It’s hardly the sort of form you want to be taking into a World Cup – LLLLL – and one of the most intriguing questions of this month’s tournament, which begins in the West Indies on Tuesday, is whether Australia can somehow staunch the haemorrhaging and win its third straight one-day world title.
The evidence of the past couple of months would suggest they are haemophiliacs in dire need of emergency surgery. Two defeats to England in the Commonwealth Bank one-day finals, after a wobbly finish to their qualifying games, started the bleeding. The 3-0 whitewash to New Zealand in the Chappell-Hadlee Trophy has had the medics calling for a major transfusion.
Yes, they were badly undermanned in New Zealand but just as winning is a habit, so can losing be a cancer, eating away at morale and confidence. It was certainly a jolt to the previously unshakeable confidence of stand-in skipper Mike Hussey, whose introduction to the international scene has been nothing but beer, skittles and a stratospheric pile of runs. Mr Cricket, as he’s become known, quickly became Mr Can’t Captain.
Australia’s bowling looks worryingly brittle. Brett Lee is gone, ankle in plaster, and Glenn McGrath, despite making the ball bounce around Kevin Pietersen’s ribs like a xylophone player, bowls half ratpower these days and it’s no use pretending otherwise. His fielding, too, is a disaster waiting to happen.
So, it’s welcome to the World Cup, Stuart Clark, Mitchell Johnson and Shaun Tait, because your team – and country – will be relying on you to step up to the crease, get your line and length right, and deliver the goods. Those grounds in the West Indies are mighty small, the modern bats mighty powerful and – as poor old Mick Lewis will tell you – one slightly off-key game in the green and gold can transform a career.
As for the spinners, that’s been a masterclass in mismanagement. The Australian selectors kept picking Cameron White during the one-dayers this summer but Ricky Ponting showed little faith in his leg-spinning straight-breaks and hardly ever called on him. White was then packed off in favour of left-arm chinaman Brad Hogg who, having been ignored for weeks, is now so out of form he cannot buy a wicket. He has played the last five games for Australia – incidentally the five they lost against England and NZ – and has not managed to fluke one wicket. Not one.
So the Australian strategy as they get to the pointy end of the tournament will be fairly simple and one that departing coach John Buchanan won’t need to spell out to them: bat first whenever possible, run up a massive score and then batten down the hatches by trying to stop their bowlers being belted up into palm trees and on to various Caribbean beaches.
Andrew Symonds (bicep) and Matthew Hayden (broken toe) look like missing the first two qualifying games against Scotland and the Netherlands, while Michael Clarke is nursing a sore hip. All in all, it’s a pretty sorry scene for the tournament favourites who, despite having lost six of their past seven games, are quoted at $3 – but drifting by the day.
It’s their last qualifying game – against South Africa on March 24 – that will be occupying much of their thinking. For the Australians have long had a psychological hold over the Proteas and, having been recently knocked off their perch as top-ranked one-day team by the Africans, will be looking to use this as a launchpad for a spectacular re-entry into the winning circle – against a decent team, anyway.
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- A run glut, as bowlers are pounded all over the tiny Caribbean grounds.
- Whether construction work on the grounds is indeed finished on time. And given the seal of approval by Health and Safety.
- The debate about the merit of minnow cricket nations, such as Bermuda and Scotland, playing in the World Cup after the first one-sided blowout.
- Whether World Cup virgins, South Africa and England, can finally break their duck.
- How flaky Pakistan cope without their two injured (and drug-positive) fast bowlers, Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif.
- Bermuda’s 120kg finger-spinner, Dwayne Leverock, who, as The Guardian recently noted, could be the World Cup’s version of Eric the Eel.
- The recriminations to fly if Australia is knocked out before the final.