Tony Cozier reviews the 2003 World Cup, the sixth he has covered since the first in 1975
IT is an unfortunate irony that the richest, biggest, longest, best marketed and most efficiently administered of cricket's eight World Cups should also have been the most controversial, contentious and, with more one-sided matches than ever, most bland.
It was memorable mostly for the enviable superiority of Australia, who merited comparisons with the great West Indies of the inaugural tournament in winning all their matches to retain the championship, a number of brilliant individual innings and the thrilling dominance of fast, in three cases, very fast bowling.
But it produced only four finishes in which the outcome was still in genuine doubt when the last over started (the West Indies' win by three runs over South Africa and loss by six runs to Sri Lanka among them).
None of the others were closer than 20 runs or four wickets. Three were by 10 wickets, three by nine wickets, eight by over 100 runs. Australia's victory in the final by 125 runs was typical.
The event had been thrown into turmoil even before a ball was bowled through the protests by players, mostly and most strongly Indian, against so-called "ambush marketing" restrictions in the tournament contracts.
The choas was further compounded by the refusal of England and New Zealand, for different reasons, to go to Harare and Nairobi for their matches against Zimbabwe and Kenya who were given first round matches in an honourable but, as it turned out, disruptive effort to make the tournament more broadly African.
The repercussions are already being felt and have the potential to shake the foundations of the International Cricket Council (ICC).
At a meeting here last week, the ICC decided to impose heavy (as in millions of US dollars) penalties on India and Sri Lanka for their players' refusal to sign the contracts in time and on England and New Zealand for not fulfilling the obligations.
Quite apart from the money lost on the abandoned matches, the points gifted, virtually assured Kenya and Zimbabwe places in the second, Super Sixes stage.
While Kenya's achievement in defeating Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe on the way to becoming the first non-Test team to the semi-final added a fairytale touch to the story, the artificiality of their advance, and Zimbabwe's, was unsatisfactory.
The decision to scrub plans for a reserve day in the first round, taken for understandable logistical and financial reasons, was always likely to cost some one precious points. It happened to be the West Indies who were denied a full match against Bangladesh, the group's weakest team because of rain.
These, the carry-over points system and the protracted six weeks duration, all need to be reviewed and amended for the 2007 tournament.
In contrast, there were no significant complaints about the organisation, in spite of the need for especially tight security, the constant, long distance travel and the influx of thousands of fans and cynical media professionals.
Perhaps the most remarkable statistic for an event visible through every possible medium the length and breadth of South Africa was that the only reported victim of violent crime in a country with an unenviable record in this regard was one of the players.
The New Zealander Chris Cairns was cut on the head outside a night club in Durban - and he was not exactly blameless.
The cricket was a similar story. It was too predictable to be exciting.
It was obvious from their victories by 82 runs over Pakistan and nine wickets over India in their opening matches that there were no opponents strong or convinced enough to stop Australia, even in the absence of Shane Warne.
The other 13 teams were not so much competing over the 54 matches for the grand prize of US$2 million as for the lesser places.
That India recovered from their early trouncing to reel off eight straight wins on their way to the final revealed a spirit for which they have seldom been known.
That they capitulated once more was indicative of the Australians' power to intimidate, with their fiery bowling, their belligerent batting and, not least, their exceptional fielding. They were, in the words of Matthew Hayden, "like a swarm of bees."
It was typical, in a tournament in which the little Indian master Sachin Tendulkar justified his widely recognised status as the contemporary game's finest batsman with a record aggregate, that Ricky Ponting, an Australian and captain at that, should have stamped the final exclamation mark.
His unbeaten 140 would have been a tribute to any batsman of any era and Glenn McGrath, Ponting's most trusted fast bowler, immediately ensured Tendulkar could not respond in kind.
Tendulkar's 75-ball 98 that decimated Pakistan in the match that holds more significance than any in the game, and his derailment of Shoaib Akhtar, the "Rawalpindi Express" who hurled his thunderbolts at around 100 mph, will be long remembered by all who saw it, not only besotted Indians.
Nor will Brian Lara's exotic 116, after four months off with his illness, in the West Indies' upset triumph in the opening match that first exposed South African frailties that were to send them out of the tournament at the first stage. But Lara couldn't repeat it when it mattered and the West Indies also failed to make the cut.
The athletic Andrew Symonds' unbeaten 143 off 125 balls that spurred a recovery and set up the first of Australia's 11 victories was a prelude to an outstanding tournament for a cricketer with a previously tenuous hold on his place.
Herschelle Gibbs and Stephen Fleming thrilled the sell-out Wanderers with their hundreds in the first round but both lacked adequate backups and, even though they advanced to the Super Sixes, New Zealand's campaign ended in the same disappointment as South Africa's.
Lack of batting support was a problem for Sri Lanka as well. They went to the semi-finals but depended too heavily on their openers, captain Sanath Jayasuriya and Marvan Atapattu, their only century-makers.
While Shaoib sent down the quickest ball, at just over 100 miles an hour, he lacked the control of the equally explosive Australian Brett Lee and New Zealander Shane Bond that is a necessary ally of even pace like fire.
It is even more essential for those of lesser velocity as the left-armers, Chaminda Vaas, Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra, the canny veterans McGrath and Vasbert Drakes and the enthusiastic Andy Bichel repeatedly demonstrated.
The participation of the minor teams, Canada, Holland and Namibia, those comprised mainly of enthusiastic club amateurs who had to qualify through the ICC Trophy, was open to question. But they all added a little something exotic to the proceedings.
Without them, for instance, we would not have had the thrill of John Davison's extraordinary six-hitting for Canada. It was no surprise to learn that he, too, happened to be Australian.
My own favourite memory?
Well, there are two and, with admitted bias, both involve West Indians.
The first was Drakes' astonishing, one-handed catch while doing a mid-air limbo that ended Davison's carousing 111 at Centurion. It completely flummoxed the television commentator who happened to a West Indian native of Barbados who I happen to have intimately known from birth.
The second was the sight of Ramnaresh Sarwan emerging from the dressing room, defiantly wearing a cap, to resume his innings against Sri Lanka and all but win an unwinnable match. Only an hour earlier he had been stretchered motionless off the ground and sent to hospital from a sickening blow to the helmet from a Dilhara Ferrnando bouncer.
It was bravery that gave a welcome boost to the image of West Indies cricket that had taken such a battering in these parts on the ill-starred tour four years earlier.
The most challenging test of that image will come four years hence when the next World Cup heads to the Caribbean. We would do well to learn from the South African experience.