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Aussies relishing the challenge

By Peter Roebuck
March 11, 2003 22:29 IST
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Australia has secured another incredible victory. Every time Ricky Ponting's team is down it rises, dusts itself off and sets about winning the match. They may not be the best team, but they count amongst the liveliest and most natural. Ponting and his merry men seem to be enjoying their cricket. Whereas other teams have seemed burdened by expectation or inhibited by calculation, the Australians appear to be relishing the challenge and appreciating the opportunity. Doubtless, the arrival of livewires like Brad Hogg has helped. Brett Lee is also astonishingly cheerful, especially when hurling down reverse swinging yorkers and bumpers with his open chested action. In contrast, Nasser Hussain seemed constipated whilst Shaun Pollock was earnest.

After the excitement of the afternoon and the brilliance of the fightback, it seems churlish to mention that the Australians batted horribly in the morning. Sooner or later these fellows will work out a way of playing in Port Elizabeth that does not involve Michael Bevan and Andrew Bichel appearing on the scene like the car mechanic on a wet afternoon. Twice, these Australians have put themselves in peril. Twice, the aforementioned gentlemen have saved the day. Adapting to conditions is part and parcel of cricket. Next time the Aussies play at St George's someone must bring one of those old road signs saying "Drive with due care and attention".

Hitherto, the Australians have resembled Michael Schumacher in a traffic jam. Every time they bat on this slow pitch they look vulnerable. If the Kiwis lose on Friday it might not matter, for then Ponting and chums may find themselves in the curious position of playing Kenya twice in the last few days of a World Cup. If this happens, no sympathy need be felt for the New Zealanders. Teams entering an international competition must fulfill their obligations to the organisers and rivals. Only spectators will suffer from the anticipated mismatch. Moreover, the Kiwis have lost almost as many matches as the Sri Lankans, another likely semi-finalist in a tournament dominated by two teams.

If the Aussies meet a powerful opponent in a semi-final to be played on this ground they will need to improve. Most of them have played county cricket where holding pitches appear as regularly as porridge on the menu of the best boarding schools. Nonetheless, the batsmen did not play the right strokes. Matthew Hayden is having such a rough time that he went surfing. Alas, the crashing waves did not bring illumination and he nibbled like a dieting lady at a cream bun.

Adam Gilchrist was contained by bowlers directing their attentions at his pads and soon returned to the pavilion. Ponting fretted, swatted as if with a newspaper at a wasp, and departed. Darren Lehmann went on his travels, Damien Martyn responded to provocative fields with innovative leg-side play before joining the nibblers, and Brad Hogg did not survive a yorker that landed on his foot. Justice cannot be done to Ian Harvey's innings within the confines of a family newspaper.

Admittedly the pitch was damp and Shane Bond was bowling like a Kiwi paceman with Australians is his sights. Moreover, Stephen Fleming was managing his forces with such aplomb that ten bob was looking like a fortune. Nonetheless, the Australians had only themselves to blame for their predicament. Fortunately, Bevan and Bichel, whose eventful day included the sort of bang on the head even Queenslanders must feel, set about rebuilding the innings with the same gusto seen against England.

Bevan's contribution must not be taken for granted for he was under just as much pressure as a Test batsman. No cricketer in the short history of these matches has had a better sense of timing an innings. Opponents must try denying him singles early in his innings, forcing him to hit over the top. Once he settles he moves slowly into command, pushing the field back with deft placements and surgical flicks of the wrist. Partners seem inspired by his calm manner and practical approach. Bevan even hooked a bumper, hitting the ball hard and on the ground forward of square.

Bichel was defiant and uncomplicated. By playing his strokes he eases the burden on his partner. He did not look like getting out, which also helped, and struck the ball powerfully off both feet. His cut and drive are particularly effective and he plays them properly. Australia has been searching for all-rounders and did not think to look in the direction of Bichel and Lehmann.

No-one could accuse these Australians of being dull. There is nothing mechanical about their cricket. In many respects, it is more Ponting and Launceston than it is John Buchanan or Bankstown. Along the way the team has lost two great bowlers, one of them to diuretics. Shane Watson is missing and the batting is collapsing more often than a deckchair in a strong wind. It has not been an orthodox campaign. Australia has been playing with fire. Besides controlling his temper, Ponting may need to backburn a little so that the next conflagration does not devour his team before it can leave Port Elizabeth and reach Johannesburg, where Sachin and his boys could be waiting.

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Peter Roebuck