numbered. For Flower, at 34, this was little hardship; indeed, he had already arranged to play for Essex and South Australia. But Olonga, eight years his junior, lost much more. Perhaps the most disturbing development concerned the South African board, which discarded Errol Stewart, a wicket-keeper (and trained lawyer) who had refused to tour Zimbabwe with their A team on moral grounds. So much for no politics in sport.

The ICC's prediction that Zimbabwe's home matches would be troublefree looked equally awry. A human rights organisation, Solidarity Peace Trust, reported that in three matches in Bulawayo 80 protesters were arrested and detained in inhumane conditions for up to six days.

All this served to fracture the African dream of staging a glorious sporting spectacle in which an African team (presumably South Africa) emerged victors, so paving the way for the staging of an even bigger prize such as the football World Cup or Olympic Games. Africa was desperate to show itself a safe and attractive place for tourists, hence a lavish opening ceremony in Cape Town that came across as a glorified travel commercial.

Public expectations of a home victory were sky high long before South Africa's opening encounter with West Indies – graced by an accomplished hundred from Brian Lara – was lost by three runs. Allan Donald, the fast bowler who retired from international cricket after his team's early exit, said beforehand that the whole build-up was making the pressure unbearable.

The outcome for South Africa could hardly have been worse. Crippled by a shortage of back-up bowling and rumours of disharmony in the ranks, South Africa failed to beat any major opposition and went out – in the cruellest fashion – at the first hurdle. They were trounced by New Zealand in a rain-affected match in Johannesburg, and the elements also had a say in their do-or-die affair with Sri Lanka in Durban. With South Africa needing 269 under lights, the contest was on a knife-edge when rain, which had been of the cases. In England's case, this led directly to the ECB reducing falling for a while, became heavier. The dressing-room sent word to the batsmen, Mark Boucher and Lance Klusener, that the Duckworth/Lewis target at the end of the next over – the 45th – was 229, provided they lost no more wickets. Boucher achieved this by hitting the fifth ball from Muttiah Muralitharan for six and then blocking the last.

The umpires debated whether to carry on, but the rain was falling hard and the players came off – never, as it happened, to return. By now, the South Africans had realised their mistake: 229 would tie the match, as Duckworth/Lewis clearly stated. While a tie was fine for Sri Lanka, it wasn't for South Africa, who had to win. So, astonishingly, for the second World Cup in a row, South Africa went out on a cock-up and a tie, and with Klusener at the crease. As Andrew Hudson put it on TV: "42 million South Africans are going to go to bed tonight hoping it is a bad dream." But it wasn't, and the sacrificial sacking of Shaun Pollock as captain was only a matter of time.

In fact, an African team did make it to the semi-finals. Kenya, one of four non-Test nations, enjoyed the greatest giant-killing run in international cricket and survived for 40 of the competition's 43 days. However, had they played, and lost to, New Zealand they would not have made the second phase. The enthusiasm of their players, coached by Sandeep Patil, a World Cup winner with India in 1983, and of their red-white-and-green-painted supporters, were among the most vivid memories.

In contrast to media scrums surrounding bigger fish, the Kenyans were greeted on their arrival by just one journalist and when they lost to South Africa by ten wickets, this seemed about right. But 12 days later, everything changed. With some ease Kenya defended a score of 210 to beat Sri Lanka in Nairobi. Collins Obuya, who was inspired to bowl leg-spin by watching Mushtaq Ahmed on television in the 1996 World Cup, took five for 24 against a team normally accomplished at playing slow bowling. Jayasuriya labelled his players "amateurs".

Less than a week later, the Kenyans – whose strategy was based on tight fielding and disciplined bowling conceding few extras – confirmed a Super Six place with an altogether less surprising victory over Bangladesh. The points from the New Zealand "win" were carried forward to the second stage, meaning that Kenya began the Super Sixes second only to Australia, and they sealed a semi-final spot with victory over Zimbabwe, their third genuine victory over Test opposition. But India, whom they momentarily frightened in the Super Six, outplayed them in the semi-finals.

Kenya's romantic journey brought huge benefits. The ICC brought forward their application for full-member status by one year to 2005 and earmarked more than £1m for development. Kenya were also invited to take part in the Busta Cup in the West Indies. Moreover, the players, who threatened strike action over pay beforehand, picked up $530,000 in prize money, having at one point anticipated a mere fraction of that.

South Africa's exit contributed to the event failing to capture the imagination of the country's majority. A broadening of cricket's appeal had been one aim of Ali Bacher's organising committee. To this end, sponsor companies were required to have a black empowerment element and a total of 50,000 tickets were reserved for black children to attend every game. However, a survey revealed only 11% of Nguni and Sotho speakers (i.e. most black South Africans) expressing an interest in the World Cup.

Political and sponsorship disputes were not the only problems. Large tournaments always have imperfections, but this one suffered profound structural and organisational faults. It was simply too big and too long. The decision to allow two more minor teams to join in took the participants to 14, the games to 54 (12 more than in 1999) and the duration to six weeks and a day. Moreover, the 42 pool matches were spread across 24 days in an indecent kowtowing to television. Bacher later conceded the event might have been better had it not been "of biblical proportions". And the ICC eventually announced a new system for 2007: two more teams but three fewer fixtures with a format designed to let the weak make a quick, graceful exit and the top eight to go through to a round robin.

