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November 4, 2006
Once they reach finals, Australia don't usually lose them, and West Indies will have to be at their mercurial best to have any chance of upsetting the odds on Sunday. Recent triumphs in Malaysia and the group phase of this tournament have shown that Brian Lara's team are probably best equipped to upset Australia's meticulous plans, but with a rejuvenated Glenn McGrath leading an imposing five-man pace attack, their task has become that much more difficult.
For many of those watching on Sunday, this will be a resumption of cricket's quintessential contest. Somewhere between Sir Frank Worrell's feted team winning Australian hearts in 1960-61 and the 5-0 annihilation at Australian hands in 2000-01, the contests between West Indies and Australia replaced the Ashes as cricket's pre-eminent rivalry. In the wake of West Indies' decline in the latter half of the 1990s, South Africa briefly threatened to be the team to push Australia hardest, a mantle since usurped by India and England. But for most Australians of McGrath's generation, there was only one team that set the standard, and that wasn't the Poms.
To be fair to the modern generation, West Indies had been in decline as a one-day team even in Viv Richards' time, failing to reach the final stages of the World Cup in 1987 and again in '92, and the recent resurgence must be seen in that light. But for Australians who grew up watching hideous beatings at the hands of the men in maroon - or grayish purple as it was in those World Series days - these matches continue to have a special resonance.
Australia have experienced a few wobbles since retaining the World Cup in 2003, but the present combination, with Shane Watson proving a genuine fifth pace-bowling option, is the best that they have managed to come up with since some indifferent performances on the tour of England last summer, when matches were surrendered against lowly England and Bangladesh.
Watson still needs more weight of runs to convince people that he's the ideal foil for Adam Gilchrist. The pressure on him has been relieved to a large extent by those down the order, with Damien Martyn in sparkling form, and Ricky Ponting back to the old run-glut after a handful of forgettable outings. Andrew Symonds showed what he could do in tough batting conditions in the semi-final, while both Michaels, Hussey and Clarke, have started the season with fine knocks. It will need incisive spells from Ian Bradshaw and Jerome Taylor, and miserly ones from Chris Gayle and Marlon Samuels just to keep them in check. Early wickets broke the game open for West Indies in the group encounter, despite Gilchrist's superb 92, and they'll need to reprise that bowling to stand any chance.
If there is confusion in Australian ranks, it's over the fifth bowling option. The surface at the Brabourne Stadium turned appreciably in the early games, and though Brad Hogg bowled only three overs in the last meeting between the two sides, he could well be asked to fill in for either Nathan Bracken or Mitchell Johnson. Given that Bracken has been Australia's leading wicket-taker this year, and given that Johnson has already dismissed Lara (twice), Tendulkar and Pietersen in the course of a fledgling career, it's hard to see that happening. In all likelihood, Symonds will bowl a few overs of spin, with Clarke likely to turn his arm over if needed.
The match could be won and lost long before the spinners come on though. Chris Gayle's irresistible run of form has been instrumental in West Indies' progress, but the new-ball pairing of McGrath and Brett Lee will offer the sternest possible examination. "A lot has been said about Australia's track record in the Champions Trophy," said a determined Lee on the eve of the final. "This time, we're really determined to make a mark. The earlier loss to the West Indies was a wake-up call for us. Now we are ready to take them on."
They'll have to do it while cast as Goliath. David Boon, here in his capacity as a selector, spoke fondly last week of the Reliance World Cup final in 1987, when "hundreds of thousands seemed to be barracking for us against the Poms". Come Sunday though, the vast majority in the stands at this storied venue will be cheering for the underdog. The reception that Lara received in the previous game here was electrifying, especially given the sparse numbers in attendance. If the crowd delivers an encore, and Lara does too, David's catapult and stones may well be enough to retain the trophy. But with the Champions Trophy missing from the trophy cupboard, this is one battle that Goliath won't want to lose, and if McGrath, who grew up yearning to emulate some West Indian pace legends, has his way, the Brabourne won't see a giant-killing.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of CricinfoFeeds: Dileep Premachandran
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