The crowds were poor, the tickets were too expensive, 7 weeks was a couple of weeks to long, some of the facilities weren’t up to scratch, there was hardly any music at some grounds, the final ended with a muck of of note, and in the end the best team won. At least the Cricket World Cup 2007 in the West Indies got one thing right – Australia are the best team in the world, and on this evidence, by a long way. They dominated from the first game, sweeping all before them, and often with gruesome efficiency. Though many neutrals hoped that they would be stopped at some stage, for the good of the game, they brushed away all challengers, including the much hyped South Africans and Sri Lankans. The manner of their victories must be a case for considerable worry to the rest of the world. Apart from a 20 over spell in the group match against South Africa, they were never really tested, and even then they had the knowledge that they had the runs on the board and were just waiting for a break through. In a shorter, more traditional series, the chasing teams, South Africa, New Zealand and Sri Lanka, would have a chance, where the intensity is greater, momentum is more of a factor, and the chance of cashing Australia on an off day increases. Had South Africa played Australia a couple of days after thrashing the West Indies or England, they would have had a better chance, the momentum, intensity and confidence within the team would have given them more of an impact, but to have had to wait a week between their last Super 8 game, and their all important Semi Final, was to much, and to long a wait. The Australians went into each of their games knowing that their opponents had little chance. especially when playing cold, after the long waits between games. The form Graeme Smith showed during the first half of the tournament didn’t last, bar that destructive innings against England. Lasith Malinga carried an injury into the latter half of the Super 8’s and thus couldn’t push forward with the momentum gained from the first half. The New Zealand team that began the tournament were not the same team that ended it, they were jaded, tired, and inconsistent. The Australians seemed to get everyone on a bad day, they got South Africa in the semi after they hadn’t played for a week, got New Zealand in the Super 8’s after they began to look weary, and got Sri Lanka in the final with Malinga just coming back from missing the latter half of the Super 8’s. Having said that they used every advantage offered to them, be it physical or mental, and the emotional aspect of each game bringing McGrath to retirement, and used it to power past their opponents. There was no real weakness within the team, except maybe that they were being so dominant they had not been fully tested, their middle order hadn’t seen much batting, and Tait was the inexperience member of the bowling attack. Yet all their opponents knew this and none could take advantage. The top order needed to be knocked over to get to the middle order and this never happened. Tait, although expensive at times, did his job admirably, striking when needed, most often in his return spells. The Australians dominated this tournament, and looking past the shoddy organisation, the daft scenes at the end, the early exits of Pakistan and India, and the terrible loss of Bob Woolmer, that is what the World Cup should be remembered for – the total, ruthless, dominance of the worlds best team – Australia. Oh, and of course the Irish!
Adam Gilchrist smashed Australia to World Cup glory with 149 off only 104 balls, his first World Cup century, in a rain affected final against Sri Lanka. In a match that will be remembered as much for the incredible innings by Gilchrist as it will for the farcical end to the game, the best team in the world came out on top again. With rain delaying the start by two hours, play eventually started with the game reduced to 38 overs a side. Australia, seeking their third World Cup in a row, and playing in their fourth consecutive final, won the toss and chose to bat first. The first 10 overs yielded 45 runs, the lowest Australian total for this period in the 7 week tournament, without the loss of either opener. Sri Lanka decided not to use the second, and last under the revised conditions, powerplay of 5 overs, and this is when Gilchrist began his onslaught. With Hayden playing a far more circumspect role then he has during the tournament thus far, Gilchrist took to the Sri Lankan bowling like a man possessed. Although the pitch was ideal for batting, it failed to take anything away from the awesome stroke play that Gilchrist treated the crowd to. He reached his century off only 72 balls, and showed for the third consecutive final he was the man for the big occasion. In the ’99 final he scored 54 from 36 balls against Pakistan, and in ’03 he hit 57 from 48 balls against India. With his dismissal the run rate slowed down, but the rate still reached over 6 an over for the rest of the innings, as contributions from Hayden, Ponting and Symonds, helped Australia set an imposing total of 281-4 from their 38 overs. As for the Sri Lankan bowling attack, built up for much of the tournament for their variation and strike power, none where able to deal with the Gilchrist attack, and did not recover fully from that barrage. Australia, as they have done in every match, struck early, as Bracken had Tharanga caught behind for 6. After that Jayasuria and Sangakkara began to consolidate, without letting the run rate get away from them. They then began to attack when set, not in a Gilchrist style, but impressively as a partnership in its own right. However with the rain clouds once again threatening the Sri Lankan batsmen began to chase the D/L score needed should the match be called off, and in doing so began losing wickets. The rain did come, the players left the field a few times, and these conditions, along with the fading light, did not help the Sri Lankan batsmen. Regular wickets fell and before long the run rate got away from them and the match was effectively over. And then the farce began. The light was offered to the batsmen and they took it. At this stage the Sri Lankans needed 63 runs from 18 balls. The Australians began to celebrate, ripping the stumps out, jumping and screaming with joy and forming a victory huddle. The stage began to be assembled for the closing ceremony and presentation. And the umpires started telling the Australians, and the crew, that the game wasn’t over, they hadn’t won yet! And so in almost darkness the Sri Lankans came back to bat out the final 18 balls before Australia could once again celebrate their well deserved victory. Under comical conditions, that were perhaps in keeping with the farce that much of the 2007 World Cup in the West Indies was, the best team in the world emerged the right and true winners. Australia, remaining unbeaten, out played and often out classed all before them and deserved their title of World Cup champions – again.
