Whether it's because they are reigning champions or because the format is the same, one finds oneself continuing to draw comparisons between Australia's current World Cup campaign and the previous one. This has been an utterly different Cup for the Australians, which is instructive in itself.
In '99, Australia fell behind early and faced elimination at every juncture. This time around, they are on a record 14-game ODI winning streak, and with Kenya their third Super Six game it seems certain will have to remain undefeated to win the Cup. They have been tested, had some superlative periods and some mediocre ones, have won matches both comfortably and from extraordinary positions. Yet, in a sense, Australia's World Cup has not even started yet.
Having performed to expectations since the start of the tournament, the Australians would have fully expected to be in this position. Psychologically, the group stage seemed clinched after the first two games against Pakistan and India. The Super Six stage, what was sudden death through all three games last time, began pressure-free with semifinal qualification virtually assured and top positioning within easy reach, soon secured.
There have been obstacles, off the field and on, with injuries, a Warne controversy, and comebacks necessitated in three games (vs Pakistan at 86/4, England at 135/8, and New Zealand at 84/7). To say Australia have cruised to this point would be way off. But it has been a focussed, well-managed campaign to date, with everything required done, and each challenge met. It has, in short, continued to be an excellent preparation -- the truly demanding part of the tournament is about to commence.
All qualifiers will likely be judged by how they play in the semi-finals on, but particularly Australia, because this is what was expected of them. They will go from a position of safety these past few weeks to one in which everything is suddenly at stake. Unlike last time, when that feeling characterized their tournament, now it becomes a considerable jump to make.
When the semi-finals arrive, there can be no bad days, otherwise everything else will have been relatively meaningless. The preparation Ricky Ponting's men have had for this transition is undoubtedly better than the alternative, but there must be an awareness of the need to guard against not complacency, for that would be outrageous, but of having developed a mindset in which they subconsciously expect performance to come too easily. Ponting -- who has so far proven himself a capable, no-nonsense leader to whom his team responds, thus far refuting critics who felt Australia would miss Waugh's experienced hand in the pressure of a World Cup -- must ensure that is not the case, particularly since his team's semi-final will be at Port Elizabeth.
There have been signs of the batsmen expecting to impose themselves, rather than adapting to the reality, in two of the last three games, both admittedly in awkward conditions. Against England, Matthew Hayden's head appeared to be elsewhere as the top order perished to aggressive shots on a slow pitch, saved from defeat only by the superb unbroken partnership of 73 for the ninth wicket by Bevan and Bichel and England's timidity.
Despite that preparation and the awareness to expect more of the same from New Zealand, the top order still succumbed on a slow, springy track, as it was evident for all to see why Australia would prefer to see New Zealand eliminated from the tournament.
The Kiwis are not at all intimidated by their trans-Tasman rivals, the team they perceive to be traditional bullies. New Zealand did to Australia what Australia do to others. Batsmen were attacked like they had glaring weaknesses waiting to be exploited -- Vettori was introduced in the fourth over to bowl spin to the powerful openers, Martyn saw fielders swarm the point region, Lehmann found a leg slip. If nothing else, it conveys the message that the opposition believe you are susceptible to a plan, and intend to make it work. It shouldn't be that hard to implement, so it's a wonder more teams don't copy the approach. Of course, a genuinely threatening pace bowler like Shane Bond helps.
Again, only tremendously spirited batting by Bichel and Bevan got them to a competitive total. With the runs he's making at Port Elizabeth, Bichel may offer himself and Bevan as openers for the semi-final. Seriously, if pitch conditions are similar, and depending on opponents, Hayden, Gilchrist and Ponting may have to bat more circumspectly. In between the two games mentioned was the massacre by Gilchrist and Ponting of a woeful Sri Lanka, so it's only a question of adapting approach.
Previously, the desire had been to avoid the potential lottery of a day/night semi-final in Durban, but now Port Elizabeth is also a venue to be treated with caution. The semi-final schedule is perplexing. In addition to the possible variance in conditions within the Durban game, it was already somewhat inequitable that only one semi was to be a day game, and that the first would be played two days before the second, allowing that winner extra rest and preparation. However, nobody protested when the schedule was announced, so it's too late now, although if their tie-breaking complaint is any indication Sri Lanka may yet claim that their interpretation of "D/N" on the fixture list was that it stood for "Day in Durban". It's amazing important points of procedure weren't clarified beforehand.
The New Zealand game was also a test passed by Australia's evolving bowling attack, forced to defend a low total for the first time in the tournament. Despite neither McGrath (save for his wicket-taking deliveries) nor Lee bowling particularly well in their first spells, Harvey, Bichel and eventually Lee responded to the pressure. Whatever happens to Australia from the semi-finals on, let's be clear: their fate is unlikely to be due to poor leadership. Errors in strategy, possibly, and if there is then Ponting may still get harshly judged. On the whole, however, he has already shown enough to prove he is a worthy successor to Waugh.
The only area of concern is temperament. In this regard, Ponting can still appear more 'one of the boys' than a leader, not necessarily a bad thing but worrying when it manifests itself as poor behaviour. Upon the crucial wicket of Cairns, Ponting went out of his way, in front of the umpire, to have words with the bemused departing batsman. Innocent or not, it still showed lack of self-control and was unacceptable from the captain. As the stakes get higher, so too must Ponting's awareness of his responsibilities, which this incident apart he appears to have met with aplomb.
Australia have rightly focussed on themselves in this campaign, for it is ensuring the flawless execution of their own approach, rather than finding ways to overcome a superior opponent, that will likely dictate whether they become the first team to win three World Cups. Without disrespecting Sri Lanka or Kenya -- particularly the latter, impressively disciplined and who so nearly silenced critics of their Super Six berth with an upset against India -- if India can defeat New Zealand then from Australia's perspective, at least, genuine contenders will have been reduced to two.
As others have fallen by the wayside, Australia and India are the only two Test nations right now playing cricket worthy of the semi-finals. On current form, it would be a welcome final confrontation.