Australia: Chasing a fifth
The invincibles bear a ragged look. Of the 25 One Day Internationals Australia played in 2010, they lost eight—a respectable statistic for a lesser team. But for the team that had made victory its byword—the hat-trick of World Cup wins (1999, 2003 and 2007) was the brightest plume in its cap—the fall was sharp. Their Test squad fell even harder. In their last tour of India in October, the unofficial world Test champions for the better part of two decades, went back without a single win. Weeks later, the humiliation was complete when England claimed the Ashes for the second successive time.
Even the kindest supporters of Australia do not think this particular bunch can retain the trophy. “They got their confidence sucked out in the Ashes,” says former Australian paceman Geoff Lawson. “The aura isn’t there, and that’s a big thing for all the opponents, who might not worry too much about this team.”
Attackers: South Africa’s Dale Steyn (second from right) is congratulated by teammates after bowling out India’s Suresh Raina in the final ODI at Centurion on 23 January. Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
Without the usual success stories, the Australian media has focused on the return of Brett Lee, one of only two Australians to have taken more than 300 Test and ODI wickets. The 34-year-old has not been at his best since 2007 because of recurring injuries. “It’s been a tough two years to get myself back in shape like I was a few seasons ago,” Lee says. “I wouldn’t have come back bowling 135k(mph). I knew if I could get my fitness back, bowling at 150k(mph) wouldn’t be a problem.”
Lee went through a six-month stint with former Olympic weightlifter and National Football League (NFL) strength coach Paul Haslam to prepare for the World Cup in the subcontinent. “There’s no reason why you can’t do well on those wickets. If you are bowling at 150k(mph) through the air and hitting the right spots, then it doesn’t matter what sort of wicket you are playing on, it will be difficult for the batsmen,” says Lee, who has been working on an extra variation in a slower bouncer.
But for Lee, the pace department is a pale shadow of the line-up that used to include Glenn McGrath, Nathan Bracken and Jason Gillespie. Shaun Tait, the joint second-highest wicket taker in the 2007 World Cup, is now more of a shock bowler, operating in short bursts. His fragile body has seen action in only a handful of ODIs in the last two years. While Mitchell Johnson is slowly getting back to swinging it in to the right-handers, Doug Bollinger still has fitness issues. “We do not have any bowling match-winners,” Lawson says bluntly.
Santosh Harhare/Hindustan Times
Spin bowling, which can prove pivotal in the subcontinental context, too remains a worry. Selection committee chairman Andrew Hilditch pulled Nathan Hauritz back into the team from oblivion, saying Hauritz’s “One Day record in India is excellent”. But Hauritz averages over 70 runs for the four wickets he has taken here in seven One Dayers.
The Australians have also failed to find batsmen of the calibre of the retired Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist, both seasoned campaigners in the subcontinent. But captain Ricky Ponting will face the sternest test. A humiliating Ashes trail—though they won the ODI series—that all but scuppered his chances of playing Test cricket again, a broken finger, and a public baying for his head—Ponting knows what’s at stake. He is playing his fifth cup, having won the last three, two as captain. But Michael Bevan, who played in the 1999 and 2003 World Cups with Ponting, says, “He is still the best leader this team could have.”
England: On a roll
The Ashes win in Australia last month (though they lost the ODI series) rounded off one of the best years in English cricket in recent history. Andrew Strauss’ men won 12 of the 17 ODIs they played in 2010 and claimed the Twenty20 World Cup. England go into a World Cup as a strong favourite for the first time in 20 years. “The victory closes an era of Ashes, but at the same time, opens up an entirely new page for English cricket,” says former English batsman and now commentator Geoffrey Boycott. “There is so much more this side can go on to conquer.”
The team is secure in the hands of a captain who has led from the front. Besides notching up Test hundreds and memorable wins, Strauss also averaged over 50 with the bat in ODIs in 2010.
High fives: (top) England players celebrate a wicket in the second match of the ODI series in Australia on 21 January; and Australian bowler Brett Lee (second from right) celebrates a catch against England in the same match. Top photo by AP, below photo by Krystle Wright/AFP
Though there are few contentious selections in the tour party, England seem to have struck a fine balance in choosing the team. Ian Bell, Jonathan Trott, Paul Collingwood, Eoin Morgan and the enigmatic Kevin Pietersen could well decide the course of the group that also features South Africa and India.