Manchester United moved a step closer to clinching their first Premier League title in four years after they beat Everton and Chelsea could only draw with Bolton. On a day that saw both United and Chelsea play at the same time, an unusual occurrence these days, United had the type of day that may suggest that the title has only one destination – Old Trafford. With Ronaldo on the bench, United played with a formation that seemed to match Everton’s five man midfield, with Smith up front by himself, Rooney and Solskjaer supporting him and playing out wide, and Giggs playing more centrally. United didn’t play with their usual pace and attacking flair, and the more pedestrian pace of the first half suited Everton more, and they duly took the lead through a powerful Stubbs freekick, that took a slight deflection of Carrick, and went over a diving van der Saar, who would be disappointed not to have saved it. United failed to create much for the remainder of the first half and Everton would have fancied their chances of holding onto their slender lead for the remainder of the match, particular with the packed midfield and United not being able to carve out many opportunities. They would have been even more sure of causing an upset when they doubled their lead early in the second half, courtesy of a very impressive Manuel Fernandes. Sir Alex made his first change soon after, taking Evra off and replacing him with Richardson. United’s opening goal came from a Giggs corner, which the Everton keeper, Turner, who was only playing as Howard is ineligible to play against United, fumbled the ball into the path of O’Shea, who scored. United took control of the game from here in in, particularly when Ronaldo was brought on in place of Smith. The equaliser came from another corner, as Giggs floated the ball in and Ronaldo rose well and headed powerfully towards goal. The ball bounced and hit several defending players before Phil Neville’s attempted clearance off the line was hoofed into the roof of the net. With Chelsea and Bolton locked at 2-2 it was an opportunity for United to turn a potentially disastrous day into a decisive one, in the context of the destination of the title. United went looking for the goal that would give them the lead for the first time in the match. And the goal came from the most likely of sources, Wayne Rooney. Rooney had been booed with every touch for the duration of the match, both as an ex Everton player, and for his feud with Everton manager David Moyes. The goal was one of class and skill, as he controlled a cross, took it past the defenders and finished, in seemingly one movement. It was his 23 goal of the season as he has almost unnoticed gone past Ronaldo as United’s leading scorer. With twelve minutes to go the result was no longer in doubt. The icing on the cake came from Chris Eagles in the last minute, as he was put through, and with steadied composure, curled the ball past Turner, into the bottom corner. The manner of United’s win, to come back from 2-0 down, away from home, in the closing matches of the season, was celebrated by the players as if the title had just been won. It hasn’t, but United are within touching distance. After Chelsea’s draw with Bolton, United are now five points clear with three games left. Their vastly superior goal difference over Chelsea means that they effectively have a six point lead. One more win may be enough to secure the title for United, and with Milan to come in the week, and having already booked a place in the FA Cup final, the dream of a second treble is almost tangible.
