February 14, 2011

A for Attack

Australia's bowling line-up for the World Cup could get a wicket with every ball, but they could also go for plenty

Shaun Tait, Brett Lee, Mitchell Johnson, Doug Bollinger, Jason Krejza. Rarely has the word "attack" been more appropriate for a one-day bowling group. Australia have gambled on a wicket-taking line-up as they search for their fourth consecutive World Cup, but it's a strategy fraught with risk. As the former-fast-bowler-turned-commentator Damien Fleming said, "We could be bowling teams out for 50 or chasing 500".

To some extent, Australia have been steered down this path because of injuries to other bowlers. The economical Clint McKay and Ryan Harris would both have been hard to leave out but for foot and ankle problems respectively. Krejza came from outside the 30-man preliminary squad because Nathan Hauritz (shoulder), Xavier Doherty (back), and Steve O'Keefe (calf) were laid up.

But whatever the cause, it has left doubts as to whether their attack can also defend. When they triumphed in the Caribbean in 2007, Tait sizzled and lived up to his "Wild Thing" nickname, but he had the metronomic Glenn McGrath and Nathan Bracken to keep things tight at the other end. A serious knee problem has ended Bracken's career, and he believes Shane Watson is now the man for his old job.

"As we saw through the summer, if Brett Lee gets it right and gets early wickets, he can bowl very tightly," Bracken told ESPNcricinfo. "But they're probably going to look at someone like Shane Watson to play that sort of role. He's going to be the one who's going to have to shut down an end and put the pressure on that way. When the squad was first picked they had Nathan Hauritz for that sort of role."

That means enormous responsibility for Watson, who will also open the batting. John Hastings will do a similar job with the ball if he makes the starting XI, and Ricky Ponting will look to David Hussey's part-time offspin for some economical overs. But as for the fast men, as lethal as Johnson and Tait can be, control is not their forte, so Lee and Bollinger must avoid leaking runs.

It's an unfamiliar responsibility for Lee, who in a past life provided the super-quick yet unpredictable option that Tait now offers. At 34, this must surely be the swansong for Lee, who has spent much of the past two years injured but was desperate to play in this tournament, having missed the 2007 World Cup due to a dodgy ankle. Eleven wickets at 24 against England was a good comeback and although his economy rate was over five, Ponting was impressed.

"Brett's been able to turn himself into bit more of a defensive-minded bowler with his changes of pace and a bit more nous," Ponting said when the team landed in India. "He's a different bowler than he was three or four years ago. Shaun Tait, I just want to let him go, let him run in and bowl fast and take wickets. He's probably not his absolute best yet but he'll work his way up there."

The Tait factor is difficult to quantify. If any bowler at this tournament is to break 160kph, it will be Tait, but he has never played an international match on the subcontinent, and on the slower pitches he might not be at his most dangerous. He no longer plays first-class cricket, and even sending down his maximum allotment in a 50-over game is sometimes too much.

He will be used in spells of two or three overs, but along with the stumps that he will shatter, expect plenty of wides and balls flying to the boundary. And while he's catching his breath at fine leg, the wides could remain a problem if Johnson is bowling. Johnson's inconsistency makes him a hard man for a captain to use, but the expectation to swing the ball won't be as great in Asia, and his one-day record in India of 28 wickets at 23.60 is excellent.

"He and Bracken have probably been the most dominant one-day bowlers, even ahead of McGrath and Warne, over there," Fleming said. "The expectation seems to be that you're not going to swing the ball much over there, so you just run in and bowl fast, hit the deck hard. He uses his slower ball more over there, which is a beauty, and if he continues that record over there, he could have a real dominant series."

Part of Australia's challenge is working out what constitutes their best attack. Bollinger played all but one of the recent ODIs against England and along with Watson could be a more economical option, but he might be the man to miss out from the pace line-up if Johnson, Tait and Lee all play. That also depends on how Australia treat the spin role.

Steven Smith and Hussey could combine for 10 overs but a frontline tweaker is always a good idea on the subcontinent. That means playing Jason Krejza, who in his previous incarnation as an international bowler was seen as an aggressive offspinner who could take wickets but couldn't contain. It's a problem he has been working on and Fleming, who commentates on domestic cricket for Fox Sports, has seen a vast improvement.

"We've been watching him a lot and his economy rate has come down significantly, even in the Big Bash," Fleming said. "He bowled a couple of half-trackers the other night in Perth, but the Krejza we've seen, the criticism was that he leaked too many runs and he's certainly answered that at domestic level.

"The big test is against the subcontinent players, but he got 12 wickets in a Test there. He's the offspinner in Australia who, when he bowls his good delivery, you go 'Wow!' It flights, it drifts in and it turns a mile. With Hauritz and Doherty and Aaron Heal and those types, their variations are more subtle and they don't have that wow factor."

Wow factor is a common theme in this bowling group, and it could make for some fearsome performances.

"If everyone is right and everyone fires, you could see wickets tumbling left, right and centre," Bracken said. "Then all of a sudden the next time, if they don't, then the opposition could get away very quickly."

And if that happens, can wow become whoa? Reining in a runaway opponent like Virender Sehwag or AB de Villiers will be an enormous challenge, but Australia's World Cup hopes could depend on it.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo