ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 / News
World Cup 2011
Ponting's men brace for first real challenge
March 4, 2011
The World Cup is two weeks old, but Australia's challenge is yet to really begin. Only after Saturday's match against Sri Lanka, one of the pre-tournament favourites, will we really know how Ricky Ponting's men are placed in their quest for a fourth consecutive title. Only after they have faced down Lasith Malinga, Muttiah Muralitharan and Ajantha Mendis on home soil will the full picture begin to emerge.
The points table says Australia have won two from two, and they've played 31 World Cup matches since their last defeat. In the light of Ireland's triumph over England, Australia's wins over Zimbabwe and an out-of-form New Zealand shouldn't be ignored, but nor did they reveal anything new about Ponting's outfit. The Tait-Lee-Johnson triumvirate are a handful for weaker batting orders, Shane Watson makes solid half-centuries, and quality spin can slow the Australians down. No surprises there.
The two warm-ups were more instructive, coming as they did against the two favourites to win the World Cup. Australia were beaten by India and then crushed by South Africa, and in that company Zimbabwe and New Zealand look rather irrelevant. Ponting knows this clash with Sri Lanka, finalists at the previous World Cup and a team that triumphed down under earlier this season, is the big one, at least until the quarter-finals.
"It's a little bit hard to judge in the first two games, we really haven't been pushed too much in the first two games," Ponting said. "The Zimbabwe game was obviously a very easy win for us and then to bowl New Zealand out the way we did and then pick the runs off pretty easily, we weren't really tested in that game either. It's not so much what we've done in the games that I'm happy with, it's just the way we've approached every session so far."
Seven days in Colombo has given them plenty of time to work in and, importantly, acclimatise to a more muggy heat than they experienced in India. It's seven years since the Australians have been to Sri Lanka, and although five members of the squad have played internationals there - Ponting, Watson, Lee, Michael Clarke and Brad Haddin - much has changed since then.
That includes the Premadasa Stadium, which has undergone a major redevelopment, and Ponting doesn't expect the pitch to turn as much as the Australians had originally anticipated. All the same, Ray Price and his Zimbabwe colleagues showed that facing spin is not a strength of the Australian batsmen on the subcontinent. Muralitharan, at a ground where he's taken 107 international wickets, won't be any easier to handle, and nor will the mystery-man Mendis.
It's in those middle overs against the spinners that Cameron White needs to stand up. The selectors have been impressed with White over the past year and gave him the captaincy for the final ODI against England last month, but this summer he's been scratchy as an old record. In the past, teams had watched White walk to the crease at No. 5 and feared his fireworks; now they see a man they can manacle to the crease.
And if it's not the slow bowlers who keep White and the middle order in check, it could be Malinga. His hat-trick and six-wicket haul against Kenya was a timely reminder that Tait isn't the only source of slingy missiles in the tournament.
"We've played a fair bit against Malinga over the years," Ponting said. "He had a great game the other day against Kenya, and he looks like he's in pretty good form. He was one of the main focuses for us in the team meeting, talking about the right way to go about playing him. His bowling in the middle overs and with the older ball is particularly good."
There's also a question over Australia's spinners. Ponting has been talking up Jason Krejza's efforts on the tour, but even against an otherwise wobbly New Zealand, he leaked a few too many runs, while Steven Smith faces a major battle against quality batsmen like Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara.
It all adds up to an intriguing tussle, and Australia's first serious contest of the tournament. If Ponting's men come through with flying colours, they can justifiably be talked about among the favourites. If not, at least they'll know where they stand.
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