After all the talk and calm belief, South Africa’s World Cup ended in a whimper, with a resounding defeat to defending champions Australia in the second semi final. Australia will now meet Sri Lanka on Saturday in a repeat of the 1996 final, won then by Sri Lanka. What had been billed as a repeat of the classic, thrilling ’99 semi final tie between the same two teams, was effectively over in the first few overs. South Africa, having won the toss and chosen to bat, on a wicket that was expected to get slower and slower as the match wore on, lost first Smith, and then Kallis, both advancing down the pitch only to be bowled, Smith by Bracken, and Kallis by McGrath. The South African batsmen seemed intent on playing to a preconceived game plan rather then what the situation warranted. Smith looked to carry on from where he left off against England, advancing down the track he was bowled by Brackan for 2. Kallis was out next, playing very uncharacteristically, having hit McGrath for a 4, he advanced down the pitch, and was bowled for 5. South Africa seemed to believe that they had to play aggressively to get on top of the Australian bowlers, seeming to think that the approach they had so successfully employed in the group game, for the first 20 overs, was the correct formula to defeat the powerful Aussie bowling machine. The difference here being that the situation and conditions on that day called for that approach, the boundaries were close, the pitch flat, and they were chasing a mammoth total of 377. Equally important was that for those 20 overs everything went right – they did not lose a wicket. The loss of Smith early should have brought a more circumspect approach to the opening period, but Kallis went playing a shot that wasn’t needed, de Villiers followed him after seeming to be prepared to get himself set, Prince played a very irresponsible shot, swinging at a wide delivery to be out for a duck, Boucher followed him, out first ball, and South Africa found themselves 27/5. Kemp and Gibbs set about attempting to dig themselves out of the mire they found themselves in. Gibbs, looking to banish the ghost of ’99, when he dropped Steve Waugh, looked in good touch, although he should have been given out early in his innings, caught behind, but survived that appeal to play some brilliant strokes on his way to 39. He was out just as he threatened to rescue the South African innings. Hall and then Pollock followed, and it was left to Justin Kemp to guide South Africa to a total that would give them a chance. Playing well within himself, the usually big hitting, aggressive, Kemp took his time, assessing the situation and realising that his wicket was important if South Africa were to find away back into the game. The dismissal of Pollock, the last of the batsmen before the tail was exposed, best typified the confusing nature of the South African approach. Pollock, a stylish, stroke playing batsmen, who is capable of hitting the ball long, was caught between defending his wicket, and playing his natural game. Having hit Hogg for four, he then pushed a ball right back into Hogg’s hands, not going through with the shot, caught in two minds. In the usual situation Pollock would have hit the ball past the bowler to the straight boundary. Nel tried to stick around, and Langeveld did his best, but it wasn’t enough. South Africa were all out for 149, with Kemp stranded on 49 not out. Early wickets were needed, and when Langeveld followed up a tight opening over from Pollock, with the wicket of Gilchrist, bowled for one, with his first ball, the South Africans began to hope, and dream. It was almost two soon after, but Ponting was dropped by prince, a difficult chance, that would have been a superb catch had it stuck, but the type of chance that must be taken if small totals are to be defended. Ponting would eventually go for 22, bowled by Nel, but by then the game was well within Australian control. Hayden and Clarke set about the total, and South Africa’s hopes faded. Hayden would not find himself out there when the winning runs were scored, but he did his job well, curbing his free scoring starts for a more cautious approach, and then scoring when the right balls presented themselves. He did what the South Africans failed to do – assess the situation and play to it. Clarke and Symonds rattled off the winning runs with ease, with Clarke particularly impressive, scoring an undefeated half century. Whether it was nerves, the occasion, or just an off day, the South Africa we all hoped would show up, to give the Australians a test they’ve lacked all tournament, never pitched up. After all the tack, the prematch dialogue concerning a calm, patient approach, not being haunted by the ’99 Semi Final, the South African dream burst with a gutless, feeble, display, that will have the South Africans cursing the lost opportunity to show the world what they were really capable of, and ends with the Australians once again in the final.
