September 20, 2007

Start too early and form counts for nothing

Australia have found the form of champions but even they would acknowledge that winning the toss and bowling first gave them maximum benefit



Brett Lee exploited the helpful morning conditions to put Australia on top © AFP

That one of the teams that fought out the World Cup final earlier this year had to be eliminated before the semi-finals here wasn't a tragedy. Australia and Sri Lanka had been worthy finalists in West Indies but they haven't been half as dominant here. Australia were surprised by Zimbabwe and outplayed by Pakistan, Sri Lanka were routed by Pakistan and struggled to put up a score against Bangladesh.

The tragedy was that the match was not allowed to be the quarter-final it could have been. At the best of times, there is a strong element of chance in this form of cricket; with a 10 am start, chances are the game will be reduced to a lottery. The Sri Lankan challenge was effectively finished in the first six overs today.

Much of the credit for this must go to Brett Lee, who bowled a brilliant first over that nailed Sanath Jayasuriya, and then deceived Mahela Jayawardene by holding the ball back a bit in the next over, but just how much were the Australians helped by the conditions? It's not summer yet in South Africa and mornings in Cape Town, one of the cooler South African cities, are nippy.

Bowlers being in the business is always good for the game and, in a format that gives them little chance, it's always nice when conditions conspire in their favour. In fact cricket has been at its most absorbing in this tournament every time there has been a bit for the bowlers.

But then conditions must be equal, or close to equal, for both teams. Luck with the toss has always been an integral part of the game and captains would sound like sourpusses if they blamed defeats on the toss. In Tests, or even 50-over matches, there is space to accommodate and play around a challenging first hour. In Twenty20, it could mean death because the first hour constitutes three quarters of the innings. Australia would have perhaps won anyway because they are a champion side that knows to how the raise the game when it matters, but even they would concede that Sri Lanka were massively disadvantaged this morning.

The shortness of this tournament has been one of its appealing features. The 55-day World Cup in West Indies felt miserably long. In hindsight, though, three games a day might not be such a great idea. To start with, this format - even for those who adore it - can be too much of a good thing and, from a playing point of view, forces an early start. Conditions stay more or less the same for the matches that start in the afternoon or the evening but with early starts the unevenness is glaring.

That said, Australia were switched on. Throughout the tournament, their players have given the impression they are yet to buy in to the concept wholeheartedly. Among the reservations, not openly articulated but implied, is that the best teams don't necessarily win this form of the game. Pushed to a corner, though, they responded in a manner that you would expect them to.

The bowling was precise throughout. As we have seen through the tournament, it is possible to win matches after losing early wickets. Twice New Zealand have been put in to bat in morning matches and have managed to turn it around. Pakistan have twice won after losing four wickets for under 50 runs. But Australia's bowlers never allowed the Sri Lankans to get away today.

Stuart Clark has been Australia's best bowler in the tournament, and he was outstanding once again, bowling straight and at a length that allows the batsman no liberty at all. Each of his four wickets was earned today because the Sri Lankans could not get him away. Brad Hodge dropped a catch, but the Australians caught everything else with Michael Clarke pulling off a stunner at backward point.

They might have been sluggish in the tournament so far but, make no mistake about it, this is a team that knows how to win knock-out matches. Once again, they are the favourites to win the World Twenty20.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo and Cricinfo Magazine

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