February 19, 2007

Australia must find answers quickly

Australia have gone from raging favourites to suffering a case of raging World Cup fever in the space of three weeks
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Ricky Ponting has some work to do when he returns as captain © Getty Images

Australia have gone from raging favourites to suffering a case of raging World Cup fever in the space of three weeks. Some of the problems have been of their own making and others have cropped up via injury. No matter the cause, they have to start finding solutions in a hurry and they are short on time as the World Cup warm-up matches loom large.

The return of Ricky Ponting will help solve a large slice of the problem; he provides the team with not only strong leadership, but he's also the best batsman by a wide margin. It's no coincidence that in Australia's five losses in their last six matches Ponting wasn't playing in three of them, failed in another and made a big score [75] in the first CB Series final in which they were narrowly beaten. Here's a hint to opponents: to beat Australia it helps enormously if you get rid of Ponting cheaply.

The next thing Australia needs to lift their performance is some good news on the injury front. The loss of Brett Lee coming on the heels of Andrew Symonds is a huge blow to their World Cup chances. The best Australia can hope for at the World Cup is the return of Symonds as a slightly diminished batsman rather than the brilliant allrounder he was before the biceps injury. If he even makes the World Cup, opponents shouldn't have to worry about his throwing or even his bowling and there's also a chance his powerful hitting will be adversely affected by the injury. Consequently his return will only be a partial panacea.

Lee is in a similar position. A front-foot ankle-tendon injury is not good news for a fast bowler. If he makes it to the World Cup it will take him some time to trust the ankle when he bangs it down in the delivery stride and the best Australia could hope for is a confident and fit Lee by the semi-finals.

Thanks to a dangerous mixture of arrogance and stupidity during the Commonwealth Bank Series, Australia fiddled rather than found their best combination

So where does that leave Australia? They had better start making their World Cup plans without Symonds and Lee and if either happens to be fit and in form by the knockout stage it will be a bonus. The first priority is to settle on their best side. Thanks to a dangerous mixture of arrogance and stupidity during the Commonwealth Bank Series, Australia fiddled rather than found their best combination and then the coach John Buchanan incited the opposition by indulging in ridicule.

Now they are not only unsure of who are the best bowlers in the final overs, they are also struggling to find a spinner to take a wicket or two in the middle overs after the powerplays. This is a crucial role and if Australia can't find someone to do the job with Symonds injured, they'll constantly encounter big targets or have their totals, even larger ones, chased down.

The ideal build-up for Australia after losing the finals series to England would've been to travel to New Zealand and quickly rebuild confidence. To do this they needed Ponting to lead them back to winning form and not a fill-in leader - especially not one who is unsuited to captaincy. Having lost the Chappell-Hadlee Trophy on top of the Commonwealth Bank series, Australia is now not only an injury-hit side but also a team searching for answers and confidence.

Ponting has a huge rehabilitation job to do as captain and he has no choice but to treat the two warm-up matches against England and Zimbabwe as though they actually count for the World Cup. Confidence-boosting wins in those two games may not restore the team to outright favouritism, but it might help clear up that dose of World Cup fever that is raging through the side at the moment.