It's fair to say that a two-day one-day game was not what Brian Lara had in mind when he won the toss and chose to bowl under heavy cloud cover yesterday morning. With a tricky tussle against New Zealand fast approaching on Thursday, it was with some dejection that he faced the media at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in Antigua this afternoon. His personal success, a fine back-to-the-wall 77, couldn't mask a collective team failure. Australia's eventual margin of 103 runs was by no means flattering.
"They look like a team that have come here for one purpose," Lara said, breathing a quiet sigh of relief that his players would not have to face them again in their bid for a semi-final slot. Australia have now won 22 of their last 23 matches in World Cup competitions dating back to 1999 - a run that has been interrupted only by that famous tie at Edgbaston. That blip against England and New Zealand at the tail-end of the Australian summer now looks like a greater anomaly than ever.
"Two weeks ago everyone said we weren't frightening, now all of a sudden we are again - it's a funny game," Ricky Ponting said in a gleeful attack on his team's critics. "Our squad hasn't changed in that time. You hear about other sides saying they don't fear us, and don't fear anything we have to offer. Well, it's all right saying that, but you have to go out there and play a certain brand of cricket to back that up. So far they haven't done that."
West Indies were never in the contest today. Realistically there was only one man in the side with both the batting position and the range of strokes to mount an assault on Australia's towering target - Chris Gayle, whose booming left-handed strokeplay has the potential to cut any new ball to ribbons. But, as if to underline what a superlative innings Matthew Hayden had played in the first innings of this match, Gayle emulated only the very start of that performance. After grinding his way to 2 from 16 balls, he lost his rag and his wicket, and holed out to cover the moment Glenn McGrath entered the attack.
"We are a very good chasing team, but the most important thing about 300-plus totals is that one of the top batters has to bat through," Lara said. "To lose three wickets in under ten overs was a major setback. Myself and [Ramnaresh] Sarwan had to consolidate and rebuild and that used up a lot of balls. If Australia had made 50-60 runs less, or if there'd been a proper start from the West Indies, it could have been a different game."
Hayden, by comparison, had taken 18 balls to get off the mark, but having done so, he cut loose in a manner that led Lara, perhaps unfairly, to castigate the pitch for being far too flat for international cricket. Hayden and Gayle's early travails against the new ball suggested otherwise. "I think I was guessing where my next run was going to come from," Hayden said afterwards, "because it was a pretty vast difference between the conditions in St Kitts and here.
"If they do bowl well you're not willing to take a risk. I was just trying to stay calm and make sure when I did take a risk it was going to be in my favour. I've had to show a lot of commitment and passion, first to get back into the one-day side - and in particular, to represent Australia at the World Cup."
Australia have now posted 300-plus totals in each of their last six one-day internationals, and Hayden, whose one-day career seemed to be over when he was axed after the 2005 tour of England, has played a massive part in that achievement, scoring three hundreds and a 60 in those games, including a career-best 181 not out at Hamilton.
"It took a lot to get [back] into this position - and I'm just very pleased for the supporters, selectors and Ricky that it is paying off," he said. "I said when I got dropped a couple of years back that I didn't feel I was ready to let the game go - that world-class players play both forms of the game. I'm just very happy that it's coming off right now. It's a special side to be a part of - and it's never meant to be an easy thing to play for Australia."
It certainly seems easier to play for them than against them at present. Witness the success of Brad Hogg, an unorthodox and under-rated spinner, who has been widely perceived as the weakest link in Australia's attack. He was actively targeted by South Africa in St Kitts last week, but has emerged not only unscathed but at the very summit of the wicket-taker's list, with 11 victims in four matches.
"I reckon I was bowling better before the tournament started than I am now, but it's just funny how the wickets drop for you," Hogg said, whose haul of 3 for 56 today included the big wicket of Lara, who yorked himself as he went for a big charge down the pitch. His position in the side owes plenty to the arm injury that has hindered Andrew Symonds as a spin option, but on current form he is going to take plenty to budge.
Ponting was adamant too that his team contained men for all occasions. The nagging doubts about the bowling (all of which stem from those gargantuan run-chases in New Zealand last month) are assuaged with every crushing victory that the team delivers, but he felt certain that, come the crunch situation, he had the players in whom he could trust.
"We've been able to beat teams pretty comfortably over the years, but one thing about us is that when the close games have come around that is when we've been at our absolute best," Ponting said. "There are a lot of champion players in this side who are at their best when it gets tight.
"Going back a year ago, we had some sort of record that sides chasing 220 or so against us didn't get them. We're bowling well against good batting sides, so you have to hang in there for an opportunity to present itself - or create an opportunity. That is what we have done well in the last couple of games."
Australia, freed from the surreal environment in St Kitts where they played like great white sharks in a paddling pool, are looking frighteningly efficient and focussed. "They were impressive but we didn't put them under pressure at all," Lara said. "I wouldn't say that they were tested." More to the point, Australia didn't permit themselves to be tested. They were simply too dominant in all facets.