Monday, 5 March 2007

The Imponderables

Just 8 days to the start of the jamboree and having looked at the minnows and those teams who I feel will definitely come up short in the Super 8 stage, I’m turning my attention to two teams who have been heading in very different directions over the last month.

A month ago, Australia were the masters of all they surveyed. The Ashes were in the bag and they were running away with the Commonwealth bank series. John Buchanan was even publicly deriding England and New Zealand for not giving his team enough competition. Then, the wheels fell off in spectacular fashion. England’s win in the group stages was surely just a hic-cup, the last desperate throw of the dice. However, the two games that then followed may have changed the fortunes of both teams for the forthcoming tournament.

Still favourites to retain the World Cup, but not everything in the garden is rosy. The three defeats in a row to England were followed by three defeats to New Zealand and a spate of worrying injuries. Definitely out is Brett Lee. Struggling to get back to fitness are Michael Clarke, Andrew Symonds and Matt Haydon. And Adam Gilchrist is on paternity leave and likely to miss the start of the tournament.

Having said all of that, any team with Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey is going to be able to score enough runs. Neither look as spectacular as the likes of Jayasuria or Pietersen, but Hussey’s strike rate is over 90 runs per hundred balls and Ponting’s is none to shabby at nearly 80. With both coming in after Gilchrist and Hayden have got them off to a flier, the secret of the success is clear to see. However, with both Gilchrist and Hayden likely to be missing the start of the tournament, this way of playing may be put to the test.

More worrying for Australia is their bowling attack, which looks more and more reliant on the aging Glenn McGrath. Stuart Clark may bring some stability, but the younger speedsters have looked erratic in the warm up games while Brad Hogg won’t strike the same fear into the opposition batsmen that Shane Warne does. Also, with Clarke and Symonds injured, the fielding does not have the same menace that it did.

Having said all of that, they will probably go on and win the tournament at a canter. However, if they don’t get Symonds and Hayden back for the Super 8 stage, a shock early exit could well be on the cards.

A month ago, you’d have put good money on England going out at the Super 8 stage, and would have had difficulty in finding a team that they could beat. However, it was not just the wins over Australia that give hope, but two equally good wins against New Zealand in the Commonwealth Bank series and all without the talismanic Kevin Pietersen, Ricky Ponting’s only contender for best One Day batsman in the world.

England’s one day form reached its lowest ebb for some time with the disastrous series against Sri Lanka last summer. A series of humiliating defeats effectively ending the International career of parts of the squad. However, a bright light to come out of that was Jamie Dalrymple as a genuine off-spinning all-rounder. Other than Dalrymple, the only other bowler who played in that match to make the final squad is Liam Plunkett, who’s stock has risen thanks to a series of greatly improved performances against Australia and New Zealand. The restoration of Flintoff to the bowling attack and the emergence of Monty Panesar means that there is much greater control than before. Indeed, if the pitches do play as slow and low as predicted, Paul Collingwood and Ravi Bopara could also emerge as critical bowlers.

The return to form of Collingwood on the batting front, however, has been the main reason for England’s resurgence with 296 runs in his last three innings, England have managed to score runs, despite the lack of Pietersen. Add KP to the mix and England are able to dream again. With Michael Vaughan looking like he should be fit to open the innings, England are for once left with a selection dilemma and Andrew Strauss may find himself as the extra man.

Vaughan has described the team as the competition’s dark horses. If all goes to form, then England should be heading home after the Super 8 phase. However, with a new belief, with Vaughan taking the pressure off Flintoff, with KP firing and a bit of luck along the way, England’s first World Cup triumph may not be the far fetched notion that we all thought it was at the start of the winter.

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