Aussie joy cuts through World Cup gloom
Barbados – After seven weeks away from home and a disappointing finish to the World Cup final, I was pleased on my final evening here to have a meeting with a six-foot blond, with long hair held back in an alice band.
You guessed it; I met up with Aussie bowler Nathan Bracken to help him with his BBC column. He still had a grin from ear to ear, clearly delighted with his second World Cup winner’s medal - his first as a regular member of the team...
Meeting Bracks required standing by the pavilion steps during the closing ceremony, where bosses from the International Cricket Council and World Cup organisers were booed loudly by a crowd left baffled by on-field events.
After almost two months of low crowds, overly restrictive ground regulations and one-sided games, many felt the farcical conclusion to the final was rather fitting.
It is especially easy for journalists to become cynical, more so after so much time on the road. Watching Australia’s reaction to capturing their third successive world title helped me solve some of that.
The charge off the field at the end of the game was led by larger-than-life all-rounder Andrew Symonds shouting, “Pace yourselves boys – we’ve got a big two days ahead.”
While the celebrations kicked off inside the dressing room, Glenn McGrath – named man of the tournament after his final game – and Matthew Hayden, who had almost certainly played his last World Cup match, sat out on the balcony, nursing beers and just soaking up the atmosphere.
Delighted former Aussie stars Merv Hughes, Michael Kasprowicz and 2003 World Cup winner Andy Bichel, all of whom had watched the match from the stands, were welcomed in to join the party.
I had expected Australia’s players, so used to success, to take this in their stride but, clearly, the fact they had put in so much hard work, dealt with so much expectation, and executed their plans so clinically left them elated.
Seven weeks is a long enough time but it seems even longer since I landed in St Lucia to cover England and New Zealand’s first-round matches.
We followed from a distance the terrible news of Pakistan coach Bob Woolmer’s murder. Many considered him a friend. Many more, like me, had dealt with him on occasions and felt the loss personally as well.
That news set into context the furore closer by, over the drinking exploits of six England players following their loss to New Zealand, exploits that included Andrew Flintoff’s now famous trip in a pedalo.
Word is he only went knee deep into the sea but the episode, following problems during the one-day series in Australia, was the straw that broke the camel’s back as far as England’s management were concerned and he was stripped of the vice-captaincy.
A week later I moved to Guyana, managing to provoke a storm with a blog about the country’s readiness for hosting an international sporting event.
Long after Guyana has forgotten about it - I hope having accepted my apologies - members of the cricketing media will still find the episode funny, at my expense.
I managed to annoy another group while in Guyana: those who disagreed with my assertion that the inclusion of Ireland and Bangladesh in the Super 8 was a bad thing for the tournament.
Over the next month, I saw Ireland in action five times, with their victory over Bangladesh one of my highlights of the trip and their pure enjoyment of the game another.
Bangladesh upset world number one South Africa, showing they deserved a place too, but I still wonder what the Super 8 would have been like with India and Pakistan at full strength. There were few truly one-sided matches but many that were decided long before the conclusion and it is no wonder fan interest waned.
Guyana was where we began to notice the small crowds, put off by high ticket-prices, over-regulation and the disappointing form of the West Indies side.
The ICC took the blame for everything that was wrong with the tournament but to me it was the problem of a three-tiered organisation with ICC at the top, West Indies World Cup in the middle and local organising committees at the bottom.
All three passed the buck to the others and there was a real lack of common sense about simple issues, such as preventing dehydration when fans were not able to take bottled water into the ground, retaining a Caribbean atmosphere while banning unaccredited instruments and maintaining a policy against re-entry while having no prayer areas for Muslim fans.
At the Kensington Oval in Barbados, many of the problems were masked as the structure of the rebuilt ground made a decent atmosphere even when it was half-full.
Indian fans, in particular, wondered the streets aimlessly while spectators were allowed in free to watch Ireland play Bangladesh in the match which, if the tournament had gone to seeding, would have pitted India against arch-rivals Pakistan.
The venue also witnessed the final international appearance of West Indies great Brian Lara, who announced his retirement in a low-key media conference just two days before taking on England.
Were it not for the fact that both sides had already been eliminated, England’s successful chase of 300 to win would have made the match of the tournament.
Lara’s post-game media meeting stretched for 40 self-referential minutes in a room with the air con switched off, with many by the end feeling just as they had about Lara’s career: it was great to witness but it was time for it to come to an end.
Of course, by then England had parted with their coach Duncan Fletcher, which seemed inevitable after such a disappointing winter.
It was difficult to compare the confident, relaxed group of players I had seen in St Lucia with the introverted band who exited the tournament to the first boos an England side has heard for almost eight years.
With England and the grind of the Super 8 out of the way, the prospect of a week of knockout games was a much-needed boost of excitement, although all three matches ended in anticlimax.
It was not the tournament world cricket wanted, although perhaps it was what it deserved and needed to force a drastic re-think to halt the apathy that seems to have surrounded it.
Cutting through that fug, though, was Australia’s joy on Saturday night. After a wonderful trip, but a trying tournament, I was glad to be almost a part of it.