As Australia gears up to defend its Cricket World Cup crown, I’ve become increasingly compulsive about debating what line-up we should send into the tournament. I’m interested to see who is fielded in our first warm-up against Scotland, which will begin in a few hours.
Following our slightly dramatic collapse in the Challenge tri-series, with a trot of losses to decent, but far from formidable English and Kiwi teams, and the loss of our spearhead paceman, Brett Lee, to a ligament tear, I started to wonder what else could go wrong. Hayden had a hurt toe, Ponting had something minor, Gilchrist had a son’s birth to attend, Symonds is still nursing a shoulder tear…the Baggy Green were beginning to look like they’d stumbled off the set of Peter Weir’s Gallipoli than the all-conquering destructive tornado of a cricket team a la our ’99 and ’03 sides. Going into the tournament, however, all but Lee look set for action, and most all the pundits I’ve come across have picked Australia as favorites.
My main concern is our attack. We’ve got plenty of skillful batsmen, the class of which I think other teams only come in a distant second on, with or without a healthy Symonds. As good as Shane Watson looked during the England warm-up, and as much as I prefer the variety of a right-hand/left-hand opening pair, I still think Hayden belongs at the top of the order alongside Gilchrist. He’s in fine form, and at the end of the day, he’s the better batsman capable of batting through 50, which is what we want to field. I was also far than impressed by Watson’s medium-fast bowling during the Challenge series. He looked rather pedestrian, and I envision him being launched all over Caribbean grounds throughout this tournament.
At 1-for, I’m expecting another stellar performance from our captain, Ricky Ponting, who’s also taken a fine turn as an AIDS advocate for UNICEF, an official tournament sponsor. Though Michael Clarke (our No. 4) seemed to lose his wicket more cheaply than almost any other specialist bat in the previous series, he’s a class act, who’s elegance at the crease reminds me a little of Damien Martyn, the most poetic of recently retired Western Australian batsmen. His left arm finger spin may certainly come in handy too.
Number five is a little less certain: Brad Hodge has been batting well recently, but should quite certainly lose the spot to Symonds for the South Africa match. Hodge does not bowl, and Symonds personality, power in the crunch, versatility with the ball and ability in the field (hopefully not tempered by his most recent injury) will make him one of the integral factors in whether Australia holds off this Cup’s stiff competition.
Hussey, another Westerner, who I was so chuffed to see make it into the national side after a lengthy wait, and even more pleased to see win a Bevan-like role at No. 6 in the one day team, will also be critical to our chances. I suspect he’ll have to nurse the strike and carry our tail quite often on big chases, which looks much weaker than past line-ups.
It’s at the seventh spot that things get interesting, and this is where I imagine you’ll see the most variety, as the coaching staff tweak and adjust according to pitch conditions and player fitness levels. This time around, we’ve no quality second all-rounder along the lines of a Darren Lehman, though Watson may just turn out to succeed in that role. If we want a full pace line-up, we should play Watson here, where his batting will by a handy bonus in the death. If he doesn’t perform however, either with bat or ball, I’d have Hogg come in here, with four quickies rounding out a rather long tail. The strength of our top six permits it.
There’s no question, in my mind, that Australia should play Hogg, despite the Caribbean pitches being far from spin havens. He has experience from the 2003 Cup, he’s bowled well without luck in Australia, and he adds much needed variety to a somewhat ordinary-looking attack. It would be most dangerous to rely only on part-timers Symonds and Clarke to take care of spin duties. Hogg’s wrong ‘un is hard to pick, and he should cause trouble–or at the very least, limit the run-rate during middle overs–for most teams, outside of the big three from South Asia.
Our shaky pace attack, more than anything, could mean the difference between Australia winning three straight or turning over the cup. Beyond McGrath, who is certainly beyond his best years but whose experience is vital, they’re all very green. I don’t think Mitchell Johnson deserves a spot: he’s been the most expensive, is far too wayward, and has trouble altering his line when charged by opponent batsmen. Much better for the left-arm spot is Bracken, who has been consistent, if not overly intimidating, and was the pick of the Commonwealth series. I think his reverse swing could be critical late in the game.
After his breakthrough performance in the Ashes, Stuart Clark was certainly snubbed over the pacy, though unreliable Shaun Tait. Look for these two to be alternated quite often. As expensive as he’ll surely be, Tait is the only true fast bowler we have now minus Lee, and if he can take wickets within the first and last ten overs of the game, he should be worth the runs. Shane Warne has advocated for Clark to open with McGrath, and as accurate as the two marksmen would be (not to mention rather boring), it’ll make for more exciting cricket to have Tait tearing down with the new ball. Wouldn’t Australia rather have opponents at 2 or 3 for 60 than 0 for 40 after 10? I suppose it depends on the pitches, as well as how big the scores are.
I am also expecting to see Hogg left out of some matches for a fast-medium McGrath/Tait/Clark/Bracken/Watson trot-a-rama. Though McGrath would disagree, he does make for a suitably zip-tight first change, and having he and Clark fill out the middle overs while Tait and Bracken take the new ball might just be our most strategic mode of attack.
As for the competition, I can’t say I’ve paid too much attention. I’m looking forward to seeing Sri Lanka, with slinger Malinga at the pedal, and India looks like a most competitive squad, despite their early loss to the Windies. As for the home team, as much as the world might be rooting for them, making the semi-finals will be quite possible; winning the Cup close to fantasy. With that said, though, the 2007 World Cup field really does look quite wide-open: New Zealand has been playing well, South Africa have the talent (if not the history of performing in the Cup) and it would even be rash to completely count out England and Pakistan, though I don’t fancy them making the semis.
My prediction? Australia to beat Sri Lanka in the finals, with South Africa and the Windies the other semi-finalists.
Here’s to a fun, close tournament! Go Aussie!
And so finally, to recap: Here’s Mark’s pick for the Aussie XI:
1. Matthew Hayden
2. Adam Gilchrist
3. Ricky Ponting
4. Michael Clarke
5. Brad Hodge / Andrew Symonds
6. Michael Hussey
7. Shane Watson
8. Brad Hogg
9. Stuart Clark / Shaun Tait
10. Nathan Bracken
11. Glenn McGrath