Australia v New Zealand, Super Eights, Grenada

Watson prayers answered as Australia eye finish line

Peter English

April 20, 2007

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Happy return: Shane Watson is satisfied and stunned with his 65 from 32 balls © Getty Images

The finals finally start next week but the increased importance of the affairs will not change Australian moods. For Ricky Ponting's men every game has been for the trophy since they brushed aside South Africa in the group stage. In the past six weeks they have damaged the morale of more nations than 18th century imperialists on a rampage that has been ruthless and surprisingly easy.

Further encouragement came with another strong-arm display against a New Zealand side resting Jacob Oram and Shane Bond - were they really sick and injured? There weren't many doubts before the match, but Australia were able to cross out any lingering concerns when Michael Hussey booked his longest batting appointment of the tournament and Shane Watson excelled in his comeback from a calf injury.

The prayer meetings of Australia's inner circle worked for Watson's fitness. He thumped 65 from 32 balls, including a cover-driven six to finish the innings, as the side earned its fifth 300-plus total of the event and completed his all-round duties with five overs and the wicket of James Franklin. While his pace was down his run-up was energetic and he tested himself with a couple of bouncers. Most importantly there was no hint of a limp and the purposeful strides were on display throughout the team from Matthew Hayden through to Glenn McGrath.

After the batsmen stomped over New Zealand's under-strength attack Australia's bowlers continued the severe treatment. McGrath and Shaun Tait are an irresistible combination and their early burst ensured there would be no repeats of the devastation caused by Stephen Fleming's side during the Chappell-Hadlee Series.

Behind the frontline Brad Hogg again provided the perfect back-up and his four wickets put him level with Muttiah Muralitharan on 19. Batsmen have found net run-rate calculations easier to read than Hogg's variations and the New Zealanders were baffled in 6.5 overs.

The most significant wicket was the final one of Peter Fulton, who went within one dismissal of carrying his bat. Trying to sweep, he mistook the flighted wrong'un for a legspinner and was bowled behind his legs. Hogg confuses qualified batsmen and tail-enders in equal measure, although he will never be able to match Murali's mastery. His role will again be crucial against the heavy-footed hitters of South Africa in St Lucia on Wednesday.

Australia, who are unbeaten in 27 World Cup games, plan a day of relaxation before flying while New Zealand's recovery must start immediately. Slipping in a dead-rubber game towards the end of a long event is not a terminal error, although this was a record defeat. The refocusing will start, two essential members will return to face Sri Lanka in Jamaica on Tuesday and the pain of the loss will create a desire for improvement.

It is hard to tell where Australia can lift. They have played at the same intimidating pace over two months and have covered all aspects except one. Without any severe challenges they have no idea how they will respond if they are put under sustained pressure. If that doesn't happen the World Cup will be taken without much sweat.

Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo

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