The pool stage might have been even longer had reserve days not been dumped, a decision which cost West Indies dear. Their game with Bangladesh in Benoni was rained off when they were in a dominant position; had it been completed, West Indies, and not Kenya, would have gone through to the Super Six. Out of fairness to all parties, the final pool matches should have been played on the same day. Sri Lanka rightly pointed out that by forfeiting their last match with South Africa they could have all but guaranteed themselves a Super Six place, but agreed to fulfil the fixture in the wider interests of the game. The staging of day/night matches in the coastal cities of Durban and Cape Town was also questioned. The ball certainly seemed to swing more for the sides bowling second, though the results were not unduly skewed. India asked for their Durban semi-final to be switched to a wholly daytime game but their appeal to the ICC met with no more joy than anyone else's.

And while the South African camp were justly criticised for misreading the Duckworth/Lewis charts, the fact remains that if the electronic scoreboard at Kingsmead had carried the par score (as commonly happens in England), the mistake might not have occurred – and South Africa would probably have gone through. Even before the tournament was over, the organisers of the 2007 event in the West Indies were hinting at changes to the format.

That said, two things did work out. The umpiring was generally good, and the controversial decision not to continue the experiment with Hawkeye, the ball-tracking system, caused few problems; perhaps its absence actually removed an unwelcome spotlight from the decision-making. Nor was there any serious whiff of match-fixing. The biggest security operation mounted by the ICC led Lord Condon, head of the Anti-Corruption Unit, to declare the tournament – the first World Cup since the Cronje scandal – clean. Consumed by the Zimbabwe row, England unsurprisingly failed to make a serious impression for the third time in a row. Unlike in 1996 and 1999 however, they played some compelling cricket, roundly beating Pakistan and running Australia close. Had they played, and beaten, Zimbabwe they would have reached the Super Six with reasonable prospects of making the semi- finals. And had the injured Darren Gough been present, they might have won the match with Australia too. Apart from Andrew Caddick, who cut a swathe through the top order, England lacked another proven wicket-taker, which made Hussain's decision to hand the crucial penultimate over in Port Elizabeth to the inexperienced James Anderson, who was having an off-day, all the more peculiar. It cost England the game and two days later Hussain, exhausted by an arduous winter, was making his resignation speech as oneday captain to cameras down the road at the team's hotel.

Anderson was England's prime discovery. Without even a full season with Lancashire behind him, he showed few qualms about stepping on to the big stages by walking off with two match awards, one for a stunning display of swing bowling against quality Pakistan opposition under the Cape Town lights. He faded in the defeats by India and Australia, but there was no doubting his potential. Another Lancastrian stepped out of the shadows. Plagued by a slow recovery from hernia surgery that cast his involvement into doubt, Andrew Flintoff turned in some of his most mature performances to date. He scored important runs against India and Australia and by bowling a relentless high-bouncing off-stump line finished as the most economical bowler in the tournament. Paul Collingwood, who ran more singles than a dating agency, also enhanced his reputation. After an exhausting winter, England's players probably returned home with a mixture of disappointment and relief. One of the chief regrets was that the tournament – the Zimbabwe row aside – went virtually unnoticed by those in Britain without satellite television because Channel Four went back on an earlier plan to show nightly highlights.

Hussain and Pollock were not the only leaders to jump or fall. In the now customary post-World Cup captaincy clear-out, so too did Jayasuriya (despite Sri Lanka surprising many by making the semi-finals), Carl Hooper of West Indies, Waqar Younis of Pakistan and Khaled Masud of Bangladesh. The Pakistanis were the biggest disappointment. They won no match of consequence and slid into rapid decline after losing their eagerly anticipated opener against Australia, which showed them in all their undisciplined glory. Shoaib's pre-match jibes at Lee were just the start. Waqar himself was ordered out of the attack for bowling two beamers and Adam Gilchrist subsequently launched a racial abuse charge against Rashid Latif that was turned down by match referee Clive Lloyd. Shahid Afridi was suspended and fined by his own board for sledging during the politically sensitive match with India. No wonder their cheerleader Abul Jalil, now sponsored by the Pakistan board, was so much quieter than in 1999.

For all the greyness of the political squabbles, the tournament threw up its share of glorious colour. There was John Davison, Canada's 32-year-old Australian recruit, astonishing West Indies and the world by smashing the fastest century in World Cup history only four days after his team had been dismissed for 36. There was Namibia's merry Jan-Berrie Burger applying his beefy blade to England's attack in Port Elizabeth and the exemplary glovework of Jeroen Smits, the Dutch keeper who conceded only five byes in six matches, earning the praise of Ian Healy.

And there was Shoaib swinging boundaries on his way to the highest score by a No. 11 batsman in one-day internationals; Ramnaresh Sarwan returning from hospital after being felled by a bouncer to take the field to a standing ovation; and Aasif Karim, a 39-year-old on his second career with Kenya, bowling maiden after maiden to Australia.

In a tournament short of technical innovation, one – relay-throwing, in which two fielders chased balls hit into the deep to hasten its return – turned a match when Lara was run out through the joint efforts of Lou Vincent and Chris Cairns of New Zealand.

But the best story came in Durban on the third day of the competition, when a Canadian team made up of salesmen, teachers, graphic artists, students, a dreadlocked plumber and only three people born in the world's second-largest country beat the game's newest Test nation, Bangladesh, by 60 runs. Until the warm-up games, the Canadians had not played together for five months, and were the lowest-ranked of the competing sides. The Bangladeshis may have been guilty of an unfamiliar sin – overconfidence.

The result created front-page headlines back home. The Ottawa Citizen proclaimed "Canada's Miracle on Grass" to countrymen more familiar with sport played on ice. It added: "Spunky Canadians Beat Top-Ranking Bangladesh," thus showing that everything is relative, and explaining "This is the equivalent of Tonga beating Canada in curling or the Jamaican bobsled team winning gold". The National Post stated simply: "Stunning Win Puts Canada on Cricket Map." In pursuing a long-term vision to globalise the game, it looked as though the ICC had got one thing right.
Wisden Cricketers' Almanack