Australia looks vulnerable

Ponting, Gilchrist should long since have been sent away to the surf, or whatever tickles their fancy, such as families or golf courses, says the author.-Pics. S. SUBRAMANIUM

Australia can no longer be regarded as a hot favourite for the coming World Cup. Indeed it is possible to go further. The trophy will be taken by a rising contender, not a falling champion, writes Peter Roebuck.

Australia has botched its attempt to rest players. Far from invigorating weary cricketers and giving opportunities to freshmen, the strategy has left the strongest team around looking vulnerable.

England and New Zealand have taken the chance to add to their tormentor's discomfort. How the Kiwis must have enjoyed their recent 10- wicket victory in their capital city! A man can live a long-time without seeing an Australia cricket side laid so low.

Giving senior players a break before a long World Cup campaign was not a bad idea. Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist, especially, had been working hard. Combining positions of responsibility with numerous cricketing contributions, they had played their parts in taking their team towards an unblemished summer. Likewise the faster bowlers had been toiling away for months. Anyone playing regularly in both forms of the game was entitled to feel jaded. Moreover, long unbeaten runs create a tension of their own. But even the most intelligent action can be ruined by poor timing.

Having reached the finals of the tri-series with several matches still to play, the Australians had a wonderful chance to send important players away for a fortnight. But the chance was missed, and the reason was simple. Australia dared not rest established cricketers from matches played at home for fear of the outcry.

Last year Ricky Ponting was given a brief break whereupon shutterbugs were sent to record his every step. When Gilchrist missed a match in Adelaide the locals were in uproar. Never mind that the team contained numerous thrilling cricketers.

A country gets the team it deserves. Far from giving exhausted players a rest, the Australia staff worked them even harder than usual. It was not much to the unbeaten record that provoked frenetic activity. Apparently, it was an attempt to "Load up". If so, it was singularly ill-considered.

Practices ran for four hours and a committed bunch of players became agitated. A rash of injuries followed, Andrew Symonds, Michael Clarke, Brett Lee and Ponting himself. Some will be hard pressed to make it to the Caribbean.

As the finals of the tri-series approached, the Australians finally began to withdraw senior players. Not that the officials were open about it. Mostly an injury was given as the reason for missing a match.

Ponting, Gilchrist and Lee should long since have been sent away to the surf, or whatever tickles their fancy, such as families or golf courses. They could have returned as fresh as mint and ready to play in the matches before the finals, and afterwards go to New Zealand to represent the country.

Instead the Kiwis were let down by their neighbours, not for the first time in their opinion. Their aura has been broken.

A struggling England team weakened by numerous losses overcame them 2-0. New Zealand tore them apart. Furthermore Australia has been unable to replace Symonds. His forceful batting, varied bowling and incisive fielding gave the side balance and formidable power.

Shane Watson has been inadequate. Brad Hogg's spin has been unthreatening. At once the batting looks weaker and the bowling less menacing. Gilchrist and Hayden have been unconvincing, and the middle-order lacks authority. Remove the wrong card and the entire pack can fall. Only one conclusion can be reached. Australia can no longer be regarded as a hot favourite for the coming World Cup.

Indeed it is possible to go further. The trophy will be taken by a rising contender, not a falling champion.

Brett Lee-

Lee says `his chances are 50-50'

Australian fast bowler Brett Lee has rated his chances of playing at next month's World Cup at only "50-50" as he battles to recover from serious ankle ligament damage.

Cricket Australia issued a statement saying that Lee does not need surgery.

"The good news is that I don't need an operation, I don't need any screws in the bones which is positive," said Lee, who arrived home from New Zealand after injuring his left ankle training for the Chappell-Hadlee Trophy series.

"At the moment probably all I can say is that I'm 50-50 for the World Cup.

"I'll have to reassess in about a week. I need my doctor to talk to (team physiotherapist Alex Kountouris) so I'll know a lot more then."

Kountouris said in the statement that Lee has suffered serious ligament damage in his left ankle.

"He was seen by an orthopaedic surgeon who decided that he does not require surgery and will be initially managed with crutches and a brace," Kountouris said.

"The surgeon will review him in a week's time and assess his prospects of playing in the World Cup.

"It is difficult to put an exact time on his recovery at this early stage. This should become clearer in the next seven-10 days." Lee said he feared for the worst when he first went down on the ankle but was relieved not to need an operation.

"When I went down I heard a crack in my ankle and things weren't looking good," he said.

"After consulting with the doctor I am more positive, but it's too hard to say what the outcome will be.

"I'll be doing everything I can to make sure I have a chance of playing at the World Cup.

"As a fast bowler I have had stress fractures in my back and ankle surgery three times and have always overcome these injuries. There will be nothing different here and I know I will be able to bounce back." Australian team doctor Trefor James said Lee's chances of playing in the World Cup depended on his progress over the next week.

"Brett's availability will depend on his progress over the coming period and no decisions regarding his availability for the World Cup will be made until this time," James said in the statement. Meanwhile, in another worrying development ahead of the World Cup, Australian batsman Michael Clarke had to return home from New Zealand after not recovering sufficiently from hip soreness.

"Michael is still suffering some hip soreness in certain movements and has not progressed to the point where he is able to play a part in the Chappell-Hadlee Trophy," Kountouris said.