A frightening outfit

Australia had the wherewithal to end contests terrifyingly early with the bat, the ball and in the field, but that it happened with such regularity was extraordinary, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

This was the last of the Big Three, the final feat in Australia’s meticulously charted campaign of conquest in 2006-07. The elusive Champions Trophy had been taken, the Poms stitched up and The Ashes regained. All that remained was an unprecedented third successive World Cup. For all the talk that Australia’s infallibility was getting tedious, the side certainly kept us interested during the run-up to the quadrennial event, losing the CB series to England and t he Chappell-Hadlee Trophy to New Zealand.

Things got curioser and curioser. Dissension, customarily kept in-house by the Australians in troubled times, was aired. A retired Shane Warne weighed in with his thoughts on the then coach John Buchanan, the gist of which was about as flattering as the leggie’s hair-weave job. Even rarer was the admission of frailty. Michael Hussey, who led in New Zealand, confessed the whitewash was “demoralising”.

It fell on the plain-spoken Glenn McGrath to provide perspective. “We’ve experienced quite a few injuries, five or six of our top players weren’t there,” said McGrath of the five-match losing streak. “If you take one or two players out of any other team in the world it would unsettle them, but to take five or six out would really destroy them.”

Brett Lee couldn’t make it to the Caribbean, but Michael Clarke, Matthew Hayden and Andrew Symonds mended in time. Eleven outrageously comprehensive wins followed. “To go through and play the cricket that we have, make many very, very good international cricket teams (look) ordinary at different times, has been special,” said captain Ricky Ponting after the final.

Ponting’s comment framed the debate that had been forming through the tournament. Just how much of Australia’s dominance was down to its exceptional execution of skill and how much to a paucity of opposition? And, indeed, was it even possible to tease them apart?

Certainly, Australia had the best roster at the World Cup. The batting, in Hayden, Gilchrist, Ponting, Clarke, Symonds, Hussey, and all-rounder Watson, was beautifully balanced, consisting of heavy-hitters and touch players, right-handers and left. Between them, the seven could handle pace and spin, explode and retaliate, gather and plunder. So successful was the top-order that Hussey found himself out in the middle just six times. Barring the final, which was reduced to 38 overs a side, the least Australia made batting first was 322; and in the final, it fell short of 300 by just 19.

The bowling had several cutting edges — and, crucially, the knowledge of when best to use them. McGrath scouted each ground, apprising Ponting of the breeze, the angles, the conditions. Sri Lanka might make the case that it had the better bowling line-up, but it’s a close thing. Both attacks had the variety in strike-force to exploit any playing surface. Tait and Malinga offered low-slung pace, Bracken and Vaas lefty swing and cutters. The tall, strapping Dilhara Fernando hit the deck. But, he was no McGrath. The Australian bowled a more attacking length than usual, conceding more runs per over than he has in the past, but striking at the rate of a wicket every three overs. Muralitharan had the drop on Hogg in unreadable spin, but the Chinaman bowler, often thanks to the work of his pacemen up front, proved no less effective.

Australia was the best fielding unit of the 2007 World Cup. Shane Watson’s throw from the deep to run A. B. de Villiers out when the South Africans looked like they might chase Australia’s 377 in the group match was stirring. And, so precisely did the Australians bowl that they were able to repeatedly involve Ponting, Symonds and Clarke, three of the world’s finest fielders.

No doubt, Australia had the wherewithal to end contests terrifyingly early with the bat, the ball and in the field, but that it happened with such regularity was extraordinary. “It’s not easy to take over a team that is playing good cricket and make it better,” said Ponting of Buchanan’s influence. “He’s been able to do that with me, with Gilly, with Glenn, with Matty Hayden, all those guys have taken their games further. There’s no doubt we’ve been better prepared here (at the World Cup) than in any tournament I’ve been involved in.”

Trying to understand greatness, looking in from the outside, is often frustrating. We owe a great deal to Adam Gilchrist, who after his scarcely believable 149 in the final allowed us this moment of biting truth: “The standards that this group sets are so high and if you feel you’re not meeting them, you tend to put pressure on yourself and even doubt yourself. I got the belief to rise above that from my team-mates and the coaching staff. It’s amazing how much that can lift you.”