Manchester United will travel to Milan next week with a goal lead for their second leg Champions League Semi Final. After last nights 3-2 victory, courtesy of a Wayne Rooney winner in the last minute, United will travel with confidence of progressing to their fist final since their famous ’99 triumph Milan will be buoyed by their two away goals, but will be disappointed at conceding a late winner, particularly having controlled the first half, and gone into the break 2-1 up. United on the other hand will always fancy their chances of scoring, and thus will not be daunted by the prospect of going to Milan and getting a result. In their ’99 run they travelled to Italy for second leg games twice, snatching a draw with Inter in the quarter finals, and beating Juventus 3-2 in the semi finals. They will also be hopeful that some of their firs choice back four will return from injury by then. Last night 3/4 of their settled back four were missing, and at times this showed clearly, particularly with Milan’s second goal. The match was tipped to be the showcase for the two best players in the world right now, Christiano Ronaldo for United, ad the Brazilian, Kaka, for Milan. It was Ronaldo who struck first, rising to head powerfully from a Giggs corner, with the ball cannoning off Dida’s chest, and then beeing pushed over the line as Dida tried in vain to redeem himself. If that was first strike to Ronaldo, the rest of the first half belonged to Kaka. His skill and acceleration on the ball where a delight to watch, as he probed at the United defence, making up for an almost anonymous Gilardinho. First he equalised, receiving a through ball from Seedorf, and then accelerated away from O’Shea and drilling a shot into the far corner, an inch perfect shot that beat the sliding in Heinze and went across van de Saar, into the bottom corner. His second was once again a clinical, clean, finish that owed a lot to the United defenders having not played a lot together. Heinze and Evra, both usually playing on the left, and so would not have played together much, went for the same ball and took each other out, with the ball bouncing kindly to a free Kaka, who had an unobstructed path to goal, and who summarily made it 2-1. Milan could have extended their lead twice early in the second period, with Kaka spurning both chances to claim his hat trick. Thereafter it was United’s game. Whether it had more to do with United settling and being more comfortable with the approach needed to overcome their classy opponents, finalists 3 times in the last 5 years, or that both Maldini and Gattuso had to leave the pitch through injury, United seemed to believe more. They curtailed the threat of Kaka, denying him time and space, spread the ball with pace, and did what they failed to do in the first half, hold on to the ball for long periods. Ronaldo did not have the expected impact on the game that had been vetted, finding himself double and sometimes tripled teamed, but was always a ready outlet on the wings for a quick counter attack. With Giggs switching between the wings and the middle, Fletcher tirelessness running through the midfield, and Rooney always a handful for the Italian defence, United gradually began imposing themselves. The equaliser came after the United midfeld exchanged passes on the edge of the box, and a sublime flick over the defence from Scholes to Rooney, who took it on his chest and finished past Dida with ease. From then on it was all United. They attacked with controlled pace, and didn’t leave themselves venerable at the back. The defence, which seemed ill at ease in the first half, were calm and secure in the second, with Brown and particularly Heinze, keeping the Italians at bay. When the winner came the match was into its last minute, with fans beginning to make their way to the exits. Giggs picked up the ball and ran at the Milan defence, before slipping a ball through to Rooney, who hit the ball firs time from just inside the box, and beat Dida at the near post. United seemed to learn how to play Milan as the game wore on, and it will be for this very reason that they will fancy themselves in the second leg in Milan. Kaka, so superb in the first half, was not able to run the game as he would have expected in the second half. More of the same will be needed in Milan, and United, who will hope to have Rio Ferdinand and Gary Nevile back for that game, will believe that the final is well within their grasp. They have Wayne Rooney to thank for that.
The semi finalists of the world cup are all known and all that’s left before then is a match between two of the disappointing teams of this years event, England and the West Indies. On Tuesday Sri Lanka will take on New Zealand and on Wednesday South Africa will do battle against the undefeated Australians. By all accounts they have been the four strongest ODI performers of the last few years and not just in the last few weeks, and so rightfully take their place in the knockout face. The Aussies have been the immovable force powering their way towards the title, with a brand of intimidating cricket that seeks to kill off their opposition as quickly as possible. Hayden and Gilchrist get them off to a bludgeoning start, bullying the bowling, getting on top of the fielders, and laying the perfect platform for Ponting and Clarke to finish the job off. When bowling Bracken and McGrath have been tight and disciplined, with McGrath leading the wickets list and only 3 shy of the World Cup record of 23 wickets. Tait, although expensive and giving away too many extras, has made breakthroughs, and so done the job of strike bowler as well as been hoped. The New Zealanders have played a very tactically aware game of cricket, making full use of conditions and their bits and bobs cricketers, such as Scott Styris and Craig McMillan. Shane Bond has been outstanding for them up front and at the end, with Daniel Vettori doing the business in