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A complete performance
January 25, 2003
A definite sign of a quality team is the ability to raise the level of performance in the most important games. In the first tri-series final, that's exactly what Australia did. To be sure, this was no World Cup final, but after winning seven of eight preliminary games with varying degrees of proficiency, Australia merged all aspects of their game to produce the most complete performance of the tournament and a stunning win in its own right. Ricky Ponting and company must be heartened, as this is tangible proof that they can play to potential at the right time -- and not rely on the best personnel.
In a tournament increasingly becoming a physical and mental grind for all players after a long stretch of competition, three of the four preliminary games between Australia and England were relatively close: England made a flying start before stumbling to 251 in the opener, which Australia ran down by seven wickets in 45 overs; Ponting and Gilchrist smashed hundreds in an Australian total of 318 in the second, an easy win; Knight and Trescothick put England in position to win the third before middle order wobbles saw Australia seal it in the last over; and Australia nearly slipped up chasing a paltry 152 last Sunday.
With the slate wiped clean, form meant England were not necessarily without a chance. As a touchy Nasser Hussain told an ABC radio interviewer before England's last game, "We can play cricket in England you know." The optimistic had even bought tickets for the third final in Adelaide.
There's no question, though, Australia were facing their preferred opponents. It transpires that the Australians realised before their penultimate preliminary game that they had not lost to the Poms in four years, a span of (then) 11 games stretching back to the '98/'99 tri-series. If they'd beaten England with a bonus point in Adelaide, a Sri Lankan win with a bonus point in the last game in Melbourne would have put the Lankans into the finals.
The Lankans, remember, whacked Australia for 343 in their only loss. The venue of the first final was Sydney, where Sri Lanka achieved both their wins, and they may have had Murali back from injury. Australia's last significant defeat was to Sri Lanka in the semifinals of the Champions Trophy on a low turner. You figure out who represented the more dangerous opponent.
So, in the penultimate prelim game, an Australian side with faces more familiar in their A team find themselves suddenly faced with keeping Sri Lanka's chances alive after fine bowling by Bracken and co ensured they were chasing only 152. The result? After two early wickets, Bevan crawls to 30 off 90 balls, Martyn scores 59 off 102, and it soon becomes evident Australia will use more than the 40 overs necessary to score a superfluous bonus in a match they almost lost were it not for Clarke and Watson. If they did not deliberately bat with undue caution, then they certainly had no incentive to pursue runs in anything approaching a risky fashion.
It could have been different for Sri Lanka. In a virtual elimination game last Friday, Jayasuriya appeared a lock for his third hundred in four games when run out in a mix-up with Sangakkara for 99. It was the turning point. Andrew Caddick bowled superbly with two early and two late wickets and Sri Lanka went down in a close game by 19 runs. Fielding was one of the differences.
Australia's selection for the first final carried some intriguing World Cup implications. With a back injury keeping incumbent all-rounder Shane Watson out, they went in with five bowlers for the first time in recent memory – including, with Warne's return, two wrist spinners. With Brad Hogg at seven maintaining some theoretical batting depth, the line-up of three quicks and two spinners is potent. If Hogg can show he can bat, then Watson may find himself unfortunately squeezed out, for Hogg is gradually proving himself a dangerous bowler, is deceiving batsmen with his googly, and is a livewire in the field. Not that he was really required for this game, where the quicks did the job.
After struggling without McGrath and Gillespie earlier in the tournament, the rest of Australia's attack is now firing. Brett Lee has recently reacquired some accuracy to go with his hostility, Brad Williams has merited the new ball, and Andy Bichel continues to do yeoman service. Australia could just as easily have played 12th man Nathan Bracken, too, who would add another element of variety.
On a wicket with early life, England lost in-form opening pair Trescothick and Knight to short balls from Lee, and Hussain and Stewart perished to poor shots against Williams. If it wasn't effectively over at 33/4, Bichel soon made it so by slanting one in to Vaughan, trapped in front, and having Ian Blackwell (whose theme song “Stuck in the middle with you” could hardly be less appropriate lately) steering to second slip for his third consecutive duck: 45/6.
Shane Warne's surprise retirement from one-day internationals can only enhance Australia's World Cup chances. If they're looking for a theme, then “do it for Warney” is lame but likely motivating. Unlike Steve Waugh, Warne likes to have a stage, and the knowledge that the Cup is his last event in coloured clothing should certainly inspire the man himself. Australia will miss him but survive, as they have so far without the Waughs.
What is interesting about Warne's decision to retire, made in the interests of prolonging his Test career, is that he was very much a contender for the one-day captaincy last February. Had he won the job, one wonders whether he would still have come to the same decision following the shoulder injury less than 12 months later.
When Mark Waugh was promoted to open the innings in the mid-90s, selectors could scarcely have envisioned the pace of starts made now. There can be no serious question of moving Gilchrist down the order.
Though the bowlers ensured the game was already well won, the achievement of the target of 118 in 12.2 overs, in 58 minutes, was stunning. Caddick and Anderson can't have known what hit them, and one imagines it would have been quite depressing after their sterling efforts in Adelaide. Yes, that type of assault is always a possibility defending an impossibly small target, yet it still must have given rise to the notion Australia can lift when required.
The Gilchrist-Hayden partnership was the exclamation point on a season nearly over.