Australia open for business as usual

By Derek Pringle in Port Elizabeth
Australia are the best side in this World Cup but two hurdles stand in their way before the accolade will stick for good. The first of these are Sri Lanka, Tuesday’s semi-final opponents and a side short of form but long on talent. The other is the final itself, though that is not yet being considered with all thoughts being channelled into their present sudden-death encounter with tricky opponents.

At present, the buzz-phrase Australia are bandying about is `intent and intimidate’, words they certainly put into practice when the two last met for a Super Six match at Centurion. On a bouncy pitch, the Aussie batsmen and pace bowlers simply laid waste to Sri Lanka, who, apart from seeing Brett Lee break their captain Sanath Jayasuriya’s left thumb, lost by 96 runs.

Conditions are unlikely to be similar here at St George’s Park, a ground Australia have twice been forced to dig deep on sluggish surfaces in order to avoid defeat. A third time might be beyond them providing Sri Lanka can score enough runs for their swarm of spinners to work with.

Australia’s match at Centurion remains the most surefooted of their games against Test opponents, a status that may also be affected by Damien Martyn’s absence after the batsman fractured a finger in the field against Kenya on Saturday.

So far in this tournament, the Aussies have coped well with injury and out of form batsmen, though Martyn, whose injury will be re-assessed should Australia win today, has been a permanent fixture over the past two years. With Michael Bevan returning after being rested against Kenya, his spot will be filled by Darren Lehmann, with Andrew Symonds and Ian Harvey, rivals for a place before Martyn’s X-ray revealed the bad news, staying in the side.

It probably does not matter who they pick providing Andy Bichel and Bevan are among them. The fast-medium bowler from Queensland, now making a late challenge for all-rounder, has featured large on this ground with bat and ball, while Bevan has graced the ground with two understated gems of innings.

Others have been far from consistent with captain Ricky Ponting petulantly criticising the pitch after two low scores on it. His outburst may prove to be a cunning ploy if pitch doctors, working on the strip all week, have managed to inject the extra pace and bounce promised, factors that will surely suit Australia.

Matthew Hayden, another struggling to match the form showed in Australia two months ago, looks shattered, a feeling that will not have improved with the knowledge he has only a week off before arriving in the Caribbean for more Tests and one-dayers.

Sri Lanka made their name with one-day cricket and can do so again should they beat Ponting’s side here. Though many see hope against Australia in a speck of dust, Sri Lanka have a decent record against them in big matches. Australia have won 22 of their last 24 matches but Jayasuriya’s side have won the other two, proof, if only to themselves, that the ogre can be toppled.

Sri Lanka’s coach, Dav Whatmore, said after practice Monday: ``The chance to play in a World Cup final is there for the taking. If most of the players can grasp that there could be some joy.’’

They have a decent chance, too, their chief spinner, Muttiah Muralitharan, along with his slow bowling cohorts Sanath Jayasuriya and Aravinda de Silva, providing the type of fare to make aggressive batsmen rethink their game plan should the pitch, normally slow and low here, play to type. They will probably need a score in excess of 220 to be competitive, something openers Marvan Atapattu and Jayasuriya, with 368 and 304 runs in the tournament respectively, will be central to.

Unless it is cloudy, the captain winning the toss will almost certainly bat first. The pitch, which looks more Colombo than Gabba, was still damp in patches Monday, though cracking into a mosaic as it dried. Whoever bats second may find pieces missing, something that could aid spin and upset bounce.

Semi-finals can be the cruellest of hurdles and one team will be bitterly disappointed come this evening. Australia’s demise, while sure to prove popular with the locals, would be a major upset, though a sub-continental final between Sri Lanka and India, should they prevail against Kenya on Thursday, would pander to the biggest fan base in the world.
The Daily Telegraph