Monday, April 23, 2007

I can't be fatalistic

Australia went into the 2003 World Cup with a six game winning streak in one day internationals. They won eleven games straight to win that tournament. However, by the end of the tournament the winning streak was starting to worry the fans a little. There is nothing worse than peaking too early, having a tremendous winning streak through relatively unimportant matches and then losing the match that really counts.

In retrospect, it seems Australia was fated to win that 2003 tournament from the start. At the beginning of the tournament I was much more confident that I was at the beginning of this tournament. However, Australia's performance seemed shakier then that it appears looking back. A number of important games were played on a very bowler friendly pitch in Port Elizabeth. Australia got into horrendous trouble in two games on that pitch, one against England and one against New Zealand. Somehow, Australia got out of jail on both occasions. Against England Australia were 7/114 and then 8/135 chasing 209, but an unbeaten stand of 74 from Bevan and Bichel got them home. Against New Zealand (and thanks to a wonderful 10 over spell in which Shane Bond took 6/23), Australia were 7/84 batting first, but a partnership of 97 between Bevan and Bichel (again) got them to 9/208 off 50 overs, which turned out to be plenty when Australia bowled New Zealand out for 112.

These were stunning recoveries, but after these games I was absolutely terrified about what would happen in Australia's semi-final against Sri Lanka on that same Port Elizabeth pitch. I wasn't terribly worried about the final against India on the much truer pitch in Johannesburg, but I was really worried about Sri Lanka (who have a history of ambushing Australia in big matches in big tournaments) in Port Elizabeth. I think I was right to worry, but it turned out that Australia were good enough. Andrew Symonds' 91 off 118 balls remains in my opinion the best innings he has ever played. Australia reduced Sri Lanka to 7/76 and Australia eventually won on Duckworth/Lewis when the heavens opened with the score on 7/123. That was a really outstanding performance, and my feeling that the final would be less of a problem turned out to be true when Australia crushed India in Johannesburg.

This time there seems less reason to worry. Australia has not had a close match in this tournament so far. With Australia fielding in the middle of the innings in the games against South Africa and England it looked like the opposition was getting on top, but in both cases Australia's bowling and fielding came together to regain control of the match. Against New Zealand in Australia's last game, the New Zealand bowling was on top for fifteen overs or so (after Australia's top order had scored a lot of runs already, admittedly), but in that case a superb innings from Shane Watson got Australia scoring at high speed again towards the end. There are no dodgy pitches on which semi-finals and finals are to be played. Things look smooth. Scott has convinced himself that Australia will come a cropper, but I can't get myself worked up to believe this. Australia have another winning streak to worry about (not having lost a World Cup game since the first round of the 1999 tournament and having gone a mindboggling 26 games without defeat) but there is no mathematical law saying that this is going to cause you to lose the next game. The only way it will affect future performances is if players think about it and dwell on it, and I see no sign that they are doing that. I can't see Australia losing to South Africa in the semi-final. The pitch in St Lucia will suit Australia's Brad Hogg more than any South African bowler, Australia's batting is wonderful, and the Australians intimidate the South Africans no end.

The final is more of a worry. The Sri Lankans have that history of making things difficult for Australia. New Zealand have the best bowler in the tournament in Shane Bond, the rest of their side is much better than it was four years ago, and there is nothing that would give their country more pleasure than beating Australia in a World Cup final. Australia did beat both sides easily in their earlier games, but both sides had dramatically weakened bowling either through players being mysteriously withdrawn from the side just before the start, or through players being out injured.

However, there is an odd irony. In both those matches Australia's bowling won the game, dismissing the opposition for inadequate scores. In both those games the opposition batting was much closer to full strength that the bowling. And yet it is Australia's batting that is supposed to be strong and the bowling that is supposed to be uneven. So both games raised questions about what would happen if Australia played full strength opposition. And yet, regardless of that, neither side is going to be able to beat Australia if they cannot bat better than they did in the Super Eight. So from that I should take heart.

What do I conclude from this? Well, I think Australia is going to win the tournament. Feel free to laugh at me if they don't.

1 comment:

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