Defending big scores a World Cup worry February 19, 2007

Bowlers create headaches for Australia

Glenn McGrath risks a disappointing farewell unless Australia's bowlers can turn things around © Getty Images

There is one bright spot in the darkness of Australia's recent run of poor one-day form: their batting will be boosted by the return of the rested Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist and Michael Clarke for the World Cup. They can take no solace from their bowling situation.

Australia's inability to defend 336 at Auckland on Sunday was the latest in a worrying series of big targets they have proved incapable of protecting. New Zealand's impressive effort was the second-highest successful run-chase in ODI history and was nestled between two other Australian failures from the past 14 months.

In their second-last match before they travel to the World Cup, it should be a major concern for a team that has had its bowling line-up largely settled since at least the Champions Trophy in October. Only Shaun Tait has been added for his ability to bowl fast, inswinging yorkers at the death but he is yet to demonstrate that skill at international level.

Big scores could be common in the West Indies, where the small grounds will encourage the sort of boundary-clearing strokes that led to a combined 20 sixes at Eden Park on Sunday. Unless Australia's attack can remember how to bowl some tight, containing overs in the middle or closing stages, their one-day crown will be in danger of slipping even further.

Glenn McGrath and Nathan Bracken, two of their most reliable performers, have been below par in 2006-07. Both suffered at the destructive hands of Jacob Oram at Perth as New Zealand came agonisingly close to overhauling Australia's 343. The pair was also part of the four-man pace attack that could not break the partnership between Paul Collingwood and Ian Bell after England were in desperate trouble in the first CB Series final at Melbourne.

Bracken has picked up wickets here and there but his consistency in breaking top-order partnerships with the swinging white ball has fallen away. McGrath has not rediscovered the joy of his Test farewell and his ageing body has been unable to produce the metronomic accuracy that formerly demanded respect from batsmen the world over.

Mitchell Johnson has left behind the form that earned him the prize wickets of Brian Lara, Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar at the DLF Cup in September. When he plays, he is now targeted by batsmen who want to belt him out of the attack.

As Ross Taylor and Peter Fulton reeled in the target at Auckland, what Australia needed was a string of miserly overs that ballooned the required run-rate close to ten an over. Tait, McGrath, Bracken and Shane Watson all threatened to do it but there was always a loose ball just around the corner that let the batsmen relieve the pressure with a boundary.

Australia have missed Andrew Symonds and his habit of tearing through overs of offspin as their fit slow-bowling options, Brad Hogg and Cameron White, went for a combined 87 from ten overs. White is, at this stage, not going to the West Indies but Hogg needs to regain the form that made him such a useful part of Australia's 2003 World Cup squad.

He has had limited opportunities this season and his knack for picking up important wickets seems to have deserted him. Batsmen have been willing to push him around and try for boundaries by hitting with the spin. On big grounds that can lead to outfield catches but on smaller ones he will need more control.

Nathan Bracken must again become Australia's new-ball destroyer © Getty Images

Within the 15-man World Cup squad, there are precious few other possibilities. Johnson was the only fit bowler going to the Caribbean who did not play on Sunday but he went for 49 from his eight overs two days earlier as New Zealand inflicted Australia's first ten-wicket loss. There will be a temptation to bring in Stuart Clark, who is known for his consistency, if Brett Lee does not recover from his ankle injury.

That might not be the best solution. Clark has been a Test match star but like the others, he has been too costly in the limited-overs game. His predictability - and on occasions his lack of control of the white ball - have led to an economy rate of 6.40 from his last ten games. He was the leading culprit as West Indies chased down Australia's 272 in Malaysia in September, when he went for 87 from seven overs as Chris Gayle unleashed a fierce assault.

Australia say they have been fine-tuning their attack in the lead-up to the World Cup. But they cannot possibly suggest their bowling line-up is in its best shape after their recent efforts, although Watson showed some promising signs on Sunday with his control and subtle variations. McGrath, Bracken, Johnson, Watson and Hogg are all capable of match-winning spells on their day. However, limited-overs bowling is largely about containment and unless they can remember how to restrict the runs, they will go to the West Indies in serious danger of being overpowered.

In their pool matches the No. 1-ranked South Africa will be looking to justify their promotion and Australia must be on their game to contain Herschelle Gibbs and his team-mates. After that, any number of sides and individuals could hurt Australia. A destructive Gayle, a resurgent Sanath Jayasuriya, a fit-again Oram or a rejuvenated Sourav Ganguly are just a few of the countless threats. They have all taken notice of the last month and will want to prove they too can conquer the former masters.

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Brydon Coverdale is an editorial assistant of Cricinfo