So South Africa won the Australian one-day triseries for 2001-02. They defeated New Zealand 2-0 in the best-of-three final, and congratulations to them. We should be thankful to them, too, for sparing us from an episode that would have shown us just a little more evidence that cricket is nothing but a commodity for television.
Game three of the finals was all set to be another day-night clash at the venue where night cricket all began, the Sydney Cricket Ground. Yes, what was meant to be: A 2.30pm start on a Sunday afternoon. Thirty to forty thousand chanting, screaming fans, a live nationwide telecast into evening prime-time, a ratings bonanza for the National Nine Network, and an Australian team with a shot at the title.
But there came to be a problem with this. Australia failed to make the finals, for only the third time in the 23-year history of the competition. The alarm bells were ringing at the Packer family’s Channel Nine at the beginning of the week. A Sunday night’s TV schedule taken up with a sporting event involving <i>two</i> overseas teams, and no Aussies in sight? And a chance that the game might not happen at all.
The solution? For Channel Nine to move their television program, er, cricket match to a less ratings-dependant timeslot. In other words, to get it changed from a day-night game to a day game, with the customary 10am morning start. Nine approached the Australian Cricket Board early last week with the request to shift the timing of the third final. The ACB, after consultation with other affected parties, including the South African and New Zealand camps, and the local state (New South Wales) association, agreed. The first international cricket match in Australia to be rescheduled because of television programming concerns was all set.
Thankfully, the South Africans won the finals in two: an eight-wicket rout at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in front of 20,000 spectators and 80,000 empty seats, and a hail-struck second final at the SCG where about ten thousand of the sell-out crowd didn’t bother turning up. The farce of rescheduled third final never came to be. South Africa proved they were the best team of a tri-series which didn’t rise to any great heights, beating a New Zealand team which had a better-than-expected tour of Australia, but ran out of puff when it mattered most.
And it was the tournament where the wheel came off the home side’s World Cup defence strategy.
The series had its share of outstanding individual performances on the field. Chris Cairns’ superb match-winning century against South Africa at the Gabba was one, Michael Bevan’s hundred, less spectacular but just as significant, against the Kiwis in Melbourne was another. The bowling of Shane Bond, who wasn’t even in the tour squad at the start of the season, was a revelation for New Zealand, the 26 year-old fast bowler’s 21 wickets for the VB Series putting him well ahead of any other player.
It was a series which, for me, was better remembered for other things. Glenn McGrath receiving a one-match suspension for an indiscretion while – of all things – batting, was just the start.
Visiting captains Stephen Fleming and Shaun Pollock complained that the tournament itinerary favoured Australia. There is no doubt that the dates and venues of the match-ups was set (as they are every year) to maximise the drawing power at the gate of the Australians. But hey, who was that team that came last again?
There were the divided opinions on the bonus point system, already familiar in Australian state competition but new to international play. The divisions grew wider after Fleming’s admission that he deliberately conceded a bonus point when his side was losing to South Africa in Perth.
And there was the running battle of Steve Waugh versus the South African press corps. An embattled figure with Australia’s 14-into-11 rotation policy crashing to Earth, and with his own form coming under question, Waugh’s off-the-cuff asides at press conference were being pounced upon. An apology was forthcoming after an apparent remark that doctors “didn’t find a brain” when they did a CAT scan on South Africa’s Steve Elworthy. A comment, as he was leaving a difficult press conference, that the media were a bunch of “cockheads”, met compassion from the ACB’s chief executive. Maybe because, by their very nature of their jobs, the media are.
If there’s good to be had from the 2001-02 international season from an Australian point of view, it is that the New Zealand cricket team can now be seen as credible rivals to the Australians, not unlike (politics permitting) India and Pakistan. There are so many sports in which Australia and New Zealand are bitter, but healthy rivals, and the instigation of a cricketing equivalent of rugby’s annual Bledisloe Cup between the Trans-Tasman foes would, if it were to happen, be a ratings bonanza for the Nine Network.
Oops, there’s that talk of TV ratings again.
As a postscript, an ironic observation that I couldn’t help making: the potential third final was bumped from the TV schedule by the Keanu Reeves science-fiction movie “The Matrix”, which was filmed at Fox Studios Australia, literally right next door to the SCG.