Just when you thought Australia couldn't become any stronger, it duly appeared to emerge from today's Carlton Series encounter against Zimbabwe in Sydney in even more formidable shape. Beyond the mere matter of a crushing eighty-six run win, this was a game which offered it a great chance to experiment. And it did so in particularly successful style.
In again reshuffling its batting order, in again rotating its playing list, in setting Test-style attacking fields, and in turning to unlikely change bowlers, the home team's most difficult challenges today were again provided by its own brains trust - and not the opposition. Captain Steve Waugh conjured up one of the sternest tests of all, perhaps, when he won the toss and decided that his team would bat in possibly the most demanding conditions of the day.
But, after Adam Gilchrist (63) and a slightly-tentative Mark Waugh (36) had weathered the swing and seam extracted by new ball bowlers Heath Streak (1/56 from ten overs) and Bryan Strang (1/50 off ten) in muggy, humid conditions, this proved another stroll in the park. The fifth successive Australian opening stand to exceed the half-century mark in this series provided the platform for a brutal onslaught that ultimately took the Australians to within twelve runs of their highest ever one-day international score against Zimbabwe.
Ninety-eight runs had been added by the time that the Gilchrist-Waugh stand was eventually ended - by means of a bizarre run out. Waugh was the unlucky batsman, departing after Gilchrist had powered back a straight drive with such force that his partner had no chance to regain his ground at the non-striker's end as the ball went past him. He could only watch in horror as it took a thin deflection from bowler Brian Murphy's fingers back on to the stumps. Gilchrist made his own exit shortly afterwards, when he was deceived by a Strang delivery and lofted a simple catch to mid wicket.
For as much encouragement as the sight of the two openers returning to the pavilion must have provided, though, there was only more in the way of punishment for the Zimbabweans to follow. Characteristically, Michael Bevan (74*) proceeded to anchor a succession of productive stands.
Importantly for the Australians, theirs was an innings which offered valuable time in the middle for a number of players who have barely been required to bat in this series. Together with Bevan, Steve Waugh (36) and Andrew Symonds (21) also capitalised upon chances that have been far from readily forthcoming.
The Zimbabweans, for their part, toiled manfully. With the new ball, Streak and Strang were steady and also generated sideways movement and variable bounce at different moments. Spinners Murphy (0/38 from eight overs) and Dirk Viljoen (3/62 off ten) also bowled tidily during the middle stages of the innings.
But there were times when the bowlers and fieldsmen looked helpless, powerless even. At no point was this more obvious than during the closing eleven overs of the innings, when Bevan, Darren Lehmann (36) and Symonds combined to help themselves to a gargantuan 110 runs and clobber the total toward 6/291. It was a feast of brilliantly improvised strokeplay and electrifying running between the wickets that again served to underline the vast gulf that exists between Australia and its opponents in this series.
Despite a gallant stand of ninety-two for the third wicket between Stuart Carlisle (44) and Andy Flower (39), Zimbabwe never really looked like challenging the rival score. Let alone overhauling it. Carlisle and Flower responded attractively upon being joined in the fifth over after another poor Zimbabwean start. In composed style, they defied excellent new ball bowling from Damien Fleming (2/21 from six overs) and Glenn McGrath (1/26 off 6.5) before cutting loose against the pace of Nathan Bracken (0/25 from five) and, more specifically, the leg spin of Shane Warne (2/52 off ten).
It was Flower who frustrated the Australian star early with some contemptuous reverse sweeping through the off side. But Carlisle was quick to join in. He hit two massive sixes over mid wicket in quick succession to have Warne looking unsettled at the bowling crease for one of the few times in recent memory.
However, a dubious shot and a dubious decision soon had matters reverting to type again. Ironically, Flower was removed almost as soon as Steve Waugh had turned to another unlikely slow bowling option, left arm wrist spinner Bevan (1/25 from seven overs). He cut, in rash fashion, at a ball spinning well away and landed a comfortable catch in the hands of Symonds at point. Carlisle was far more unlucky, harshly adjudged lbw by Umpire Peter Parker after being struck in line with off stump by a Warne delivery that appeared to be turning even further away.
And that was about the end of that. Another disappointing Zimbabwean batting collapse ensued around some valiant strokeplay from Viljoen (31) and Grant Flower (30) as Waugh threw the ball to Symonds (2/35 off eight overs) and medium pacer turned off spinner Ricky Ponting (1/12 from five) just for good measure. Paradoxically, it was Australia - delighting in its success at stumbling upon new strategies - which seemed the team more interested in staying on the field by then.