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September 21, 2007
And so, after the cut and thrust of the last ten days, a tournament that began with 12 teams has been whittled down to four. Pakistan take on New Zealand in Cape Town, but arguably the more mouthwatering contest is in Durban, where India, riding high after two top-class performances against England and South Africa, take on Australia, world champions in all forms of the game, but showing unusual signs of susceptibility in the Twenty20 format.
Australia's ten-wicket thrashing of Sri Lanka in a virtual quarter-final on Thursday indicated, though, that they are peaking in time for the big games, a trait the Australians have almost perfected. They'll miss the presence of Ricky Ponting, while Shane Watson has flown home after hurting his hamstring again, but there is firepower in their ranks to make light of those absences.
The advantage for the Indians is familiarity with the conditions. They have played three times under the Kingsmead lights - twice over the last three days - and will know, to a large extent, what to expect from the pitch and the conditions. Australia, on the other hand, have never played in Durban during this tournament, and only one of their five games has been a 6pm start.
Bat play: Australia's openers have been in such splendid form that their middle order has come into play just twice: their three wins in this tournament have been by ten, nine and eight wickets, with Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist putting together at least 75 in these games. In the two games when they've batted first, though, the openers have added less than ten, and Australia have lost both times. Brad Hodge, Andrew Symonds, Mike Hussey and Michael Clarke form a powerful middle order, but none of them have fired yet, and India will feel they have a chance if they get rid of the openers early.
It hasn't been all smooth sailing for India's batsmen either, but in the last two matches they've delivered under pressure. Yuvraj Singh and the openers were spectacular against England, while Rohit Sharma showed a maturity beyond his years in difficult conditions against South Africa. Both Yuvraj (tendonitis in the left arm) and Mahendra Singh Dhoni (back strain) have niggles, though, and while both are likely to play, they'll have to clear fitness tests tomorrow morning.
Wrecking ball: Stuart Clark has been the bowler of the tournament so far, with 12 wickets at an average of less than nine and an economy rate of 5.30. In conditions that are likely to help the fast bowlers, he could be a handful yet again. Brett Lee, Nathan Bracken and Mitchell Johnson have backed him up well too, leaving only the fifth bowler's slot a dodgy one for Australia.
For India, RP Singh has clearly been the leader of the pack, with Harbhajan Singh and Irfan Pathan backing him up well. The rest of the attack has been patchy: there were 11 wides bowled against South Africa, of which Sreesanth contributed six. That's an area where the bowlers will have to do better.
Keep your eyes on: Andrew Symonds. He hasn't had much of a chance to show his prowess yet, but his powerful brand of batting is perfectly suited to the Twenty20 format, and Saturday could be the day when it all comes together.
Shop talk: The Australians have put it across India in important ODIs in the past, but Pathan insisted that India would approach the semi-final like just another game, with no baggage from the past. "Tomorrow is a big game, and we are quite confident. We don't fear anybody - we aren't approaching it like a game against a big team. We'll go out there and give our best."
Tim Neilsen, the Australian coach, admitted that familiarity with the conditions would give India an advantage, but was happy with his team's performances as well, especially their rout of Sri Lanka. "It's obviously an advantage when you've played here a couple of times. We'll have a run around here tomorrow morning and get a feel for it. We're lucky we've got some experienced players who have toured South Africa before. It won't be new to them but we haven't played Twenty20 cricket here under lights either. But that's the nature of the beast - Twenty20 cricket is all about adapting quickly, so we'll have to make sure we're switched on right from ball one tomorrow."
Pitching it right: Under lights, the fast bowlers have had enough encouragement to shun their defensive plans and look for wickets. Both Australia and India have quick bowlers who are in form, which should make for an enthralling contest and ensure that the batsmen don't have it all their way.
Australia (probable) Adam Gilchrist (capt, wk), Matthew Hayden, Brad Hodge, Andrew Symonds, Mike Hussey, Michael Clarke, Brad Haddin, Brett Lee, Mitchell Johnson, Nathan Bracken, Stuart Clark.
India (probable) Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Robin Uthappa, Yuvraj Singh, Mahendra Singh Dhoni (wk), Rohit Sharma, Irfan Pathan, Joginder Sharma, Harbhajan Singh, Sreesanth, RP Singh.