So the spluttering lead-in to the World Cup was only a ploy. The injuries to Andrew Symonds and Matthew Hayden, their unusually lacklustre form – six losses in seven games before arriving in the West Indies – and the general malaise which had seemingly set in after a tortuous year were simply a ruse.
All along the Australians said they’d be hard to beat and we – well, some of us, anyway – were fools to believe otherwise.
With its ruthless dispatching of South Africa overnight, Australia has now won 22 World Cup matches in a row. And in match No.23, it finds itself in the World Cup final – its fourth straight – to be played against Sri Lanka at Kensington Oval, Barbados on 28 April.
And the men in green and gold have not just been winning, they’ve been doing it with a leg in the air. They’ve played 12 matches in this campaign and not seriously been challenged once. In fact, their winning margins have been: 106 runs, five wickets, 203 runs, 229 runs, 83 runs, 103 runs, 10 wickets, seven wickets, nine wickets, seven wickets, 215 runs and this morning’s seven-wicket rout of South Africa. In one-day cricket, those are massive margins, the equine equivalent of a seven-length win over the Straight Six at Flemington.
Included in that collection of lopsided results was the seven-wicket demolition of their opponent in the final, Sri Lanka, during the Super Eights stage, the Sri Lankans being dismissed for 226 and the Australians passing that total with three wickets down, 44 balls remaining and barely a drop of sweat on their collective brow. For the sake of cricket, and this incredibly dreary and drawn-out World Cup, we can only hope the final offers up more of a contest than that.
Yet, for all their brilliance, captain Ricky Ponting has again demonstrated the arrogance and smugness over the past seven weeks which has made his team so unloved by large sections of the global cricket-loving public.
He has said he would “love it’” if Kevin Pietersen’s ribs were again broken by Glenn McGrath, sniped away at the one-day form of England captain Michael Vaughan, questioned whether South Africa’s Jacques Kallis is a team player and, along with Matthew Hayden, incessantly needled South Africa about their choking in big games.
Why he feels the need to indulge in this unnecessary banter is difficult to fathom. It just makes him look like an ungracious and unsporting punk from Mowbray.
The Australians would win so many more friends if they learnt to win graciously, and displayed an equal magnanimity on those rare occasions when they finished on the wrong side of the ledger.
As Rob Smyth wrote in today’s Guardian:
Australia’s reward for their unprecedented excellence is unmitigated apathy. As they mangled South Africa in the World Cup semi-final in St Lucia, the overriding mood was not one of satisfaction at watching one of history’s great sides reaching their absolute peak but weariness at watching those bloody Aussies romp to victory again. Even their own fans are bored of it.
So, on 28 April, it’s fair to assume the vast majority of cricket’s neutrals will be lining up in Sri Lanka’s corner.
Australia have rightly been installed as favourites, especially on the Barbados’ bouncy wicket, but they will be wary of their cagey opponents, who do not appear to have a weakness apart perhaps from the lack of some power-hitters in the middle order.
The Australians will also understand that the Super Eights result was totally misleading because Sri Lanka that day chose to exclude Vaas, Lasith Malinga and Muralitharan, ostensibly on health grounds but in reality because they knew they’d probably have to face Australia again later in the tournament and wanted to keep a few tricks up their sleeve.
The decision was heavily criticized at the time for cheapening the qualifying phase of the tournament but it may yet prove to be positively inspired. Some of the Australians will also remember with a shudder the World Cup final back in 1996 when they were put to the sword by the unfancied men from the sub-continent.
The final may well come down to a contest between the two most potent bowling attacks. The two left-arm seamers (Vaas v Bracken), the two slingers (Malinga v Tait) and the two wicket-taking spinners (Hogg v Muralitharan). The wildcards will be the remarkable and devastating Jayasuriya for Sri Lanka and Symonds for Australia.
For all that, credit where credit’s due. A large serve of humble pie has been served and the cream poured. The napkin has been unfolded and spoon raised. All that remains now for the Australians is to deliver on Saturday the coup de grace – and hopefully not shove the ICC president, or some blazered West Indian official, off the podium as they collect their trophy.