If these Australians meet India in the final next Sunday it will be a great day and an appropriate end to an intriguing tournament. Before that Ricky Ponting's team must overcome strong opposition in its semi-final, to be played in Port Elizabeth, a pitch it regards with suspicion. Not that it is alone in that, for the hosts are flying down every expert on grass in the country, or anyhow those not still smoking the stuff, in an attempt to make the surface behave properly.
Still, and begging forgiveness of other contenders, it would be a most stimulating final, for here is a clash of cultures and styles, a bout between mighty forces and great players, a struggle between match-winners and spirited sodes, and a recollection of the memorable series played in India a couple of years ago.
The Indians are different. Next door Indian journalists are doing their puja. Every morning they go for walks and return with flowers that are placed before the little temple erected in their rooms. Their devotions can be heard as songs echo around the hotel. Meanwhile, last night's whisky is put away and omelets cook upon the grill. India had not expected much from this tournament because the draw was bad -- Australia, England and their nemesis, Pakistan. Moreover, their batsman had lost all confidence in New Zealand and the fall of their captain was hourly anticipated. And then, in the nick of time, the gods turned favourable. Confirmation came with a famous win over their neighbours, a win that included a shot of the utmost significance from Sachin Tendulkar, a cut for 6 played against Pakistan's fastest bowler, that brought to an end a decade of cricketing inferiority.
Thousands of Indians are flying in for the week, filling the hotels of a city that already has its own Indian newspaper, a reflection of Durban's history. These supporters are confident their team can overcome the Kenyans and reach the World Cup final. Not that Sourav Ganguly's mum will be taking anything for granted. Whenever her son plays an important match she sits in front of her temple praying to her gods, a puja that lasts till the match is over. Unable to stop his mother's prayers, Ganguly has installed a television beside the temple, a most Indian compromise
Whether or not Mr and Mrs Ponting will be praying for their offspring in deepest Mowbray cannot be said, but the Australian captain might appreciate the thought, because his team deserves a place in the final but knows there is many a slip between cup and lip. His team has a spirit of its own. Brett Lee's sixes off the last two deliveries of their match against the Kiwis told the tale. Partnered by Glenn McGrath, who had just recorded his highest score in World Cup cricket, not a difficult task since he had not previously troubled the scorers, Lee found himself facing Jacob Oram. Now, Oram is one of those bowlers the Kiwis always field against the baggy greens by way of testing their manhood. Notoriously uncertain of their masculinity, Australians speak in deep voices in advertisements and hook at every opportunity. The crafty Kiwis put the ball on the spot thereby forcing the Australians to hit out or get out. Fortunately the younger generation is not as serious and Lee laughs as other men breathe.
Lee had mayhem in mind as he faced those final deliveries. Oram's penultimate ball was directed at the batsman's toes but, like many of the shells in the Great War, fell short of its mark. Lee stood still and smote the ball a furlong over the boundary at long-on whereupon he beamed. Oram was aghast and vowed to try harder. Rather than resting on his laurels, Lee changed his approach for the next delivery, retreating to leg by way of opening up the off-side field, a strategy has not appealed to many fast bowlers. Finding the ball landing somewhere in the region, Lee lashed at it and stood imperious as the ball sailed over the boundary at deep cover. It was an astonishing stroke and had an immense impact upon the morale of the opposing forces. Lee hugged his partner as his colleagues cheered. Oram seemed close to tears. The rest was inevitable.
These Australians are exuberant. It is the mood of the entire party. When Andrew Bichel was hit on the head by a foul beamer he smiled and graciously accepted the bowler's word that the delivery had not been intended. Others might have stepped down the pitch with fisticuffs in mind and been forgiven by this correspondent anyhow. Whereas the Australians seemed tense throughout the previous World Cup, this side is enjoying itself, approaches that reflect the temperaments of the two captains. Whereas Steve Waugh resembles Clint Eastwood coming to town with vengeance in mind, Ponting is more likely to be found amongst the revelers in the tavern. Waugh needed the provocation and dangers of impending doom before he could rouse himself to his mightiest efforts; he is controlled, contained and introverted, and his team plays ruthless, aggressive, fighting and original cricket. Perhaps only the last adjective surprises, but men cannot be put in boxes and Waugh is as imaginative as he is tough. For goodness sake do not tell him, but he has a lot in common with Ganguly!
Ponting has put his own stamp upon the team. He relishes life, and does not waste much time in contemplation. Australia was hardened by Border, advanced by Taylor and challenged by Waugh. Perhaps it will be released by Ponting. This World Cup has confirmed the vital part played by captains in the formation and outlook of cricket teams. In their own ways Ponting, Ganguly, Fleming, Tikolo and Jayasuriya have moulded their sides. These are men of character and personality, and it shows. Ganguly has his prayers and his fatalism. Ponting has his wits about him. Denied a duel between Tendulkar and Lara, cricket needs these sides to meet at Wanderers next Sunday.