JOHANNESBURG: The first phase of the 2003 World Cup has had everything – drugs, death threats, downpours and drama.
The only element it lacked was the one thing that, arguably, the tournament needed most – an Australian defeat.
Australia, huge favourites to defend their 1999 crown and become the first team to win three World Cups, could not have launched their campaign in worse fashion.
Shane Warne, in his swansong tournament, flew home without bowling a ball after failing a drugs test for diuretics. He said he had taken them to improve his appearance, not to mask other drugs.
For most sides, losing the most successful leg spinner in history would have been a body blow. For Australia, it seemed a mere detail.
Ricky Ponting’s troops ended the first phase with six wins out of six, having crushed India and Pakistan on the way while recording an admittedly tight 14th win in a row over the English.
It will take something very special to beat them.
South Africa and Pakistan, touted as two major challengers to Australian rule, were not even special enough to make the second round.
South Africa agonised over everything – could they become the first hosts to lift the trophy, would they ever find a captain good enough to replace Hansie Cronje, should the aging Allan Donald be axed, would they recover after Jonty Rhodes’ broken hand?
The greatest agony of all came in their final game when, in an echo of their 1999 exit to Australia, they contrived to tie a rain-affected match with Sri Lanka and crash out at the first hurdle.
Pakistan, meanwhile, showed mere glimpses of their mercurial best. Soon they were losing to England and a Sachin Tendulkar-inspired India.
They left early with little to boast about. Shoaib Akhtar did bowl the quickest ball ever recorded, breaking the 100mph barrier for the second time, and Wasim Akram did claim an unprecedented 500th one-day wicket.
But by the end the squad had been reduced to brawling during a football game. Inzamam-ul-Haq, the fourth-highest run-scorer in one-day history, left for home having made 19 runs in six innings.
Nasser Hussain did not score many more. He ended the tournament by standing down as England’s one-day captain, shortly after the team lost their 14th straight one-dayer to Australia.
England, after arguing amongst themselves for five days, refused to travel to Zimbabwe because of moral and security concerns.
Hussain was exasperated that those concerns were not taken more seriously by the cricketing authorities, especially after a letter containing death threats was sent to the England board.
New Zealand’s players, in contrast, were backed by their cricket board in refusing to go to Nairobi, also over security worries.
They responded by beating South Africa and West Indies to sneak into the Super Sixes.
Stephen Fleming’s united Kiwis like a good fight – Chris Cairns and Brendon McCullum were fined after a nightclub brawl in Durban – and could pose a real collective danger to Australia.
India, with eight points to Australia’s 12 in the second round, and Sri Lanka, with 71/2, will probably rely on extraordinary individual performances to upset them in the latter stages.
Tendulkar, who has become the most successful run-maker in World Cup history, has led India’s challenge with a tournament best total of 469 runs. His 75-ball 98 against Pakistan, with included smashing Akhtar out of the attack after six balls, was touched by genius.
Sri Lanka, meanwhile, have leant heavily on the batting of skipper Sanath Jayasuriya and the bowling of left-armer Chaminda Vaas (16 wickets at 9.87 apiece, including the first-ever hat-trick with the first three balls of an international match) and off spinner Muttiah Muralitharan (12 wickets at 14.58).
Kenya, however, the minnows’ champions, seem unlikely to furrow Australian brows too deeply in the second round after becoming the first country without Test status to reach the latter stages of a World Cup.
Like Zimbabwe, they had to rely on match forfeits to get that far. Zimbabwe were also helped by a washed-out match against Pakistan to edge past England.
For some, their successes give the Super Sixes an unsatisfactory look. Nothing, though, that wouldn't be put right by an Australian defeat. – Reuters