Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Super Eight seems settled, and I may have regained faith in the Australian team.

About 18 months ago, I started to get worried about the Australian one day team. There was nothing wrong with the batting - when you have Gilchrist, Ponting, Hussey, and Symonds in the team, and people like Matthew Hayden, Michael Clarke, and Simon Katich in the second list, you have nothing much to complain about. However, the bowling worried me. I have mixed feelings about Brett Lee as a test bowler, but in one day cricket, he is a terrific finisher. The side batting second can be four or five down and looking like getting the target, and two or three fast yorkers from him and the game is over. However, the rest of the bowling looked tepid. Glenn McGrath was coming to the end of a great career. And beyond that Australia was playing a series of tepid seam bowlers in the middle order. Opposition batting lineups were slowly figuring this out. This came to a head in my mind against New Zealand in Wellington in December 2005, when Australia allowed New Zealand to score 320 and 322 in consecutive matches batting second. Australia won that series, and (largely through batting strength kept winning that season, but they always looked shakey in the middle overs batting second. In Johannesburg later that season they did (famously) manage the extraordinary feat of failing to defend 434. My mind is still boggling at that one. (That said, I know no cricket fan whose mind is not.

Again though, Australia seemed to recover, winning a One Day Series in Malaysia, the Champions Trophy, and seeming to be just fine until half way through the CB series in Australia in January. However, they still wobbled in the middle overs when attempting to defend targets. I was not convinced, and my expectation was that they would go into the World Cup full of confidence, be found out horribly, and then bomb out of it. There seemed a complete lack of appreciation of the problems in the Australian camp, with comments being made about Australia wishing for "more fight from the opposition", and the bowling balance being completely wrong. I continued telling anyone who would listen that I thought Australia would not win the World Cup.

And then Australia were found out early, or so it appeared, losing three times to England at the end of the CB series to lose the tournament, and then losing 3-0 horrendously to New Zealand in the Chappell Hadlee trophy, by ten wickets and then failing to defend 336 and 346 in consecutive matches. All my fears had been confirmed, and Australia were not much of a chance. At the start of the tournament when I previewed the sides on this blog, I predicted Australia to miss the semi-finals. I didn't really believe that - a colleague at work asked me to actually put money on the prediction and I declined - but my expectation was that some other side would eliminate Australia quickly in a semi-final. And that may still happen.

But the tournament started oddly. India and Pakistan either bombed out or appeared in great risk of doing so. The competition was less. Australia and South Africa defeated lesser opposition easily. Anticipation was high for yesterday's match. The game was on the small ground at St Kitts. Given the batting strength of the two sides and the quality of the pitch, big scores were expected. Presumably betting on Australia's reputation of being unable to defend, South African captain Graeme Smith won the toss and sent Australia in. Australia came out of the blocks firing. Matthew Hayden seems to have finally figured out how to play one day cricket, and he and Adam Gilchrist came out of the blocks firing, putting on 106 in 14.5 overs for the first wicket. Hayden then went on with it, scoring the fastest century in World Cup history before he was out and it was 2/167 after 23.3 overs. At that point 400 was on, and I thought that was needed, but the South African bowlers and fieldsmen then did a good job of containing the Australians. It seems remarkable to say that when they ultimately scores 377, but the boundaries largely dried up after about 35 overs. Ponting was sluggish by his standards. Michael Clarke at times played shots that demonstrated why the amounts of hype that accompanies his arrival to the word stage were so large, and played the odd stupid shot and was luck that a couple of catches were dropped. But he generally played well for 92 off 75 balls to accompany Ponting's 91 off 91. Australia really needed one of those players to hit sixes in the last five overs, but it just didn't happen. They both got out, and Symonds came in briefly, played a couple of shots that demonstrated that he will be fine by the semi-finals (in injury recovery terms) and then got out. Hussey came and went, and Watson came in and played a few nice shots, but nobody really boosted the run rate. The last ten overs did not feature much of an acceleration. I thought Australia were 30 to 50 runs short of what they needed. It is a remarkable change in one day cricket that a side can score 6/377 off 50 overs and I can think this, but I did and do.

South Africa came out to bat, and South Africa scored 154 for no wicket off the first 20 overs. All my worst fears were confirmed. Australia couldn't defend anything. There was a brief respite when de Villiers was run out for 92 off 70 balls thanks to a great direct hit from the outfield from Shane Watson. At the time I felt a certain feeling or irony ("Our bowlers *still* can't take a wicket") but it was crucial. Kallis came in and started slowly. Smith kept going full ahead. I was watching the game in the Springbok Bar in Covent Garden (which was one of the few bars in London with no England football supporters in it and where the main game was the cricket) and the crowd was happy, cheering every four.

However, Kallis batting slowly mattered, because he didn't accelerate. Smith had to retire hurt with a cramp, and suddenly the runs stopped. Australia's fielding was excellent, and the bowling was suddenly tight. The required run rate started to move upwards. If this happens for a few overs this doesn't matter as much as some people think - a few sixes will bring it back down again - but the target was 378. That was still a lot. South Africa managed half the required score off 25 overs for the loss of only one wicket, but the second half suddenly looked a lot harder. Without Smith, Kallis' slow scoring suddenly mattered. Brad Hogg was on. Brad Hogg was bowling well. Some fine work from Hogg and Gilchrist had Gibbs stumped, McGrath had Prince caught shortly afterwards, and suddenly Australia was on top. Shaun Tait came on, and the ball started swinging. The fielding remained tight and the runs didn't restart. The South Africans tried to boost the run-rate, and rather than doing so wickets tumbled. Boucher and Kemp went to fine inswingers from Tait. Kallis didn't get out, but didn't score runs either, and the South African crowd in the bar started to savagely criticise him. Smith came back at a moment where fast runs were needed, and just got out to Hogg. At that point South Africa gave up, and batted on for a little as Australia cleaned up the tail. South Africa all out 294. Australia won by 83 runs. The South African supporters switched in about 30 minutes from cheering loudly and intently to savagely attacking their own players, wondering why South Africans were such chokers, and announcing how terrible it was to have one side winning all the time. If the players' confidence is as fragile as the fans, South Africa will not have much chance of winning the tournament.

From Australia's point of view, I couldn't help but be much more positive. The messing around with tepid medium-pacers has perhaps been fixed in time. Tait and Hogg are in the side, and were both excellent yesterday. Brackan, McGrath, and Watson were good. Australia's bowling stopped the flow of runs against good batting in a way they haven't for a while. I may regret saying this, but I think Australia might win this.


Anonymous said...

No regrets, mate..... No regrets. If we deserve to win, we will....rather, we better do!

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