Let us begin with a simple question: when was the last time Australia did not enter an ODI World Cup as favourites? Counting back, they were defending champions for both 2007 and 2003 tournaments and were the best team on display in West Indies and South Africa respectively, which goes well with the fact that they ended up eventual winners. In 1999 they were second favourites after South Africa but trumped them in the semi-finals and then went on to claim the first of their hat-trick of titles.
In 1996 they were again second favourites to South Africa, but were beaten only by the rank underdogs Sri Lanka. In 1992 they were the host nation and invariably they are always the favourites. We have to go a long way back to 1987, nearly two and a half decades ago, when Australia entered a tournament of this proportion without being ranked as the ones to end up champions by the masses. And prior to that it was all about the West Indies in 1975, 1979 and 1983! It isn’t to say that the Aussies cannot win this time around, making it four crowns in a row. Even so, like in the 70s and 80s, it is not their name that comes first to mind when you sit down and think who might lift the trophy on April 2.
And that is saying a lot, for half the world’s cricket loving population probably hasn’t witnessed a tournament yet where this has been the case. It would be a near-marvel in the coming months should Ricky Ponting and his men fail to win, such has been their grip on any and every tournament for the last fifteen years. One says ‘near-marvel’ for their downward curve has been quite obvious in recent times and surprises in that regard would be down to a minimum. It would be, as per most of us watching from a distance, the completion of their fall from the top-most perch.
As such this is not sufficient reason for their fans to worry, for their poor showing in Test cricket hasn’t actually reflected in the limited-overs arena. Consider the following: in 99 ODIs since their last World Cup win, Australia have won 64 matches. That is a success ratio of sixty-five percent against India, New Zealand, Pakistan and England, all away from home, and only South Africa and Sri Lanka seem to have their number in this matter. Moreover, they were victorious in the 2009 Champions Trophy and have been positioned at the number one spot in the ICC ODI rankings for long. They also reached the finals of the 2010 T20 World Cup, which although not essentially a long enough format of the game, still represents a marked distinction in their report card. This streak of success has run parallel to their despondent show in the five-day arena - a fall to number five in Test rankings - and is singularly reflective of the fact that though their form may have dwindled, talent, class and temperament is very much still present therein.
Here is the squad that will represent Australia in the 2011 World Cup: Ricky Ponting (captain), Michael Clarke (vice-captain), Doug Bollinger, Brad Haddin, John Hastings, Nathan Hauritz, David Hussey, Michael Hussey, Mitchell Johnson, Brett Lee, Tim Paine, Steve Smith, Shaun Tait, Shane Watson, and Cameron White.
Open up the tournament pages from the last two editions and you will notice that a certain fear factor is the huge difference between the above and the previous squad lists. Adam Gilchrist, Glenn McGrath, Damien Martyn and Mathew Hayden were a few heavy names that have gone missing over the past few years and they have been much of the reason for their downfall in the longer format. Ricky Ponting, Michael Hussey and Brett Lee are the only ones remaining from that batch of players and only Shane Watson has grown to an equal stature in the couple seasons gone by. Having said that the replacements in the current team lists may not induce the same awe from the opposition but they have been menacingly effective about their work.
The big thing is that they are quite experienced with conditions in this part of the world. Australia have visited India thrice in the last three years for both Tests and ODIs. Count in the Indian Premier League extravaganza and their mix of players have all played some quantity of cricket on the dustbowls of the sub-continent. In Bangladesh and Sri Lanka they will encounter pitches a little slower than in India but international players are expected to make that adjustment as it is. Point is, everyone from the old salts to the young adolescence of Steve Smith will have seen how high the balls bounce and how quickly the bats score here. And, whichever way you look at it that is good preparation!
For Australia their main weapon has always been their bowling and they will rely heavily on the experience of Brett Lee in this regard. Doug Bollinger impressed in his debut for Chennai Super Kings and Mitchell Johnson seemed happy bowling in the latter half of his summer, but one doubts if they will enjoy bowling as much in the World Cup, unless there is some dew around. In the sub-continent the onus is always on the slow bowlers and in this regard Nathan Hauritz coming back is a bit of surprise after he was single-mindedly neglected during the Ashes. Come to think of it, the surprise actually was that he didn’t play in those five Tests! David Hussey and Cameron White will support him in this role while Steve Smith is expected to continue playing the joker.
As concerns the batting, like their bowling, it was fearsome at one point in time and has mellowed down vastly. The skipper will have to don the mantle of experience in this regard while his deputy will have to get some runs early in the tournament, especially against the lowly teams to get his confidence going. Michael Hussey’s touch in the Ashes was most resplendent and he will be the key to their fortunes, manning the middle order as always. But the most vital cog in this formation is Shane Watson. Remember the first season of the IPL in 2008? If he could just carry his stature into this tournament and exert it with the growth in his play from that time on, Australia might just be unstoppable one more time.
Their one undoing can be fitness concerns for their prime players. Ponting’s finger is yet to heal completely. Michael Hussey is struggling with his hamstring and is confirmed to miss the initial couple of games atleast, while Hauritz is carrying a shoulder niggle. The problem is compounded by injuries to their first option back-up players. Xavier Doherty is suffering from a back problem and Shaun Marsh has a pulled hamstring. Twelve days before their first game against Zimbabwe, the Australian squad will travel to India and that is not a good medical report card by any standards.
Call it coincidence if you will but the last time England won the Ashes in Australia, they responded a few months later by winning the 1987 World Cup hosted jointly by India and Pakistan. Déjà vu anyone?
© Cricket World 2011