No chinks apparent in Australia's armour
Is there a weakness in this Australian side? Who knows it? It's been 27 matches and eight years since they were beaten in a World Cup. With every passing day in this competition their aura grows stronger, their stature more forbidding. On Monday a member of the coaching staff flung balls at close range to Ricky Ponting and the captain kept pouching them as nonchalantly as snapping his fingers. Brad Hogg was in a boxing drill. Matthew Hayden was swinging ball after ball out of the practice area. Even at training they have such a presence. It is said the law of averages must catch up with them. Yes, but whose averages?
In any event they had five losses on the run before coming to the Caribbean so that takes care of averages for a couple of years. There's been all this talk of peaking early but Ponting would have nothing of it. More left in the tank? "Absolutely. All that we've done in the tournament so far is play somewhere near our best, individually and as a team. Until individual performances start surprising me we've always got room for improvement. I haven't been surprised with anything so far." Well.
Try another one. Fair to say they have not been challenged? "It depends how you regard being challenged. We've challenged ourselves through the tournament. We've made 377 against South Africa last time. That's a challenge in itself. You have to do that. I think to win the last two games the way we have against Sri Lanka and New Zealand, we challenged ourselves a lot in those games. We'll challenge ourselves again [against South Africa] and if we get stiffer opposition then it should be a great game."
If there's one thing this South African team has shown it is that they have it in them to take on Australia at their own game. Everyone remembers the miracle at Wanderers, and St Kitts last month for a while threatened to go the same way. Then Shane Watson made a direct hit - from the backward square-leg boundary. The moral of the story seemed to be: whatever the situation, the Australians seemed to have a man for the moment.
But South Africa will have to do more than match Australia for power-hitting: they will need precision, control, nous and energy required to penetrate them. If South Africa are able to make inroads with the ball, it will be a first in the tournament. Australia have not lost more than six wickets in an innings in the entire World Cup. Five out of nine times they've put up more than 300; whenever they haven't they've been chasing with insulting ease.
Only three times in nine games has their opening stand put on less than 50; on both those occasions the second-wicket partnership did. Hayden has demolished all comers. And as he says, even if, say, Watson was to get a blob on Wednesday he'd still average 142 for the tournament. "As a batting unit we're very proud," he said. "We've had some unbelievable achievements."
|The open architecture which allows breeze and the reasonable boundary size will probably make spin a factor, and while Australia have the left-arm mysteries of Hogg, South Africa have, well, Graeme Smith - assuming that they will, as they should, prefer their more accomplished fast bowlers to Robin Peterson|
Indeed, so dominant has been the Australian top order that it's been easy to overlook their bowling. Yet, look at the tables. Before the first semi-final the leading wicket-taker was Glenn McGrath with 22. The contrasting figures of Brad Hogg and Shaun Tait have 19 each.
It is difficult to say just which breed will stand to benefit from the surface at Beausejour. Hayden, who spent a fair amount of time knocking about the ground on Monday, thought the surface to be the best he's seen all tournament. "It's superb, very even." It might be a difficult decision at the toss, Ponting suggested. "This morning it would have been a bowl-first wicket because there was a bit of moisture around but the covers had only been off for about half an hour before we got here," he said. "The groundsman assures me they will be off at about 5am tomorrow so it should be a little bit drier."
The open architecture which allows breeze and the reasonable boundary size will probably make spin a factor, and while Australia have the left-arm mysteries of Hogg, South Africa have, well, Graeme Smith - assuming that they will, as they should, prefer their more accomplished fast bowlers to Robin Peterson.
Australia remain unchanged, Ponting announced. But then not much has changed with them all World Cup.
Australia 1 Matthew Hayden, 2 Adam Gilchrist (wk), 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.
Rahul Bhattacharya is author of Pundits from Pakistan: On Tour with India, 2003-04