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There's always Bevan and Bichel...

By Daniel Laidlaw
March 18, 2003 12:38 IST
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For Ricky Ponting, Australia's final Super Six fixture against Kenya on Saturday was a "statement game". It's just that the statement made was the opposite of what he desired.

"We can use the match to make a statement of intent for the rest of the tournament," Ponting had told Reuters. "If we can come out and play really well against a Kenya side that has just beaten Zimbabwe and given India a run for their money, it might mean something to the other sides we have still got to play."

Sceptical souls might have felt Ponting's desire to make a "statement" against Kenya was a way of covering up the unwelcome batting collapse in the preceding game against New Zealand, which surely makes more of a statement to opponents than thumping a non-Test playing team. In fact, the Kenya game did make a kind of statement, just not for the reasons Ponting wanted.

Despite a Brett Lee hat-trick reducing them to 3/3, Kenya made the first statement by defying Australia for 50 overs for the loss of eight wickets. An opportunity to make a personal statement before the semi-finals was then missed by an out-of-sorts Matthew Hayden, who needed some time in the middle but instead took risks and found mid wicket with a pull shot when 20 off 14.

What would really have "meant something" to Australia's semi-final opponents, however, was the performance of Asif Karim. The 39-year-old left-arm orthodox, with no previous wickets in the tournament, caused Australia to stumble to 117/5 with figures of 8.2-6-7-3. Beautifully landing the ball on a spot, in the space of eight deliveries the insurance broker trapped Ponting in front with a wicked arm ball, had Lehmann caught behind also deceived by the arm ball and Hogg caught and bowled. If this was a statement, it is one of which the Sri Lankans will have taken heed.

Muttiah Muralitharan, described by Ponting in the lead-up as a "freakish sort of bowler", announced the obvious when he said Australia has a weakness against spin. Specifically, though, it is either quality off-spin or, at one-day level, the slow, difficult-to-hit variety purveyed by Karim -- and usually on pitches which suit it. Which is exactly what Sri Lanka bring to the table with Murali, Aravinda de Silva, Jayasuriya and Arnold on an unpredictable St George's Park pitch.

While promising Kenyan leg-spinner Collins Obuya was collared by Adam Gilchrist, confronting Sri Lanka's surfeit of tweakers on a difficult wicket on which they have suffered two previous collapses against England and New Zealand is a cause for concern for the record-breaking defending champions. It was Sri Lanka, of course, who eliminated Australia in the semi-finals of last September's Champions Trophy when they were dismissed for 162 on a slow turner. It was also Sri Lanka who inflicted Australia's last defeat, 16 games ago, when they bounced back from being routed for 65 by Australia A two days previous to post 343. However, Australia beat Sri Lanka in the other three games of January's tri-series and, most recently, crushed them on a good wicket at Centurion after scoring 319.

Muralitharan's only wicket in the Super Six game 11 days ago was Matthew Hayden, wrongly adjudged caught at silly point. Instead of being tools to frustrate Australia, Sanath Jayasuriya turned to his spinners in desperation after seamers Gunaratne and Vaas were smashed off their length, Aravinda as early as the tenth over. De Silva returned 0/36 off 5 overs while Jayasuriya finished with 0/59 off 10 and Arnold 0/21 from 2, which helps explain why pitch conditions are a prime consideration when playing Sri Lanka, and the state of the wicket for the semi-final a massive x-factor.

If it is slow and turns, then Sri Lanka's chances increase exponentially, as the Australians will have difficulty going after the ball with it not coming on to the bat. Adam Gilchrist said on television during the Super Six encounter that in the past Australia had looked to the boundaries too much against the spinners, whereas on that occasion they looked to take singles. If the pitch is a slow one, that will again be crucial. Anything else, however, and the odds heavily favour Australia.

While the prospect of a poor wicket for a World Cup semi-final is a concern for all, it needs remembering that in the two games at Port Elizabeth in which Australia were on the verge of defeat, only to be brilliantly saved by Bevan and Bichel both times, it was the fast men who prospered. Bichel bagged 7/20 against England by swinging the ball from a full length, and Andrew Caddick took out the Aussie top order. On a springier but still slow pitch against New Zealand, Shane Bond captured 6/23 while Vettori took 0/40, and it was Lee who blasted through the Kiwi lower order with a spell of 5/3. Craig White's off-cutters were virtually unplayable, so if conditions were similar it could actually be a medium pacer like Ian Harvey who benefits most. A spinners' pitch, indeed.

In the Super Six, Sri Lanka's weakness against pace and the frailty of their bowling attack when Vaas does not strike early was exposed. Against Australia, Ponting and Gilchrist dominated, before the top order was shaken up by Lee. Against India, Tendulkar and Sehwag profited, while Srinath induced the collapse.

Beyond Jayasuriya, who they believe has been worked out by Lee, Sri Lanka's batsmen should instil no fear in Australia. Atapattu possesses class but will be challenged to reproduce the form shown against South Africa and Zimbabwe, while Aravinda is a concern only if the top four flourish. His spectacular 92 against Australia came after the game had been effectively decided.

The Australians have lost Damien Martyn to a fractured finger but it is almost a blessing in disguise, as it means the selectors don't have to choose between Symonds and Harvey. Hayden is due for a big innings, the pace attack will be expected to do damage again, and Gilchrist and Ponting have shown form.

Should that not work out, and the Aussies indeed do find themselves faced with disaster, no matter. There's always Bevan and Bichel.

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