Friday, April 27, 2007

Today is the big day

After seven weeks of cricket, we have finally reached the final of the World Cup. Since the first round Australia v South Africa game on March 24 I have been of the opinion that Australia are the best team in the tournament. Australia have not looked like losing a game, but their place in the final was not confirmed until they defeated South Africa on Wednesday.

In truth, I was not greatly worried about that semi-final. South Africa have mental problems facing Australia, and going into the game they proclaimed that they weren't chokers any more that it was obvious that they were thinking far too much about previous defeats. After the extraordinary game in Johannesburg last year in which South Africa scored 438 to win batting second, and good form against India and Pakistan going into the tournament, South Africa started with confidence, but in truth it was all shattered by the time of their first round loss to Australia. We learned in that same first round how little being able to beat Pakistan and India really meant, and the truth was that before South Africa scored that 438 they let Australia score 434. If they couldn't stop Australia's batting, Australia only needed to improve its bowling a little to be on top. In that first match (in which they tried to emulate Johannesburg by letting Australia bat first) it was obvious Australia had improved their bowling, and South Africa lost. In the semi-final, the South Africans deliberately tried a different strategy. This was to bat first, and come out hard. They were mentally set on this, and once it failed they were so set on it that they were unable to change their strategy until it was too late. MGrath and Bracken bowled on the stumps, and whem the South African batsmen stepped away to try and hit boundaries, they got out. Once it was 5/27 it was all over. (It should have been 6/27, as Gibbs was given not out caught behind when he had obviously hit the ball). At that point South Africa were able to change their strategy, but from there "consolidation" could only take them to 149. (Even so, they were unable to bowl the full 50 overs, being all out off 43.5 overs.

When Australia batted, this was one of those middling targets that lead to dull cricket. Care must be taken, which means you don't try to knock it off quickly (at least you don't once you have lost a wicket or two) but it is also small enough that if you get in trouble chasing it you will end up looking very silly. Australia lost Gilchrist early, and then largely took care go get home. Australia lost three wickets getting to the target in 31.3 overs. Brian accused them of losing wickets carelessly, but I am not sure I agree. If they had been batting first they would probably have got to the 150 mark five to ten overs earlier. I thought they were taking care when it mattered, and that led to slightly dull cricket. Gilchrist was out early bowled by a decent ball from Langeveldt - Gilchrist's form is a little bit of a worry - and Ponting was out to a really good one from Nel. Hayden's dismissal was the only one I would describe as careless - he was caught in the outfield trying to hit Pollock for six - but by then the score was 110 and the match was more or less over. Clarke batted well and carefully (and occasionally brilliantly) for 60 and Symonds scored 18 at the end. Clarke has been a player of great promise since his teens, but he has batted very well in both the Ashes series and this World Cup. We may well find that in two year's time he is Australia's best batsman and we acknolwdge this almost without thinking. He does still have an occasional tendency to get out to a silly (not rash, silly) shot occasionally. He needs to take care to eliminate these, as we ultimately want him to be Ricky Ponting, not Mark Waugh. But in this tournament the South Africans were vanquished, and I was not really surprised.

Since beating India on May 23 Sri Lanka have generally looked the best of the other sides, but they have been not quite as consistent, having lost to South Africa and Australia in the Super Eight, and having fought rather more close games than have Australia. None the less, as an Australian supporter I have always feared them more thah any other side in the tournament. They have a history of beating Australia in big games. Most famously, they did this in the 1996 World Cup final, but a game that worries me even more is what happened in the 2002 Champions Trophy final, in Sri Lanka took advantage of Australia's weaknesses in difficult conditions. I don't think that the conditions today will help in the way they did in that game, but Sri Lanka's bowling is still a danger, and in Australian Coach Tom Moody they have perhaps the best tactical coach in the tournament. They made rather short work of New Zealand in the semi-final, thanks to a splendid captain's knock of 115 from Jayawardene and then Muralitharan cleaned up the New Zealand middle order after Jayasuriya, Vaas, and Dilshan got rid of the top order.

It barely needs to be said that Muralitharan is the biggest threat to Australia today. Australia's batting is utterly superb. No side has taken more than six Australian wickets all tournament, and when batting first Australia have not scored less than 300. In Gilchrist, Hayden, Ponting, Clarke, Symonds, Hussey, and Watson, Australia have maybe seven players who can play a match winning innings. Muralitharan needs to nullify that top order - the rest of the Sri Lankan bowlers aren't good enough. As might be said on Australian sports television, it is a big ask. I am not quite sure of the Sri Lankan tactics going into this final. Not playing Muralitharan in the Super Eight game against Australia was an odd thing to do. Sri Lanka more or less conceded the game in order to keep him for later. Perhaps they didn't want the Australians to have a look at him before the big game today. Perhaps he needed the rest. Australia on the other hand played a full strength team to win every game. Whether Australia will be spurred on by this perceived insult or mystified by Murali, I do not know. As for the a later incident, in which Jayasuriya arrived an hour late for a "the two captains" photo session with Ponting, I am completely baffled by that one. I can think of few sillier things to do than pissing Ponting off two days before a World Cup final. It is not like Ponting has ever been spurred on as a batsman by being pissed off before. And he certainly hasn't ever blasted Australia to victory in a World Cup final with the bat before.

In any event, I shall be watching the final in a pub with a laptop and an internet connection. (God bless my HSDPA card). I will blog from time to time as the game goes on. Go Australia.

1 comment:

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