With twice-champions West Indies and holders Pakistan in the throes of transition and strife, the one team in the Wills World Cup that has both form and fitness at this stage is Australia. They have beaten the West Indies, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and England in both Test and one-day encounters in the past 18 months.
Mark Taylor has now had 18 months as captain and he looks very comfortable and composed in his role. His one-day batting has improved dramatically and he regularly outscores his swash-buckling junior partner Michael Slater. The opening pair often give Australia a good start before the veteran Waugh twins come in at three and four to consolidate. With over 250 one-dayers between them and Steve a survivor of the 1987 Cup win under Allan Border, they have become masters of the genre. Both can push the score along and Mark in particular is uncontainable on good batting wickets. They started out as medium pace all-rounders but of late Mark has taken on off-spinners with very good results.
Young Ricky Ponting has stepped into fellow Tasmanian David Boon’s boots. He’s a real livewire who plays pace well and isquick between the wickets and in the field. He will bat at four or five, depending on the pitch and Steve Waugh’s fitness.
Stuart Law has been given an extended run in one-dayers after making his Test debut against Sri Lanka in December. He has been a key one-day bowler for his state and has shown promise with his ability to bowl accurate medium pace with a well-disguised slower ball. Another useful all-rounder is left-hander Michael Bevan, who can bowl medium pace but has now switched to left-hand wrist spin-ners. He has taken some vital wickets with his deceptive slow bowling this season, but it’s his batting that has set alight the lower order. A great improviser, with deft placements, he can also belt the ball out of the park. He’s lightning between the wickets and across the outfield, with a superb arm.
Shane Lee made an impressive one-day debut this season with a brisk, economic medium pace and a good slower ball. He has perhaps the best thro wing arm in the team. Along with Bevan, he’s the ideal slog over bat. Games are never lost while they are at the crease, whatever the run rate required.
Shane Warne will naturally be a vital cog in the green and gold machine. His bowling has been as difficult to get away in one-dayers as it has in Test matches. The prospect of having the ball in hand in the slow turning pitches will have him watering at the mouth, and it will be a real treat to see the star leg-spinner fight to sustain his accuracy in the limited-over format of his maiden Cup.
The fast bowling is headed by Glen McGrath whose stature as a quickie for all occasions grows with every match. McGrath swings both the new and the old ball and is rarely dominated by the batting. Paul Reiffel has been a steady, if unspectacular, contributor to the Australian cause. He is the epitome of the stingy seam bowler who gives little away by landing on a nagging line and length. Reiffel’s batting has also improved considerably.
The other bowling duties will be shared by Craig McDermott, who has lost some pace, and Damian Fleming who took a hat-trick in Pakistan in 1994.
Ian Healy is keeping extremely well to both the fast and slow bowlers. His batting is very useful at eight or nine and he is capable of quick scoring. The Australians have a number of all-rounders which gives Taylor many options with seam and spin bowling. Taylor knows that whatever the conditions, he has a team that can adapt to them with fine strokemakers, bowling variety and outstanding fielding. The Australians are probably entitled to start as favourites but there will not be many easy games during this tournament especially once the knockout stage begins.