By SB Tang
Once upon a time in the mid-to-late ’90s, winning the one-day World Cup mattered to the Australian public. I suspect that this was because it offered the only means by which to obtain formal confirmation that the Australian team was, as their consistent Test performances since toppling the West Indian Empire at Sabina Park in 1995 indicated, the best in the world. After all, world titles always fit much more snugly when they are not self-proclaimed — no matter how well-reasoned one’s self-proclamation may be. Moreover, an ascent to the very summit of world cricket, capped by a World Cup victory, would complete a virtuous circle — the long and arduous ascent having begun with an unexpected triumph in the 1987 World Cup by a young Australian side emerging from the dark doldrums of the post-Chappell-Marsh-Lillee years.
This desire only intensified after the 1996 World Cup when, after a thrilling tournament featuring a mammoth run chase in the quarters against New Zealand (I still maintain that that wasn’t Chris Harris batting) and a “I see it but I don’t believe it” back-from-the-dead win over the West Indies in the semis, the Mark Taylor-led Australians went down in the final to a well-drilled Sri Lankan unit led by the cunning Arjuna Ranatunga. Yeah, I reckon Ranatunga was a bit of a douche bag and his unnecessarily inflammatory conduct at the SCG in the final of the triangular one-day series preceding the World Cup was a low point in the history of world cricket but … you have to acknowledge that he was a tactically astute captain who got the best out of a hard-working but moderately talented side who, although they still weren’t able to compete with Australia in the Test arena, deservedly won that World Cup final. Having studied the local conditions in Lahore for the day-night final, Ranatunga realised that the build-up of moisture and dew as day turned to night would make it difficult for any spinner to grip the ball. When he won the toss, he duly sent Australia into bat and Warne, who in 1996 was truly at his zenith (back then, the flipper was still a regularly deployed weapon rather than a carefully constructed urban myth dutifully digested by a generation of gullible Englishmen), was effectively negated.
In his excellent tour diary, Steve Waugh candidly admitted that the dew factor was something which the Australians failed to factor into their pre-game planning. I’d argue that Taylor failed to factor it into his in-game tactics too as he bowled Warne for his full 10 overs (he went for close to 6 an over and took no wickets) despite it being plainly evident that he couldn’t grip the ball. Taylor was a good captain but, to this day, I find it odd that his captaincy appears to be beyond criticism and that there exists a persistent school of thought (led by Ian Chappell) in Australian cricket circles which not only insists that Taylor was a better and more aggressive captain than Waugh, but seems to think that the best way to promote this thesis is to attack Waugh’s captaincy.
In the case of the 1996 World Cup final, a failure to research local conditions causing a failure to realise that your strike bowler’s powers could be severely diminished, seems to be a significant tactical mistake on the part of a captain, worthy of at least substantive comment in the national media. As far as I remember, there was barely a whisper. It seems a tad unfair that Taylor was never subjected to any scrutiny for such decisions — because his successors certainly have been. Indeed, if Ponting or Waugh had ever done the same thing, the decision would (rightly) have been argued to be a substantive, and possibly match-losing, tactical error on the part of the captain.
Anyway, I digress (you’ll find that I do this frequently and at length so best to stop reading now if that bothers you). Back to the point — why the one-day World Cup actually mattered to Australians back in the mid-to-late ’90s. In short, it represented the official flag which we wanted to unfurl and plant at the summit of world cricket, after an arduous, decade-long climb back to the top. A succession of thrilling day-nighters in Australia also helped cement the position of one-dayers as popular entertainment and the annual triangular one-day tournament as a national institution. Every Australian male who grew up in the ’90s remembers Michael Bevan’s last ball four (a perfect straight drive back down the ground) off Roger Harper to win a day-nighter at the SCG — “A four to win / Off Roger’s spin / The perfect play of plays”. Lines from a poem quoted in Steve Waugh’s 1996 World Cup tour diary. I seem to recall that it was written by a member of the 1996 tour party but I can’t, for the life of me, remember who.
So, when the next World Cup rolled around in 1999, the Australian team and the Australian public were even more determined to take home the trophy. After a difficult start (including a 5 wicket loss to New Zealand) left Steve Waugh’s Australians on the brink of elimination, the team went unbeaten in seven consecutive matches, including a win and a tie in consecutive matches against South Africa, to win the World Cup. Those two games against South Africa rank as arguably Australia’s greatest in the one-day arena. Steve Waugh’s unbeaten century as Australia successfully chased 272 in the final Super Six match, Warne’s 4/29 as South Africa collapsed from 0/47 to 4/61 in the semi-final and the sight of Allan Donald wandering around, batless and seemingly clueless, mid-pitch, as Fleming calmly rolled the ball down the other end for Gilchrist to run out Donald to tie the semi-final and put Australia through to the final (by virtue of a superior net run rate), after South Africa had appeared to have the semi-final wrapped up with only 1 needed off the last 4 balls and the player of the tournament, Lance Klusener, on strike, unbeaten on 31 off 14 balls — these moments left an indelible imprint on the hearts and minds of every Australian cricket follower who was alive in 1999.