“Pietersen is the game changer,” Boycott says. “He can turn any match on its head in minutes. But you need to be careful in those conditions. Getting acclimatized to it is a must for the team to do well there.”
It is here that coach Andy Flower and fast-bowling coach David Saker will have vital roles to play. Flower has already underlined his aggressive intent by selecting Matt Prior ahead of Steve Davies as the gloveman-cum- hard-hitter. With knocks of 85 in Melbourne, a hundred and more in Sydney, Prior’s combative attitude will prove a crucial asset. Flower’s other selection, Collingwood, who has retired from Test cricket, is also understood to have unanimous backing. “To win big battles, you need experienced generals. Someone who knows the terrain you will fight upon,” Boycott explains.
Flower seems to have done well also in coaxing the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) to renew Saker’s contract. Said to be the architect of the powerful backroom that felled the Aussies, the former Australian first-class cricketer now has the World Cup blueprint ready. “Our boys will have to bowl a bit differently there. You will need to take the pace off the ball a bit more, and use your slower ones better,” says Saker. “It won’t swing as much as it did here in Australia, but I guess that is the way you need to keep the batsmen guessing.”
The pace trio of James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Tim Bresnan have consistently won England matches. “The challenge will be to quickly get used to the conditions, and be on the coin soon enough,” former England fast bowler Darren Gough says. But it’s in spinner Graeme Swann that England have their most potent weapon. Swann took 64 wickets in 14 matches at an average of 25.78 in Tests, and 28 wickets in 14 ODIs in 2010—the year’s best performance from a spinner.
South Africa: The balanced side
There’s just one question that looms like an omnipresent spectre over South African cricket—will they choke again? They have done it repeatedly, with the best-known incident coming in the 1999 World Cup semi-final against Australia. The Proteas needed just one run off four balls to win when a misunderstanding between Lance Klusener and last man Allan Donald resulted in a run-out with the scores tied. Australia went through to the final on the strength of an earlier win over the Africans in the tournament.
“I can never get over that silly run-out that cost us the World Cup in 1999. We were simply the best team then,” recollects Donald, South Africa’s leading wicket taker of all-time.
The 2011 squad—that elusive mix of young talent and seasoned veterans in their prime, led by inspirational captain Graeme Smith—has the potential to redeem their predecessors. January’s One Day series win over India will have given them the right kind of momentum. Hashim Amla has played himself into the One Day side, and along with A.B. de Villiers, Jacques Kallis and J.P. Duminy, averages more than 50 in limited overs cricket over the last three years. It’s the only team in the World Cup to boast four top order batsmen all with averages above 50. While that does give the top order a formidable look, Smith’s patchy form has been a niggle of late. “There are still a few batting positions that have problems, which need to be sorted out soon,” says former Proteas batsman Peter Kirsten. “Smith has a technical problem playing spin in the subcontinent.”
It is the presence of the tournament’s only genuine all-rounder, Kallis, that could be a defining factor in the team’s favour. Kallis too knows this is his last real shot at taking the trophy home.
“What more can you say about Kallis? He has simply been South Africa’s best player for many years now,” says former all-rounder Brian McMillan. “It’s time for him to step up and win it for South Africa.”
In the 2010-11 season, Kallis averaged 59.3 in ODIs with the bat, but even that pales in comparison with his Test average during the same period—93.85. He also picked 11 wickets in each format of the game. Kallis should find able support in the Proteas’ four seamers and five spin options. Morne Morkel and rookie Lonwabo Tsotsobe were in fiery form during their series against India, and along with Dale Steyn, who was one of the best bowlers last year with 60 Test and 10 ODI wickets, will make up the most potent pace attack in the Cup.
“Steyn is an amazing bowler,” says Donald. “He will do well in India because he reverses it so well. He will be the X-factor in our attack. But if any one of the three fast bowlers gets injured, we will have a big problem.”
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