the middle overs. As usual captain Stephen Fleming has been very astute in using the resources he has at his disposal. The Sri Lankans have been the most balanced team in the tournament. The batting has been steady when needed, and stylish and flamboyant when things have gone right. Any of the top four are able to take the game away from the opposition, while the middle order are comfortable both ending an innings when the platform has been set, as well as rebuilding after the loss of wickets. It is however their bowling that is the epitomy of balance. In Vaas they have the Pollock or McGrath type bowler, economic, experienced and cunning, the ideal foil to the unpredictable, quick, unconventional talent that is Lasith Malinga. He is as capable of going for big runs in his opening spell as he is of taking quick wickets. However it is at the end of any innings were his ability to reverse the ball at pace can be devastatingly exploited, as South Africa saw in the Super 8 game where he took 4 wickets in 4 balls, a ODI record. Add to these two bowlers the guile and expertise of Muralitharan and you have a wonderfully balanced, effective bowling line up. The semi final draw is completed by South Africa. Ranked the number one team before the tournament began, South Africa would have fancied their chances at the get go. However as the weeks have progressed we have seen two different South Africa’s at play, the side that so devastatingly thrashed both England and the West Indies, and the side that then lost to Bangladesh, and to a lesser extent New Zealand. The South Africans, particularly their captain Graeme Smith, have tremendous belief in themselves and feel that they are the team to topple Australia. Their victories have been built on a solid bowling performance, backed up by some outstanding fielding, and aggressive, brave, batting. The bowling of Andrew Hall, particularly at the end of an innings, as been instrumental in their restriction of teams. The batting has flowed from good starts by Smith and de Villiers upfront, who have scored at over a run a ball in all their significant partnerships. When they have given the team a good start they have allowed Kallis to benefit from a sound platform, and given the likes of Boucher and Gibbs to play with freedom and class. If South Africa are to get past Australia they will need a team performance such as that against England, were everything went right for them, and they were able to play the type of cricket they are best at. The unpredictable performances they have shown thus far means that they are perhaps the best bet to beat the Aussies. The winner of the world cup, I feel, will come from this match. South Africa versus Sri Lanka is the final I predict, with South Africa winning their first world cup.
In front of the biggest and noisiest crowd of the Caribbean World Cup South Africa booked their place in the semi finals courtesy of a sound thrashing of England. England, who needed to beat South Africa to pip them to the final semi final birth, now play a dead rubber against the hosts, the West Indies, in the final Super 8 game on Saturday. Winning the toss Micheal Vaughn, the England captain, asked South Africa to bowl first, hoping to get a score on the board, and the pressure of having to win or fail to progress, would tell and the South Africans would fail to reach the target. Things didn’t go according to plan from that moment on. South Africa, who surprised many by leaving Ntini out of the one match where conditions finally suited him, hit all the right marks from the beginning. Pollock and new opening partner, Langeveld, bowled 14 dot balls before the English total got off the mark. The tight bowling continued throughout the entire innings, helped by good fielding, and outstanding captaincy by Smith, who’s every move seemed to bare fruit this afternoon. Pollock was back to his miserly self, finishing with only 17 runs taken off him in his 10 overs. It was the strangle by Pollock that allowed the likes of Nel and Langeveld to make the early strikes. Nel finished with 3/35, including the prized wicket of Pieterson, caught brilliantly by Smith, and celebrated with great excitement by the entire team. It was the bowling of Andrew Hall that really took the game away from England. A score of 200 was still possible and may have proved challenging, but Hall put an end to any such thoughts with a superb spell in the middle and at the end. Getting the ball to swing and reverse Hall ripped through the middle order of the English lineup, finishing with the superb figures of 5/18 off 10 overs, the best bowling by a South African in a world cup, the previous best being 5/22 by Lance Klusner against Kenya. England’s innings ended in the 48th over on 154. While the English openers where circumspect and cautious, the South Africans took the game away from England from the first two overs. Smith and de Villiers batted with aggression and flair in smashing their way towards the modest total. by the time de Villiers was out, for 42 from 35 balls, the game was effectively over. Smith was joined by Kallis, who was happy to just push the ball around and allow his captain to finish the match off. Smith led from the front throughout the game, with his field placings, bowling changes and two catches, during the England innings, and with his aggressive batting during the South African innings. Not allowing any of the bowlers to settle, Smith attacked the bowling, intent to finish the match off as quickly as possible. When the end came he was 89 not out from just 58 balls, and the 20th over had not yet been bowled. This was South Africa’s most impressive and clinical performance of the world cup, both in the manner of their victory, and also the occasion, needing to win to progress to the semi finals. On this performance South Africa may be peeking at just the right time and will fancy their chances against anyone – even Australia.