The one-day game had reached its zenith in Australia.
Jubilant scenes greeted the players upon their return to Australia. The Victorians on the team were paid the ultimate sporting accolade: appearances on the Melbourne The Footy Show. I even seem to recall a ticker-tape parade in Sydney which drew a crowd of 100,000.
Like the British Empire before it, the one-day game looked like it would live forever but was, instead, eased into a graceful retirement by its own success, leaving behind a debateable legacy.
After the ecstasy of 1999, each successive World Cup has become progressively less satisfying and interest in the one-day game has declined commensurately. Nowhere near the same level of celebrations greeted Australia’s subsequent World Cup victories and the tournaments themselves were memorable more for the endemic administrative incompetence of the ICC (the empty stadiums and sterile atmosphere of 2007) and the serial choking of the Proteas (who contrived to successfully chase down the wrong Duckworth-Lewis target in front of their home crowd in 2003).
Take nothing away from the 2003 and 2007 champion Australian sides — Ponting and Martyn’s batting masterclass in the 2003 final (the latter batting with a broken finger), Symonds (finally) coming of age as an international cricketer in 2003, Hayden swatting aside all before him in 2007, and Tait filling Brett Lee’s shoes in 2007. These were all top-class performances, worthy of a tournament supposed to represent the pinnacle of the game. But the World Cup tournaments themselves paled in comparison to the titanic Test series against India in 2001 and 2004, and the Ashes series against England in 2005, 2006–7 and 2009. Whilst the former were routine and lop-sided, the latter were nuanced and thrilling.
Ironically, part of the reason these Test series were so much better was the positive influence one-day cricket had had on Test cricket. Far from, as some predicted at the inception of World Series cricket, killing Test cricket in Australia, one-day cricket revitalised and evolved Test cricket for the better. The modern skills developed and honed by one-day cricket — improved fielding, running between the wickets and run rates — were, particularly under Steve Waugh’s captaincy, successfully applied to Test cricket to create one of the most dominant sporting teams in history. Quite simply, Steve Waugh’s Australian team changed the way Test cricket is played — by making 4-an-over the norm, they made a result possible in nearly every Test match they played and ambitiously pushed for the win even when, as in India in 2001, this was to the detriment of their win-loss record but the benefit of the game as a whole.
Ultimately, like the British Empire before it, the one-day game’s success was self-defeating. By forever changing Test cricket for the better, the one-day game exposed its own limitations and rendered itself obsolete. Similarly, by imparting ideas such as individual liberty, parliamentary democracy and the common law to its colonies, the British Empire could hardly resist the colonies’ subsequent cries for independence.
Of course, the legacies left behind by both the one-day game and the Empire were not, by any measure, wholly good and should not be whitewashed. The one-day game is partly responsible for, amongst other things:
- the permanent and severe reduction in the popularity of Test cricket in every Test-playing nation except for Australia and England (and India … if they’re winning);
- the birth of a generation of followers, particularly on the subcontinent, who neither appreciate nor like Test cricket;
- the preferencing of bat over ball;
- the systematic flattening of pitches around the world;
- the diminution of the importance of mental discipline and technique to batting;
- the spectre known as the middle overs; and
- an environment conducive to match-fixing and spot-fixing.
Similarly, the British Empire was responsible for, amongst other things:
- negligence in the face of famine in Ireland and India;
- the Amritsar massacre;
- the Matabele wars; and
- we could go on … and on and on but there are only so many hours in a day.
What is clear is that, like the British Empire before it, the time has come for the one-day game to depart gracefully having forever changed the world, and leave others to debate its enduring legacy.
One-day cricket’s original role as popular, prime-time entertainment for casual cricket followers has been taken over by T20 which is essentially one-day cricket minus the middle overs where batting sides, fielding sides and the game’s law-makers conspire to put viewers into a coma by forcing the field back and allowing batsmen to stroll four singles every over.
One-day cricket holds little appeal for dedicated cricket followers who will always have Test cricket and have been fortunate enough over the past decade to dine out on a succession of fiercely contested series against England, India and South Africa.
Test cricket is chess.
T20 is checkers.
Both have their place.
But one-day cricket is neither and, as such, it is now the Zeppo of the cricketing family. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it — it just serves no purpose.
It should come as no surprise then that, in recent years, one-day crowds in Australia have been anaemic and Warne has wisely called for the abolition of one-dayers altogether.
Until then, victory in the World Cup would serve:
- the important purpose of allowing Ponting to retire gracefully on a high, being remembered as Australia’s greatest batsman since Bradman and a captain who won three consecutive World Cups without dropping a single game, rather than the man who lost three Ashes series and tried to bowl out Panesar and Anderson in Cardiff with the awesome power of Marcus North’s offies; and
- the semi-important purpose of providing a decent confidence boost for the lads who are also part of the Test squad.
But, a fourth consecutive World Cup won’t remotely make up for losing a home Ashes series for the first time in 23 years (in the process, becoming the first side in Australia’s 134 year Test history to lose two, much less three, home Tests by an innings) and the general trend of Australia’s consistently mediocre performances in the Test arena over the past few years.