A group of Australians who grew up with World Series Cup addictions are in danger of letting the final two versions of the tournament slip into overseas hands. In the 1980s, when most of them were impressionable children in awe of the action in coloured clothes, the prize at the end of the one-day competition seemed the most sparkling of the summer.
School was either rushed home from or avoided and parents were begged to let the children stay up till the end of the day-nighters. The decade was a tough one for Australia in Tests, but there was always hope in limited overs. For more than two decades the tri-series, which evolved to take on cigarette, beer and bank naming rights, was also the magnet of the masses, but the concept has waned and in this event the Australian batsmen have looked the most jaded.
Last year England surprised the hosts to take the trophy and this defining campaign started with a six-wicket defeat against an Indian side that is currently filled with more discipline and desire. The home players have spoken about their desperation to succeed to send the tournament off in style, but, like many events this summer, the talk has over-ridden the action.
Australia entered the game after a disastrous batting performance in Sri Lanka on Friday and insisted nothing was wrong. The display was dissected as a one-off, but the problem has afflicted Ricky Ponting's men throughout February and now into March. The 317 they reached in Sydney a week ago was the exception in a series of run-making under-achievement.
In the preliminary rounds Australia's bowlers were able to mask the weakness with outstanding returns against opponents who were also struggling to find batting fluency. This time they were merely good against the magic of Sachin Tendulkar, who when troubled by tight lines and restrictive fielding found ways around, through and over. Defending 239 is virtually impossible when someone gets a hundred, especially when it's as smooth and calculated as Tendulkar's.
It was a busy night for the Australian attack after it was responsible for the team's target being so high. Brett Lee bustled for 17 and Brad Hogg scurried for 23 to boost the total following the misadventures of the specialists above them.
Matthew Hayden tried to hold everything together with a well-paced 82, but when he erred in top-edging Harbhajan Singh to deep square leg the score was a hairy 5 for 135 and the innings was barely halfway over. The dismissal was costly for someone who was so set, although without Hayden's earlier focus the game would have been over hours before.
The flawed judgments of Adam Gilchrist and Ricky Ponting started the problems for the home side against one fabulous bowler in Ishant Sharma and a medium-pacer in Praveen Kumar. Gilchrist and Ponting were determined to attack the easier threat and it was a terminal mistake. Having watched Gilchrist miscue a pull on a pitch that needed some patience to understand, Ponting tried the same shot on 1 and was bowled off an under-edge. Two for 19 became 3 for 24 when Michael Clarke was given out incorrectly to a wonderful off-cutter from Ishant, but after a much-needed partnership of 100 between Symonds and Hayden the lapses started again.
|Losing the final couple of home tri-series tournaments is not the way to treat an event that has formed such a part in the early lives of these players|
In the team buzzwords "build partnerships" is mentioned as often as "execute plans" and "bowl in the right areas". Nine runs after Symonds went picking out Praveen at deep midwicket, Hayden did the same with his top edge. In the 40th over it would have been understandable, but not in the 28th. Ricky Ponting called the period the game's defining moment.
Michael Hussey worked well with the lower order to scramble a total that seemed competitive until Tendulkar warmed up and deflated Australia's in-form weapons. Instead the target proved too small and the batsmen have more to haze their already busy minds. These below-par returns can no longer be written off as a bad day-night.
If the tournament means as much to the local men as they say it does then they have to call a crisis meeting and deal with their problems. There can be no more pretending because in Brisbane on Tuesday there will be no room to wriggle.
Australia are facing the same scenario as last year and if there is no improvement another 2-0 loss can be expected. Losing the final couple of home tri-series tournaments is not the way to treat an event that has formed such a part in the early lives of these players.
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo