Australia defied the odds and the hopes of 1.4 billion people to win the 13th edition of the Cricket World Cup and extend their dominance of the tournament to six victories. But where does their achievement rank alongside their other triumphs and how enthralling and genuinely competitive was this World Cup, bloated to 45 days from 14 in its inaugural incarnation, compared with its predecessors?
It was the dullest World Cup because 16 teams were included – and Bermuda, Canada, Scotland and Zimbabwe, between them, did not win a match. Worse still, India and Pakistan somehow managed not to qualify for the Super Eight stage, so they did not face each other in a billion-dollar match; instead, Bangladesh and Ireland did. Australia’s batting was as invincible as ever, while Glenn McGrath enjoyed his swansong. The tournament was saved from anonymity by Adam Gilchrist hitting Sri Lanka for 149 in the final off only 104 balls.
The ICC, dominated by England and Australia, was unambitious. They simply tried to replicate the inaugural tournament of eight teams playing three qualifiers each in two groups, and only 15 games in all. If there had been three strong teams in 1975, there were only two on this occasion because Australia did not select cricketers who had played for Kerry Packer’s World Series. Which left England and West Indies to contest the final. It was a close match, until Viv Richards was joined by Collis King and they took the game away from England’s four-man attack. Chasing 286, England’s opening pair of Michael Brearley and Geoff Boycott occupied 38 of the 60 overs, leaving no daylight for Graham Gooch, Derek Randall, David Gower and Wayne Larkins to accelerate.
Strange things were happening in cricket at this period. Kenya, for example, defeated Sri Lanka in a qualifying game when, so Wisden said, “Sri Lanka almost sleepwalked to defeat.” As a result Kenya went through to the Super Sixes then the semi-finals. England, meanwhile, conscientiously refused to play in Harare because they had been led to expect that spectators would be beaten up; while Australia got stronger and stronger even though Shane Warne had failed a drugs test. Their final against India was over almost as soon as it began. Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden, Ricky Ponting and Damien Martyn rattled up 359 for two which, even allowing for Johannesburg’s altitude, was far ahead of its time and India.
A rather tepid affair, as the atmosphere is always deflated when the hosts are knocked out early. For England, the hosts, it was a damp squib from the moment the opening ceremony was delayed by a shower until they failed to qualify for the new Super Six stage owing to their complacently, or culpably, slow run-rate. Australia began quietly too before roaring into life, propelled by Steve Waugh and Shane Warne. Even then South Africa were winning the Edgbaston semi-final as they chased Australia’s modest 213. Warne then roared and dragged his team to a last-over tie, which took them into the final against Pakistan, who chose to bat first on an overcast morning at Lord’s.
By this stage the World Cup had evolved into a tiresome phase: the first month would be nothing but predictable tedium as the tournament was designed to last as long as possible and maximise revenue from broadcasters and advertisers. Everyone knew the top eight teams that would go through to the quarter-finals from the two qualifying groups – except that England enlivened the qualifying stage this time by being so jaded after their 3-1 Ashes triumph in Australia that they lost to Ireland and Bangladesh before scraping over the line. Whereupon England, under Andrew Strauss, lost embarrassingly by 10 wickets in the quarter-finals (but Strauss did go back to the drawing-board later when director of England cricket). Everything was set for home side India to topple Australia, and win the final against Sri Lanka in Mumbai, which they did, but only after MS Dhoni had promoted himself to play the match-winning innings.
Like 2011, there was a long and tediously predictable qualifying stage, before the home side triumphed. Two pools of seven teams, and everybody knows in advance the four countries that will go through from each group into the quarter-finals… except that England, with their archaic methods, decided to go one stage further than 2011: instead of enlivening the qualifying rounds with incompetence then scraping into the knockouts, they failed to qualify at all. Bangladesh made their presence felt for a change and qualified instead. Otherwise Australia, though beaten by New Zealand in a pool game, progressed smoothly into the final (apart from the vivid spell by Pakistan’s Wahab Riaz in the quarter-finals) at a packed Melbourne Cricket Ground. Could New Zealand do it again? Brendon McCullum started running down the pitch, as was his wont, at Mitchell Starc but disarmingly admitted later that he failed to watch the ball. Game over.
The first World Cup outside England, at the fourth attempt, was a success – with several reservations. Reducing the matches from 60 to 50 overs a side was no great drawback, and this arrangement has applied ever since; but to play 27 matches at 21 centres spread all the way across India and Pakistan made for too much travelling and expanded the tournament from a month to six weeks (without any more fixtures than 1983). Moreover, Sri Lanka had no bowlers of note and Zimbabwe had gone backwards. The great addition was spin: the eight sides began to select a specialist spinner and usually two. The semi-final stage was the tightest yet: Australia just beat Pakistan in Lahore against all expectations, as did England in Mumbai against India. In the final Australia – not especially talented but very hard-working in their running between wickets and fielding – used the advantage of batting first to defeat England, with a stodgy batting line-up, by seven runs.
One of the better tournaments because administrators dared to expand it from 15 to 27 matches – the eight teams, in two qualifying groups of four, played each other twice – and because there were no weak teams like East Africa had been in 1975 and Canada in 1979. Sri Lanka were starting to justify their new Test status, and Zimbabwe were strong under the cunning captaincy of Duncan Fletcher: they defeated Australia and almost knocked over the eventual winners India. To cap it all, the final was one of the all-time upsets. West Indies were world champions; India were good but relied on dibbly-dobbly bowlers. Everything conformed to expectations as India were dismissed for 183. Were West Indies over-confident about making it three World Cups in a row? Those dibbly-dobblies nipped through the gap, India won by 43 runs, and the sport’s next super-power was born.
Oh the freshness and the excitement, and this World Cup observed the rule of leaving everybody wanting more. There were only 15 matches, and many were one-sided, but this new competition was always going to be a winner because all eight teams had supporters living in Britain, and the weather was perfect, and the daylight hours allowed 60 overs per side. Besides, the final was a thriller: “the game has never produced better entertainment in one day,” Wisden stated after West Indies had defeated Australia by 17 runs, even though there was not an over of spin. England’s Test and County Cricket Board had thought this competition would not catch on and organised four Tests against Australia to follow but they were ant-climax.
It was arguably the best World Cup to date and unquestionably the fairest in that all nine teams played a qualifying game against each other. And yet again the home team or teams did not win. Australia had not moved on from their previous triumph, but New Zealand under the late Martin Crowe were innovators. They opened their batting with a power-hitter, and their bowling with an off-spinner, and eased into the semi-finals, only to confront Pakistan when the cornered tiger was sharpening its claws. England meanwhile had a team packed with batting and pace-bowling allrounders, including Ian Botham as opening bat. But they had been touring New Zealand before the World Cup, and ran out of gas in the final. After 39 matches, Imran Khan, now in prison, lifted the trophy.
It was the most surprising World Cup to date, not least because Sri Lanka came from nowhere to win – the odds against them were 66-1 at one early stage – and because their strategy was new. Tactics like a pinch-hitting opener had been tried before, and a spinner opening the bowling, but Sri Lanka turned the whole textbook upside down. In the final against Australia in Lahore they selected four spinners, and their most solid batsmen were down at six and seven in case the innings went awry. Three key figures: their captain Arjuna Ranatunga, their coach Dav Whatmore (an Australian Test batsman of Sri Lankan origin), and Sanath Jayasuriya, their star allrounder, who belted the ball like no opening batsman had done before (eg 82 off 44 balls v England in the quarter-finals). Sri Lanka were also the first home side to win the World Cup, although two of their qualifying home games were forfeited in their favour when Australia and West Indies declined to visit Colombo after recent terrorism.
It was one of the best because of the amount of giant-killing that was done by the weaker teams. The qualifying stage started slowly, and the crowds were initially small in the afternoon sun, but the competition warmed up as soon as the upsets began. Netherlands beat South Africa, and Afghanistan won four games starting by humbling under-performing England. Afghan zest and physicality went a long way to compensate for the absence of West Indies. But although the semi-finals were absorbing it was not the finest tournament because the final was no nail-biter.
It has to be a more interesting format, even though only 10 teams are participating, not 12 or 14 as previously in two groups. The one drawback was that Afghanistan, on this occasion, were still out of their depth: they lost all nine of their qualifiers and Eoin Morgan shredded them in his last major innings for England with 17 sixes at Old Trafford. Given England’s blazing new style, the big question was whether they could win the World Cup at last? And they buckled after that Afghanistan match, losing to Sri Lanka as usual in World Cups, until they had to win their last three games – and did. India had equally classy batsmen but none toughed it out on a seaming semi-final pitch against New Zealand. What was unique about this tournament was the final, which was tied, as was the Super Over.
England won on a technicality in the most prolonged climax of any limited-overs match. It was the third time in a row that the home side had won, the first that England had won.