Home > Cricket > World Cup 2003 > Columns > Daniel Laidlaw
Aussies undoubtedly favourites
January 08, 2003
After all the controversy and acrimony over Steve Waugh's sacking from the one-day team last February, Australia's selectors predictably opted for the conservative route in the selection of their final 15 for the 2003 World Cup. Stability and consistency in selection, not to mention ruthlessness, has generally been the hallmark of the World champions so it comes as no surprise that the squad for their Cup defence in southern Africa should have followed those lines.
The direction of the squad was really determined when Steve and Mark Waugh were dropped from the side that won 5-1 in South Africa last March. The team picked then is virtually the same one that has been selected now. With Ricky Ponting having won 14 of his 20 games as captain and only 17 different players used during his time in charge, it would have been a relatively straightforward process.
Australia's first-choice batting line-up (Gilchrist, Hayden, Ponting, Martyn, Lehmann, Bevan) more or less picks itself, as does its bowling attack of McGrath, Gillespie, Lee and Warne. The real contentiousness lies in the troublesome but crucial all-rounder position and the reserve places, particularly in light of Shane Warne's shoulder injury.
After an exceptional comeback series in South Africa during which he won two man-of-the-match awards in his first two innings, left-hander Jimmy Maher deservedly received the reserve batsman role. Andy Bichel, a fringe regular since last season, was the expected fourth paceman and Shane Watson was retained as the incumbent all-rounder, leaving two key places to be filled: Warne's back-up, and another reserve.
The selectors recognised the value of wrist spin, but not in the form of Stuart MacGill. Instead of MacGill's specialist leggies, they instead opted for an all-round package in left-arm unorthodox Brad Hogg. Hogg played one Test in India in 1996 and the last of his ODIs the same year, until filling in for Warne in Perth after his shoulder injury. Well-performed with bat, ball and in the field at domestic level, Hogg has clearly remained in the selectors' thinking, and can expect to play from now until Warne returns.
The irony of Shane Watson's ascension as Australia's No. 7 is that he would be better suited to developing into a Test all-rounder rather than the ODI variety. Not naturally a batsman who smashes the ball over the top, he has struggled in that role, and been no more than adequate as a bowler. The return of Andrew Symonds, then, seems a clear indication that Australia wants a ready-made replacement should he not progress.
One of the hardest hitters in world cricket, Symonds offers much as a No. 7 bat and little, if anything, is lost by preferring his inconsistent medium pace to Watson's. The need to shore up the all-rounder position and his usefulness as a utility player got Symonds in, apparently on the lobbying of Ricky Ponting.
Australian coach John Buchanan wants players who can contribute in more than one discipline, and Symonds clearly does that. Despite falling out of favour with selectors after struggling from limited opportunities and being unfairly considered a failure, Symonds possesses exceptional fielding ability, is a thumping batsman and can bowl either medium pace or off-spin.
The squad is predictable, but complete.
The bowling attack. Despite the uncertainty of Warne's status, one would expect the formidable pace battery of McGrath, Gillespie and Lee to deliver. If Warne is fit by the Super Six stage, Australia's attack will be at least the equal of any in the competition: experienced, potent and economical. While the top-order batting of Gilchrist, Hayden and Ponting is outstanding, in South Africa the frontline bowlers should be the foundation of Australia's success, making things easier for the batsmen in key games.
Temperament and experience should also be a strength. Most players have been there before and will expect to perform when the pressure is at its greatest.
Potentially, Ponting's captaincy. In truth, Ponting is a relatively untested commodity until he comes under genuine pressure as a leader. In '99, Steve Waugh had to deal with rumours of a split between him and Warne, a threatened retirement, and a side on the brink of elimination. How would Ponting manage similar adversity? Until it occurs, we just don't know. Ponting will surely be aggressive, but it is one thing to attack from a position of strength and another to keep a team together when behind.
The all-rounder position is the starkest weakness. Shane Watson is a respectable bat and serviceable medium pacer, whose role is to keep it tight from one end. He is still a rookie, however, and will undoubtedly be targeted as Australia's fifth bowler, while lacking explosiveness as a late-order bat. The Aussies also have Andrew Symonds to call upon, but they are not quite settled here.
It's the players with the most to do who will be key. While one would expect the likes of McGrath, Gillespie, Hayden and Ponting to keep performing at a high level, the unknowns are crucial. Brad Hogg will have the challenge of performing immediately against Pakistan and India. Watson will need continued progress with both bat and ball, otherwise Symonds must show he can be relied upon.
Perhaps the most under-rated key player, though, will be Darren Lehmann. In addition to his valuable inventiveness and experience in the middle order, his left-arm spin will likely be crucial at some point. If he could deliver five or more overs of economical spin per game, it would be a considerable burden lifted from the shoulders of the other ‘fifth bowler'.
As batsmen, the alternating middle order of Martyn, Lehmann and Bevan will have the difficult jobs of either maintaining the momentum of the top order and accelerating at the finish, or building the innings after a shaky start. In short, what Waugh used to do.
Will Warne be fit to bowl by the start of the tournament? If not, when? If he is not fit until, say, the middle of the Super Six stage, can Australia afford to risk him coming back from injury? What if his replacement, Hogg, is performing exceptionally? An injured player has to rate as a liability, and these are potentially destabilising issues which Australia has no choice but to confront -- and overcome -- during the Cup.
Chances out of ten
Once in the semifinals, which Australia must be favoured to reach relatively comfortably, it is anybody's game. Execution and performance on the day is what will count, and they should be as well-prepared to deliver it as anyone. No team can really be better than an 8/10 chance to win a World Cup beforehand, though, and as favourites that's what Australia are.
To reach the Super Six, Australia essentially only needs to be better than the fourth-best team in their group, England. Starting against Pakistan and India, however, there will be no time to gradually build up form. They must hit the ground running, and the first two are the most important group games. Win at least one, and the Aussies should be almost guaranteed a Super Six place.
Looking ahead, there will undoubtedly be a confrontation with South Africa at some point, possibly in the semifinals or final. Australia's World Cup will probably hinge on it once again.
Schedule | Interviews | Columns | Discussion Groups | News | Venues