Heavyweights line up in St Kitts March 22, 2007

Australia fresh and ready to fire



Adam Gilchrist has been part of a "brilliant" lead-up for Australia over the past week © AFP

Amid the chaos of the past ten days - the upsets, the ecstasies, the tragedies - the apparent lack of competitiveness in the opening round of the World Cup has been largely forgotten. Ireland's ousting of the Pakistanis, and Bangladesh's prowess against India, have provided timely interludes in what could otherwise have been an excessively long wait for a contest of significance. Such as the one that is now looming large at the weekend. South Africa v Australia: No. 1 v No. 2. The heaviest heavyweight contest encountered thus far.

For the Australians - inactive since Sunday, when they walloped The Netherlands by 229 runs - this has been one of the most leisurely weeks imaginable. Their gentle preparation for a gruelling contest has included fishing trips and rounds of golf, and a relaxed Ricky Ponting was full of praise for the structure of a tournament that had allowed his squad to put down roots and feel at home for such a big showdown.

"It's been brilliant," he said. "This is one of the great places in the world to play cricket, and once this event gets up and running, it'll be one of the best events ever. Speaking selfishly as a player's group, we'd rather stay in one spot, rather than jumping on another plane for three or four hours and gearing ourselves up for another training session.

"For us, this is as big a game as a semi-final or a final. The No.1 and No. 2-ranked teams going head-to-head in the World Cup. It doesn't get much bigger. We're very excited and we've been training very positively this week. Having the five or six days off between games has been a good thing for us. It's allowed us to freshen up and work on our skills, and there'll be no excuses on Sunday."

The mighty feats of scoring that these two teams have produced in their matches against Scotland and The Netherlands have led to the assumption that we are about to see a re-run of the last extraordinary time they met in the one-day arena. At Johannesburg last year, Australia made a world-record 434 but were still overhauled with a wicket in hand.

Ponting agreed St Kitts, with its pocket-sized boundaries, was the sort of venue that would bring out the big hitters. "What I'm excited about is that we are going to see a great game," he said. "Whether that's a 200-plays-200 game, or 400-plays-400, who knows? Whichever way it goes, it's going to be a great spectacle."



Ricky Ponting spoke of Australia being underdogs for the final Group A clash © Getty Images

The reverberations of Johannesburg are still being felt a year later, and it was suggested to Ponting that the psychological hold Australia had for so long over the South Africans might have been released by the loss. "We just need to go out and put them under pressure," he said. "If you do that for long periods of time, then opposition teams are going to start thinking all those things.

"We've played some great cricket against them, but they are now the No. 1-ranked team in the world so they've done a lot of things right as well. Maybe some of the pressure's on them now. Maybe we'll be going out as the underdogs and not as the favourites, as we always have been. But trust me, they'll be talking about us in their team meeting tonight, don't worry about that."

One of the principal names that will be up for discussion in both meetings will be Andrew Symonds. Australia's most explosive one-day allrounder, and a recent selection for the nation's all-time XI, has been working his way back to full fitness after biceps surgery seven weeks ago. "Percentage-wise he's gone up quite a lot in the past few days," Ponting said. "He did a lot of fielding, running and throwing yesterday and a fair bit more today. He's actually thrown a lot harder today, which is a very positive sign, but we've got to give him as long as he needs or wants. We'll certainly know more by our final training session.

"He's ultra-important, he wouldn't be here if we didn't know that. We're hoping to get him near enough to 100% and we're hoping he can get out on the field tomorrow and just let all the frustrations out from not playing in the past few weeks. But we're not going to do that if we don't think he's at the appropriate level, especially when we've got other guys in the team playing at their peak.

"We just want to go out and play the best cricket we can. That's all I've asked of the players since we've been here. They did that in our practice games against Zimbabwe and England in St Vincent, and we've had two good wins here. A lot of it has been about what we've been doing away from the games. How we've been practising, skilling ourselves in training, and how we've been analysing South Africa and the way they've been playing. I've no doubt our skills will be in a good enough state to play a great game of cricket on Saturday."

Australia (probable) 1 Adam Gilchrist (wk), 2 Matthew Hayden, 3 Ricky Ponting (capt), 4 Michael Clarke, 5 Andrew Symonds, 6 Michael Hussey, 7 Shane Watson, 8 Brad Hogg, 9 Nathan Bracken, 10 Glenn McGrath, 11 Shaun Tait.

South Africa (probable) 1 Graeme Smith (capt), 2 AB de Villiers, 3 Herschelle Gibbs, 4 Jacques Kallis, 5 Mark Boucher (wk), 6 Ashwell Prince, 7 Justin Kemp, 8 Shaun Pollock, 9 Andrew Hall, 10 Charl Langeveldt, 11 Makhaya Ntini.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo

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