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September 29, 2009
It is a sobering thought that should Australia not go through tomorrow, they will have been bounced out of a world event in the first round (the World Twenty20 in England), lost the Ashes and failed to make the Champions Trophy semi-finals in the same year. In its own way, it will be an annus horribilis, though these things are relative and more so in this age of Australian transition, where expectations perhaps are to be recalibrated.
Mind you, had things taken their natural course - or unnatural if you like - in Centurion the other night against India, they might not have been in the situation they are now. It isn't quite must-win, but the Australians aren't the kind to rely on "peculiar mathematics" (as Kumar Sangakkara so beautifully put it the other night). A win is what they will want and it is the only permutation they will factor in as they take on a dangerously in-form Pakistan.
"We were disappointed with the way things finished off yesterday," Ricky Ponting said. "I thought we were in a pretty strong position in the game. With only a few wickets down and going into the last 10 overs with 240-odd on the board, you'd post a total around 300 which I thought would be really competitive on that pitch. We're disappointed that it didn't finish."
Yet still there was a bit to gain, not least some time in the middle against spin, which may play a part again tomorrow. Centurion hasn't been kind to all spinners, but Shahid Afridi and Saeed Ajmal used the surface well against India, and they have previous with Australia. "The positive for us is to spend that much time in the middle against some good spin bowling which we know Pakistan is going to have for us tomorrow as well, so we've got some positives coming out. We know now what we have to do, we have to win tomorrow to guarantee ourselves to move on."
It will not be easy. Pakistan might tinker with their combination to account for injuries but they are a side, as much as can be gauged and predicted, in good shape and in possession of that one thing that makes them more dangerous and thrilling still: momentum.
Michael Clarke's absence will hurt and they could do with Shane Watson scoring a few runs at the top, or even in fact, one. His last three innings, Ponting had forgotten (he thought it was two), had fetched him precisely zero.
"I'm sure he's thinking about that at the moment but I haven't thought much about it," Ponting reasoned. "It isn't ideal obviously but Shane has come off a very good last half of the Ashes in England, played really well in the ODI games and he has been in good form. He got a good ball at Durham, a good ball against West Indies and had a couple of good balls in the first over against India. The ODI game can go horrible like that for top order batsmen. He's working hard and he's going to an optional training session today. Although he hasn't scored runs I am confident he will come good."
If previous form had anything to do with it, tomorrow would be a breeze. If there is one team Australia have enjoyed playing over the last 15 years, it is Pakistan. They've won 12 of their last 15 encounters and generally, since the 1999 World Cup final, dominated proceedings between the two. "We all know how dangerous they can be and especially of late they've been playing some very good cricket," said Ponting. "If they happen to leave some of the big boys out it'll make our job a little easier but whatever team they put out it'll be a tough game."
And what of not making it? "It'll be disappointing for us if we don't. We're in a pretty good position to make it through but it's all about how you play on the day. You've just got to look at South Africa, red hot favourites coming in, and they didn't perform at their best for two games and are out.
"That's the nature of the tournament and there is no room or margin for error, especially if you have a game affected by rain. It puts us behind the eight-ball a little bit more but our destiny is in our own hands and we know what we have to do: play well tomorrow. If we don't, it's just because we haven't played well on the day."
That has happened more often this year than in recent years and though Ponting was upbeat and confident - as winning captains are - not making it through tomorrow will be the least ideal way to end a less than ideal period.
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