Tuesday, March 18, 2003

First semi-final preview, undefeated World Cup winners, and the Australian team for the West Indies tour

Firstly, Australia play Sri Lanka today. While it is possible that Australia good lose to India in the final if Tendulkar has a good day, I am more worried about today's match in Port Elizabeth. Partly I am just nervous about the fact that the tournament is now knock out. Australia have won every game so far, but no game they have played has been absolutely must win. Everything now changes. The pitch in Port Elizabeth is dodgy, and Australia have got into trouble on it on their last couple of games. I think three miraculous recoveries in a row on that ground is rather too much to ask. Sri Lanka have better spinners than either New Zealand or England, and they have a history of beating Australia in key matches on pitches like this. There was the ICC Champions trophy last year, and also the final of the triangular one day tournament in Sri Lanka in 2000. (The 1996 World Cup final wasn't quite the same thing, but one must mention it, I suppose). Sri Lanka are a classic example of the sort of side who have played uneven cricket throughout the tournament, and have done just enough to make the semi-finals, but do have the players to make a serious run at winning the tournament. Pakistan won the tournament this way in 1992, and it will happen again at some point. On the other hand, if India come out and play their best on Sunday, I think Australia will respond by simply playing their best too, and if that happens I think Australia will likely win. (I suspect that the fact that Australia had an absolutely titanic struggle in the semi-final and then an easy win in the final four years ago was an issue, too).

However, in a possibly encouraging historical note, Australia have never been eliminated in a World Cup semi-final. They made the final in 1975, 1987, 1996 and 1999, and were eliminated before the semi-finals in 1979, 1983 and 1992. It's all an issue of the Australian batsmen's ability to play the Sri Lankan spinners. If they can do that and get a good score, they should win.

Secondly though, some people are getting a little nervous about the length or Australia's winning streak. If they do win the final, Australia will have won 17 one day internationals in a row, and will have gone through the World Cup undefeated. There is no precedent for 17 wins in a row, but there are precedents for going through the tournament undefeated. There have been a variety of tournament formats over the years, and the difficulty of doing this has varied, however. Just as an observation.

In 1975, the number of matches played by the finalists was 5. West Indies won all five, and won the tournament undefeated.
In 1979, the number of matches played by the finalists was 5. West Indies won four, and fifth game was washed out. WI were undefeated, but didn't have a perfect record due to the weather.
In 1983, the number of matches played by the finalists was 8. India won six and lost two games.
In 1987, the number of matches played by the finalists was 8. Australia won seven, and lost one game.
In 1992, the number of matches played by the finalists was 10. Pakistan won six games, lost three games, and one game was washed out.
In 1996, the number of matches played by the finalists was 8. Sri Lanka won the six games that it played, and won a further two through defaults. Sri Lanka had a perfect record, but it was blemished a little by reasons beyond their control.
In 1999, the number of matches played by the finalists was 10. Australia won seven, tied one, and lost two games.

So there have been three undefeated cup winners, but only one for which you do not put an asterisk against the statistic. However nobody has won more than six games to win the cup undefeated. Australia doing it by winning eleven would be quite impressive.

However, the fact that if Australia make the final they will have won 16 games in a row is apparently being much discussed in India. This is because Australia a couple of years ago managed to win a world record 16 test matches in a row. This winning sequence was broken by India. The Indians would like to think it is their job to break such a sequence again.

Thirdly, the Australian team was announced for the tour of the West Indies to follow the World Cup. No surprises. Steve Waugh is captain, Ricky Ponting vice-vaptain, Leg spinner Stuart Macgill is in the side in the "biggest idiot" position formerly occupied by Shane Warne. The selectors went for an experienced lineup, presumably being of the opinion that a tour of the West Indies is not a time for bringing new players into the side. Mainly, this means that NSW batsman Michael Clarke will have to wait a little longer for his first test match. He is only 22 and this is fine, but I would like to see him in the side soon. He looks just terrific, and in his one performance for Australia in a one day game he played superbly. This squad is for the test matches of the West Indies tour only, and another squad will be selected later for the one day series. It is quite possible Clarke will be in that one.

Update: Australia batted first and scored 7/212 off their 50 overs. The top order found batting difficult, and Australia lost early wickets, but were saved by 91 not out of 118 from Andrew Symonds. Australia lost more wickets wickets when attempting to boost the runrate around the 45 over mark, but Symonds stayed there, and Bichel pitched in (again) for 19 not out at the end. Symonds played very well, and didn't attempt to push his scoring rate faster than could be managed in the circumstances. (For the tournament so far, Symonds is averaging 163 and Bichel is averaging 117 for the tournament. If Australia make the final, and in the final Symonds is dismissed for less than 25, and Bichel either doesn't bat or is not out, Bichel will top the Australian batting averages for the World Cup. That would be remarkable).

Sri Lanka will not find chasing this target to be terribly easy. I am expecting Brett Lee to come out and bowl exceptionally fast in his first spell. He was dazzlingly effective against New Zealand on this ground, even though one might not have thought the conditions would suit him. A really good second half of the match awaits us.

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