Can The Aussies Be Beaten?
In 2003 Australia had won the title convincingly with a 125 run victory over India in the final. In securing their third world cup title, Australia also became the only side to win all their matches in a world cup tournament, a record they have since kept intact. In fact the winning streak has now been stretched to an unbelievable 28 world cup games, a feat expected to remain unmatched for years. Following Australia’s amazing run in the tournament so far, the cricket world is almost unanimous that they are the best in the business and one of the best one-day international sides of all time. Commenting on their 2003 success, the tragic hero of the 2007 world cup Bob Woolmer had declared, “They seem to have far fewer issues than most countries, either financial or racial or whatever. The issue is sport. The issue is being good at cricket. They get on well together and have a lot of fun together. Everything they do is done in the right way. A winning side is never liked, people say it’s too clinical, but I personally, as a cricket coach admire everything they’ve done…they’re like a master builder, they build houses better than the average builder.”
One reason, among many, for the Australian success is their developed cricketing infrastructure. With sophisticated cricket academies in place in almost every Australian city, it is hardly surprising that the Australians are better than others in both fitness and skill. With extraordinary professionalism, competitiveness and competence by now part and parcel of the Aussie performance, Ricky Ponting’s team has looked invincible from the very outset. Experience is also a factor contributing to their success. With six players having had the feel of a world cup final before, it is no surprise that the Australians have handled the pressure much better than the others, especially the South Africans in the semi-final. However, the Australian performance, it appears, is making the cricket world lopsided. There hardly seems a team that can challenge the Baggy Greens, a monopoly that might prove injurious for the sport in the long run.
So isn’t there a flaw in the Australian line up? Rather, can the Australians under Ponting be beaten? Well, there is one, which has not been exploited in CWC 2007. As Ian Bishop said over breakfast last morning, “The Australians are not comfortable against good quality off spin bowling and the Sri Lankans are the only side who have such weapons in their armory.” With the great Murali assisted by Dilshan and Arnold, Sri Lanka does hold some aces.
Imagine this scenario-Malinga, bowling the best he has ever bowled, picks up the out of form Gilchrist and then castles Ponting. With Vaas accounting for Hayden, the Australian middle order which hasn’t been tested all tournament suddenly stands exposed. And it is here that the Sri Lankan spinners can impose themselves on the game. However, for this to happen the Sri Lankans will have to pick up Ponting early, the man who has played the best innings ever in a world cup final and is perhaps the best in the world on current form. Not to forget Hayden, arguably the man of the tournament in CWC 2007. Will the Sri Lankans be able to rattle the Australian top order? This is the question doing the rounds the world over. Answers against the Australian challenge, we all know, are hard to find. The optimist in me is, however, hopeful. To fall back on CLR James again, “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?”
That James was correct was evident before the Sri Lanka versus New Zealand semi-final. Days before the semi-final the Sri Lankan camp was troubled by a selection dilemma. On the one hand was the veteran Marvan Atapattu, one of the best Sri Lankan batsman of recent years and on the other was Tharanga, a promising but somewhat out of form youngster. The entire Sri Lankan cricketing fraternity was divided over this choice. While men like Arjuna Ranatunga supported Tharanga, Kaluwitharana supported Atapattu. Sidath Wettimuny, the former Sri Lankan opening batsman also rooted for Tharanga. To help out, the Chairman of selectors Asantha De Mel flew in to Jamaica prior to the game. Finally, past record had to give way to raw talent and Tharanga was largely instrumental in giving Sri Lanka the start they needed in the semi-final. It is here that we Indians need to take a leaf out of the Sri Lankan book. For them performance is the key and not what a person has done over the last decade or so. Perform or perish is the mantra and this is what has ensured that the Sri Lankans make the world cup final second time in the last four world cups, having also made the semi-final in 2003. It is this performance index that has opened the doors for Mahroof in the final in place of Fernando who has a far superior reputation as a fast bowler.
Finally, to their advantage, the Sri Lankans have three players who have won the world cup in 1996. At the same time each of these three players, Sanath, Vaas and Murali, are hungry for one final hurrah before they all call it a day. Knowing that none of them will play another world cup, each look more determined than ever. As Murali has declared in an interview with AFP, “I had my moments in 1996, I was very young and I didn't know much about it. Now I know what it takes to win a World Cup. This may be my last World Cup so if we can win it will be the greatest moment in my life rather than my individual records."
A Sri Lankan victory will also be a great moment for a game in crisis, yet another reason to pray for the unexpected on a big cricketing day.