Border leads the way

Damien Martyn congratulates skipper Ponting on scoring a century in the final against India in 2003.-V.V. KRISHNAN

The victory in 1987 was Australia's greatest moment. It was, in several senses, the beginning. The team had risen from the ashes, writes S. Dinakar.

Cricket, like any other sport, is a lot about technique and skill. But then, what is the one quality that separates the champion from the rest? It's mental strength.

This attribute gives Australia the decisive edge when things turn tough. Here, jailbreaks are commonplace.

Australia is a side that invariably finds an escape route when forced into a tight situation. It is resilient and uses adversity as a stimulant. From Ian Chappell to Allan Border to Steve Waugh, the Aussies, simply put, fought hard.

A strong domestic circuit — sporting pitches are an integral part of a system that works — provides the Aussies with depth in their ranks. The options at the selectors' disposal keep the incumbents on their toes.

When Border's men, labelled no-hopers ahead of the 1987 World Cup in India and Pakistan, bucked the odds to emerge triumphant in the final in Calcutta, they managed to turn things around for the beleaguered nation.

Before the competition, Australian cricket was in the midst of a crisis. Border's squad held promise, yet the ability was not reflected in the results. This was a period of transition following the departure of the legends such as Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Rodney Marsh, and it certainly was a phase that was demanding.

Steve Waugh pulls Cronje on way to his century against South Africa at Leeds in 1999.-N. SRIDHARAN

As Australia began its campaign in 1987, it had an interesting combination at the helm. Border, a street fighter and more a leader of men than a captain, and coach Bob Simpson, technically accomplished with an analytical mind, formed a contrasting team. The combination worked.

The solidity of David Boon and Geoff Marsh at the top, the enterprise of Dean Jones, the determination of Border, and Steve Waugh's finishing skills provided Australia with runs.

Fast bowler Craig McDermott, encouraged by Border to attack, sent down a few key spells, none more destructive than his five for 44 that saw Australia stun favourite Pakistan by 18 runs in a tense semifinal in Lahore. This was a side that seized its chances, was sharp on the field.

McDermott had a worthy new ball partner in beanpole left-armer Bruce Reid, who gave very little away. The two were backed up by swing bowler Simon O' Donnell and Steve Waugh, who during the course of the competition earned the sobriquet `Iceman', and not without reason.

Waugh's bowling at the death — he varied his length and mixed his pace — built pressure on the batting side. Australia's one-run win over India in Madras and the three-run victory over New Zealand in Indore were orchestrated by Waugh's medium pace. Here was a man with the temperament for big time.

The Aussie spirit shone at the Eden Gardens in the final — the team defended 253 runs against England with great resolve. Australia squeezed out a seven-run victory, winning its first ever World Cup.

In the sub-continent, Australia won mainly with its pace attack; Tim May's off-spin and Border's part-time left-arm spin accounted for only 21 overs in all in the semifinal and final. Precise field settings, where Simpson's hand was visible, and the ability to create pressure helped the Aussies choke the opposition.

This victory was Australia's greatest moment in the World Cup since it provided the nation the platform to build its subsequent world conquering sides. This, in several senses, was the beginning. Australia rose from the ashes.

Next was the triumph in 1999 in the Old Blighty. Steve Waugh was now at the helm and reflected the team's resolve. Australia went down to New Zealand and Pakistan in the group phase and barely qualified for the Super Six. Then, Waugh's men hit the ground hard. The skipper's unbeaten 120 at Headingley after Australia, chasing 272 against South Africa in a vital qualification duel, was 48 for three, was a masterpiece. In terms of motivational value, this was a tournament-winning effort.

The two sides faced off again in the semifinals at Edgbaston and South Africa was bamboozled by Shane Warne's leg-spin.

In the final at Lord's, Pakistan, after captain Wasim Akram disastrously decided to bat first, was done in by Warne's guile and the depth in Australia's pace attack.

The Australians were buzzing in the 2003 World Cup in Southern Africa. The side stormed into the semifinals where it edged out Sri Lanka, powered by a Andrew Symonds special on a turning pitch. Australia then pounded India in the summit clash at the Wanderers.

The Aussie game-plan to disrupt India's new ball attack paid off — Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist forced the Indian pacemen, who pressed the panic button, to change tactics in the early overs. Then skipper Ricky Ponting's flair and Damien Martyn's inventiveness — he braved a broken finger — virtually decided the outcome. Australia retained title.

In the inaugural World Cup in 1975, Australia, with the Chappell brothers, Ian and Greg, and Doug Walters forming a part of a strong batting line-up, and pacemen Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson, Max Walker and Gary Gilmour — the left-arm swing bowler had an exceptional tournament — severely testing the technique and temperament of the batsmen, progressed into the final. Here, the side was undone by Clive Lloyd's brilliance with the willow and a sizzling Vivian Richards on the field.

A depleted Australian side, without the Packer boys, made little impact in the 1979 edition. Kim Hughes' side was dumped before the last four stage. Some of the big boys were back for the 1983 World Cup, but Australia struggled as a team. In a virtual knock-out league match for a semifinal place at Chelmsford, Australia, collapsed against the medium pace of Balwinder Singh Sandhu, Roger Binny and Madan Lal, to suffer a 118-run defeat. The side would then regroup under Border's leadership.

After the high of 1987, Australia was jolted at home in 1992. Though it had a world beating one-day side, the long home season had left it jaded. The team could not summon up the energy levels needed to win the competition.

Australia was shocked in the opener by New Zealand in Auckland, and despite a thrilling last gasp win over India in Brisbane, the team could not really achieve any sort of momentum.

Australia had McDermott and Reid — a right-left combination of experience and skill — sharing the new ball but the capitulation against the Pakistani pacemen and leg-spinner Mushtaq Ahmed in Perth showed its batting in poor light. Chasing 221 runs, Australia was dismissed for 172.

Four years later, Australia was undone by the brilliance of Aravinda de Silva (107 not out) in the summit clash in Lahore. Sri Lanka, chasing 241, became the first side batting second to nail the World Cup.

The Aussie batsmen lost the plot in the middle overs against Muttiah Muralitharan and his spin partners. They were not able to work the ball into open spaces for the ones and the twos when boundaries were hard to come by on a sluggish wicket. The ring of fielders employed by the wily Arjuna Ranatunga supported the spinners well.

In the following years, the Australians would find an answer to the middle-overs muddle. You can trust the Aussies to come up with solutions.