Lara's underdogs need not fear Australia
If Brian Lara could choose any island in the West Indies on which to tackle Australia, the favourites for this year's World Cup, it would have to be Antigua. The venue of both his world batting records, 375 against England in 1994 and 400 not out ten years later, not to mention West Indies' world-record run-chase against the Aussies in 2003; the island with a beach for every day of the year has cultivated some special memories for Lara over the years. How many of those, though, would he be willing to trade for a victory on Wednesday?
The teams each carry with them two points after their 100% successful performances in the group stages, so the victor of this match will have one foot in the semi-finals. It will, however, be pastures new for both West Indies and Australia when their crucial Super Eights clash gets underway. Lara's favourite Antigua Recreation Ground has been bypassed for this tournament, and instead the action will take place at the newly inaugurated Sir Vivian Richards stadium outside of the capital, St John.
The teams have flown in from Kingston and St Kitts respectively, and conditions for this fixture are expected to be very different to what has so far been experienced. Whereas Sabina Park has been characterised by slow cautious innings-building and Basseterre by raucous six-hitting, Antigua's new stadium promises, in Ricky Ponting's opinion, a bit of skid for the new ball and then excellent batting conditions. The bigger boundaries, however, mean that the sort of run-feast that the Aussies served up against South Africa on Saturday will only materialise in the event of a bowling meltdown.
That turn of events is not anticipated, however. West Indies, despite the odd display of nerves in the opening match against Pakistan, have a side brimming with confidence, and the Australians certainly hold no fear for them. They have been victorious in two of their last four encounters, in the DLF Cup last September and the subsequent Champions Trophy (although both of their defeats have come in the finals of the same competition) while in the Caribbean they have won three in a row in their last three meetings with Australia, albeit way back in 2002-03.
"I think we still have a lot of work to do to match the skills of the Australia team," said Lara, revelling in a chance to be the underdogs for the first time in this competition. "We are dangerous, but they are more dangerous. They are playing at their best, and I can tell from the way they are playing that they are here to make it a hat-trick of wins. They are very confident in their ability."
West Indies, however, need not be in awe of their opponents. With an attack spearheaded by the pacey Jerome Taylor, and featuring the versatile talents of Dwayne Bravo and the under-rated spin of Chris Gayle, it is a line-up far more varied than Australia's last opponents, the seam-orientated South Africans, and also far more used to the sluggish conditions of the modern-day Caribbean. "I am quietly confident that we can perform pretty well in this World Cup," said Lara. "The tournament still has a month left, and it is important to take each game at a time, and not get over-confident."
West Indies' batting is equally potent. Gayle, who creamed three of his 15 ODI centuries in last year's Champions Trophy, has been quiet so far in this tournament, but he'll have watched the ease with which South Africa's Graeme Smith and AB de Villiers climbed into Australia's new-ball attack at Basseterre. But, as ever in West Indies-Australia contests, there's one scalp which is going to be valued just that little bit higher than all the rest.
It's a fact that Lara, who loves the Australian challenge, is only too well aware of. "It is the thing that actually drives me," he said. "The thought that the opposition is going to come after the so-called key player. That's the thing that brings a positive response from somebody like myself." With scores of 87 and 71 in those two recent victories, not to mention his innumerable feats of batsmanship down the years, Australia know that to silence the captain is half the battle won.
Worryingly for Australia, Lara has thrived in the past against far more potent attacks that the one they are currently relying on. The likes of Brad Hogg, Shaun Tait and Nathan Bracken do not have the same ring to them as Shane Warne, Jason Gillespie and Glenn McGrath (circa 1998-99), but Ponting was encouraged nonetheless by the way his men stood up to South Africa on Saturday. "If we play like we did [then] I think they'll have a lot to fear," he said, "but that is up to us. I think it will take a performance similar to the one we had the other day if we are going to beat them.
"They've won a couple of games against us of late, but in the two finals we've beaten them convincingly. They are a very good one-day side, they should know these conditions better than anyone, and will have some great crowd support." It all points to yet another battle royale, as the World Cup begins to come nicely to the boil.
West Indies (probable) 1 Chris Gayle, 2 Shivnarine Chanderpaul, 3 Brian Lara (capt), 4 Ramnaresh Sarwan, 5 Marlon Samuels, 6 Dwayne Bravo, 7 Dwayne Smith, 8 Denesh Ramdin, 9 Ian Bradshaw, 10 Daren Powell, 11 Jerome Taylor.
Australia (probable) 1 Adam Gilchrist, 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.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo