By SB Tang
Like I said before, I’m struggling to contain my apathy towards this World Cup and nothing which has happened in Group A has changed that. By the time Australia played an opposition side with a reasonable chance of beating us in a non-rain affected match, Australia, along with every other regular Test-playing nation (that excludes the Zimbots) in Group A had pretty much qualified for the quarters, thus highlighting the success of the ICC’s newly restored guaranteed-not-to-eliminate India format. And, despite England’s valiant efforts to thwart the intended objective of that format in Group B (and single-handedly revive 50-over cricket in England in the process), the four established Test-playing nations from Group B also qualified for the quarters.
Indeed, such is my enthusiasm for the ICC’s never-ending, commercially exploitative tournament format, I’m writing this update in a biergarten in Vienna as I pass the time waiting for the train to the beer-soaked heaven of Prague. Anyway, back to the point, which I believe is Australia’s performance so far and our prospects in the knock-out rounds. It’s difficult to draw any substantive conclusions from the group stage because the unfortunate wash out meant that we weren’t tested until our final group game against Pakistan. And, yes, we lost and it wasn’t a great performance from our batting line-up but one bad performance in a meaningless one-day game hardly says anything about a team’s prospects of winning three consecutive sudden death matches — which is what this World Cup comes down to. It doesn’t even particularly matter in what order you face the opposition. The bottom line is that in order to win a World Cup on the sub-continent in this format, you’re inevitably going to have to beat one or more of the sub-continental powers at some point — so I’m not overly fussed that we drew India in the quarters.
What will be of concern to the Australian team hierarchy is the lack of wickets from our spinners and the continued poor batting form of Ponting and Cameron White, our Unofficial Deputy Vice-Captain and arguably our best one-day batsman since his coming of age on the one-day segment of the 2009 Ashes tour. White’s batting form has been mysteriously mediocre ever since he was elevated to the Australian T20I captaincy a few months ago — another sad example of Australia today somehow managing to slowly morph into England in the 90s. Ponting’s one-day international and, in particular, World Cup record provide substantial comfort that he will come good when it matters in the knock-out matches. But, as much as I hate to say it as a Victorian, White’s position has to be under scrutiny. Given Tait’s excellent wicket-taking form (yes, his economy rate’s been a tad high but that’s always been the case with Tait and it’s surely a risk one has to accept in picking him) and the potential weakness of certain members of the Indian batting line-up against brute pace and short-pitched bowling, I was surprised to hear rumours that Tait may be the one who’ll have to make way if the selectors choose to bring in bowling all-rounder John Hastings. Surely, White should be the one in line for the chop in light of his non-contribution with both bat and ball and Hasting’s proven slogging ability.
I’m still not convinced by Haddin partnering Watson at the top. If it’s a slightly dodgy batting wicket then surely Tim Paine is better equipped technically to play the anchor role next to Watson at the top of the order. The spinners would also appreciate Paine’s superior keeping on a turning deck. If it’s a flat track and the plan is all-out attack at the top of the order then Paine, with his outstanding domestic T20 record, also appears to be the better option to partner Watson. Haddin’s dismissal in the 40s against Pakistan was another example of his frustrating habit of getting out when well-set in difficult batting conditions and the team needs him to kick on and make a big score.
Our three-pronged pace attack has done its wicket-taking job and Brett Lee, as willing and lion-hearted as ever, has been immense. It’s a shame that his body no longer allows him to play Test cricket. As for our spinners, the combination of a lack of wickets and not exactly frugal economy rates is a concern, but there’s not much the selectors can do at this point. In terms of wickets, Krejza and Smith are the most aggressive limited overs spinners Australia has and they’re already in the XI. In terms of economy rate, the selectors could bring in David Hussey, who’d also bolster the batting, but that hardly solves the primary problem of taking wickets and, in any event, both Smith and Krejza can bat (even if the latter hasn’t shown it up to this point in the tournament). Hauritz would be useful right now (two years ago, I never thought I’d type those words) but he’s injured.
It’s sad that Ponting’s chance to win three consecutive World Cups as captain without dropping a single match has now gone but a third consecutive World Cup as captain, particularly one including a win over a hugely-hyped Indian side on their home turf, would at least go some way to repairing his legacy as captain after a third Ashes series defeat.
We still have every chance of beating India and winning this World Cup — but then, so does every other side which made the quarters (yes, I’m including the West Indies and New Zealand). If our batting line-up fires (and everything in Ponting’s World Cup record indicates that he will deliver now that it counts) and we post a good total on the board, then you’d back our bowlers to finish the job. But, if our batting line-up has another one of their by now disturbingly familiar collapses, then our bowlers and, in particular, our still internationally inexperienced spinners will face a grim day at the office.
Finally, a few words about England. First off, well-done to the England players for having the class to go and celebrate with, and congratulate, the Irish lads after their win. Not a great day for the England bowlers who weren’t at their best but even if they were, there’s not much any bowler can do on a pitch that flat against a batsman in a state of grace like Kevin O’Brien was. You just have to doff your cap to him and shake his hand. As the man himself admitted after the match, he’ll never bat that well again, and his international record to date indicates that he’d never batted that well before! Also, let’s not forget that the England bowlers have been on tour since November. They got three days at home between the end of the Ashes tour and the start of the World Cup. Strauss has rightly refused to use that as an excuse but there’s no doubt that exhaustion would be affecting bowlers like Anderson who bowled their hearts out to retain the Ashes on Australian soil for the first time in 23 years. And for all the boundary balls Anderson’s served up in this tournament, don’t forget that he single-handedly dragged England back into their match against South Africa with a lethal mid-innings spell and, in hindsight, that victory was the key to England’s eventual qualification for the quarters. It’d be a foolish man who’d bet against Anderson being decisive for England in the knock-out rounds.
Second, congratulations to the England selectors whose balls of steel have again paid off. They dropped the Ashes series leading wicket-taker Steve Finn for Tim Bresnan for the Boxing Day Test and were rewarded with a match-winning performance from the Yorkie and a series-clinching win. Heading into England’s must-win group game against the West Indies, the selectors dropped the leader of their pace attack and their all-time leading international one-day run scorer. Their replacements — the unheralded James Tredwell and the much-maligned jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none Luke Wright — made match-winning contributions as England got the win they needed in their trade mark nerve-shredding fashion. More disturbing examples of England slowly morphing into Australia circa 1995 to 2007.
All the quarter-finalists have a decent shot at winning this World Cup. But, if I have to back someone, I’ll back England. They have the hunger, the right mix of bowlers, a strong batting line-up, an excellent fielding unit and most importantly of all in a knock-out cup … Lady Luck and a sense of destiny on their side as they complete their ascension as the best all-round cricket side in the world. A few years ago, in the wake of England’s 5-0 Ashes humiliation, when some England and Wales Cricket Board suit announced their goal of winning back and retaining the Ashes and winning both limited overs World Cups, I laughed out loud (in my defence, I was hardly alone). I’m not laughing any more.