Captured by the sport's adventurers

Robert Winder looks back on the best and worst of times at the Cricket World Cup
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The Independent Online
As expected, the World Cup was won yesterday by the side which showed the greater professionalism, coolness under pressure and resolve.

The only surprise was that this turned out to be Sri Lanka, not Australia. The Sri Lankans, who have lit up the tournament with their spectacular batting feats, ended up winning it with a performance of down-under efficiency: they strangled their opponents in the field, and knocked off the runs at their leisure. When Arjuna Ranatunga hastened the end by thumping Shane Warne a few yards over the long-off rope for six, it was just the last of many delicious moments in the game. The crowd danced on the outfield. "It was like playing at home," Ranatunga said.

Sri Lanka's win brought to a fine (and in Pakistan, immensely popular) conclusion a World Cup which obstinately refused to come to the boil in the group stage, then bubbled over furiously at the end. That it came alive only when England were knocked out is merely a coincidence. Given the fairly absurd system by which nearly 30 matches were staged in order to eliminate four teams, it was always going to be that way. In a fit of well-intentioned bad planning, the organisers produced a protracted series of almost meaningless skirmishes (not counting Kenya's win over the West Indies), followed by an absurdly crammed week of vibrant knock- out battles.

Of the 28 games in the group stage, only one was more than an exhibition: Australia versus the West Indies. And even this mattered to only one of the teams - the West Indies.

And then - whoosh. Six terrific games of cricket in five days. Nothing could have been grander (or noisier) than the clash between India and Pakistan in Bangalore, the recriminations from which still hog all the headlines in Lahore and Karachi. Sarfraz Nawaz has even bizarrely accused Imran Khan of playing a decisive role in Wasim Akram's non-appearance in the match; Imran has responded by loftily calling him "illiterate" and mentioning an alleged drink-driving offence. Nor could anything have been more stomach-churning than the West Indies' incredible failure to force a victory against Australia - talk about looking a gift Oz in the mouth. The collapse into bottle-throwing at Calcutta obscured what had been another rermarkable collapse (the tournament was full of them) as well as another ominously impressive performance by Sri Lanka. It was a serious shame that the quarter-finals were squeezed into two days. No one could have been surprised when only people who did not know what day it was turned up to watch England slither out of the tournament: what self-respecting subcontinental cricket fan was going to miss India versus Pakistan on the box?

Naturally, this was the game that the giant cricket audience on the subcontinent wanted to be the final, and it would indeed have been an epic. But Australia versus Sri Lanka, in Pakistan of all places, was about as resonant an alternative as anyone could wish for.

After the match Mark Taylor spoke with engaging candour about cricket's need to put its house in order. He mentioned ball tampering and throwing - the two things that had raised such a storm when Sri Lanka toured Australia over Christmas. The game, he said, "was going to break apart" if nothing was done. "We have got to get off our chest whatever it is that's on our chest," he said. "We've got to stop sweeping things under the carpet." It is clear that in many areas - on and off the field - the story of this World Cup will run for a good while yet.

It is not possible to end on a negative note. The triumph of Sri Lanka was not just a touching blow for the underdog - Sri Lanka never looked like underdogs. Rather, it was a victory for as positive an approach to batting as has been seen. They were not quite alone: Pakistan, with Saeed Anwar and Aamir Sohail, took pretty much every opening attack they faced to the cleaners. But they were more adventurous than anyone, and it paid off.

It means that one of the host nations have won the World Cup, but that is not why the queue to host future tournaments is long. This competition has set a new standard in terms of commercial vitality. Probably the most telling emblem of its priorities is the fact that for the final, the Gaddafi stadium boasted a high-powered electronic sight screen to show the sponsor's logo, but still relied on a manual scoreboard. There's money in them there thrills.

Pakistan's luck held to the last. About 30 seconds after the winning shot, the rain that had been forecast all day fell. No one cared. The sky had held its breath for long enough.

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