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Aussies deserving finalists

By Daniel Laidlaw
March 19, 2003 17:20 IST
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Harbhajan Singh thinks India "deserve" to win the World Cup. If India do manage to triumph now and delight the game's largest supporter base, they will indeed have deserved it, for it means they will have overcome the most "deserving" team of the other semi-final -- Australia.

To be honest, it's a relief the Australians are through, if for no other reason than India are now forced to defeat their most demanding opponent if they are to take the Cup, and one half of the best possible final is complete. Without pre-empting the result of the second semi-final, an India-Sri Lanka contest would have been an anti-climax. India need to be challenged, and while no team could be begrudged its success in a final, Sri Lanka would not have challenged them in anything like the way Australia and India might test each other on Sunday.

If it's acceptable to make claims over who is deserving and who isn't, then Sri Lanka did not deserve to reach the final. Conditions and intelligent bowling by the tournament's leading wicket-taker Chaminda Vaas presented them with an opportunity, but once again Sri Lanka's batting failed when the heat was applied by a determined, motivated opponent.

Those hoping for Sri Lanka to capitalise on Australia's weaknesses either in the interests of seeing the top dogs eliminated, advancing India's cause, or both, will have had some cause for foreboding by the manner in which Australia fought to stay in the game, pressed for control and then zealously cut through the opposition. In a tense, for the most part finely balanced game, Australia ultimately had too much team spirit, too much firepower. They responded to and then revelled in the pressure of the occasion, in what might prove to be one of the landmark games of Ponting's captaincy.

Australia are by no means perfect or unbeatable -- no team is, particularly in the limited-overs game, despite a world record winning streak -- but the semi-final showed, again, just how spirited and inspired they can be under pressure. The batting is not, collectively, functioning as fluently as would be ideal, but while important partnerships continue to be formed and different individuals rise to the occasion when required, it cannot be said that it is faltering or has specific areas of weaknesses. And with the ball and in the field, the Australians have proven they can defend anything over 200, their attack often overwhelming.

Australia has experience at protecting low totals in semi-finals. In '96, Warne bowled them to a miraculous comeback win over West Indies. In '99, it was The Tie (Warne, again, the catalyst). Here, under Ponting, the ferocity and pace of Lee was the difference in the defence. Not that one would have expected it to be otherwise, but Ponting showed his team can play just as fearlessly under threat of elimination.

The start of Sri Lanka's innings was a pivotal time, as it always would be chasing a small target. Marvan Atapattu emerged full of confidence and intent, hooking the last ball of McGrath's first over for four, and 16 were on the board after two overs as Lee, who failed to adjust to conditions in the first spell of his two previous games at Port Elizabeth, again bowled too short. In Lee's next over, Atapattu was dropped at cover point by Hogg. Australia had no control over the innings, anxiety evident.

That changed when Lee bowled Atapattu with a 160km rocket the following ball. Not immediately – Jayasuriya still flicked him into the stands -- but it was graphic evidence of the length Lee needed to bowl to all batsmen bar Jayasuriya. Short at the body is the preferred method to Jayasuriya, who Lee struck on the arm again, and when the captain steered a McGrath short ball to square leg, beaten almost for lack of pace, it was partly the result of having been softened up by Lee.

From that time, Australia did not relinquish control, Sri Lanka unable to come to terms with Lee's pace from a good length, as Tillekeratne edged behind a fast away-going delivery and an outclassed Gunawardene offering Ponting catching practice at second slip. Victory had been scented.

The decisive blow, however, was the run out of Aravinda de Silva. The retiring veteran had struck two magnificently timed cover drives off an otherwise immaculate McGrath and with the ball flying off the middle of his bat, had the potential to resuscitate an ailing Lanka. It just wouldn't be a Port Elizabeth game, though, without an inspiring contribution from Andy Bichel.

First, Bichel scored a valuable 19 not out from 21 balls, including a straight six, to give his team a late boost and take his batting average at the ground to 117 in three games. Then, first ball of his spell, Sangakkara turned him to mid wicket, Bichel sprinted after the ball on his follow through, turned, switched hands, and threw down the stumps at the keeper's end. It was a classic piece of work, all heart and commitment, and meant Australia could then gradually squeeze the life out of Sri Lanka, in which Bichel played no small with a disciplined line and length.

With the bat, Australia actually did not do too much wrong, despite the precarious nature of the innings. The close catchers in front of the wicket reflected Sri Lanka's strategy of keeping the ball up and exploiting the slowness of the pitch, which Vaas did cleverly with off-cutters to Ponting and Hayden, caught at mid off and mid wicket respectively driving too early. That opened up the middle order for Muralitharan, after Gilchrist had earlier walked after being given not out edging a sweep off Aravinda. The Sri Lankans could scarcely believe the decision and were no less incredulous at Gilchrist's abrupt departure. Rather than rare sportsmanship, it may be that Gilchrist felt it was obvious and did not realize Koertzen had reprieved him.

Had Martyn been fit, it's possible Andrew Symonds would not have played this game. Here, he demonstrated his development with an innings of responsibility and sense, patiently working the spinners for singles, keeping the ball on the ground and putting the bad balls away, in short doing exactly what the situation required. Had Ponting and Hayden not gone too hard at Vaas, Australia may have set their sights higher, but as it was Symonds and Lehmann were left with no other option but to ensure they registered a defendable total. The top order had created the possibility of collapse against the spinners, but the pair stood firm.

When Lehmann and others departed before time, Symonds continued to hold the innings together. Previously, he might have felt the need to hit more boundaries during his stay, to rashly smite the ball over the field. But at the World Cup, he has had a much more finely honed sense of timing, and used his power with discretion. The luck was with him, too, as Sangakkara missed a stumping on 33. Top sides create more chances though; Australia dropped two catches and missed a run out, but no-one will remember it.

Symonds' knock proved enough for Australia to reach the final. No-one deserves to win a World Cup, but the Australians should feel they have everything required to take it.

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Daniel Laidlaw