It is difficult to look beyond Australia

HARSHA BHOGLE

The World Cup has a habit of throwing up the unexpected and yet it is difficult to look beyond Australia. They play with a lot of passion and skill and combine a certain virility with tactical acumen. The last two do not always go together and that is why Australia are such a potent force. They can play with the skill of a horse in a dressage routine and they can play with the utter brawn of a jungle lion.

Over a one-on-on series they look almost unbeatable and only a very good team on a very good day can overcome them. That can sometimes happen in a one-day game and their principal opponents, the doughty South Africans and the mercurial Pakistanis will hope they are on the ground for that moment.

Their top six are the equal of any. Mark Waugh's were massive shoes to fill and in every sense, physical and metaphorical, Matthew Hayden has stepped into them. He took his time coming to terms with one-day cricket, as indeed he did in Test cricket, but now seems ready to unleash his powerful attacking game. And alongside him is the most destructive all-wicket player in the world today. I recently watched a re-run of Australia's record chase at Port Elizabeth against South Africa and to watch Adam Gilchrist wade into a very high quality attack was to understand helplessness itself.

Ricky Ponting has peaked and is almost addictive to watch as he plants his front foot down the wicket and invites the short ball which he relishes. Captaincy hasn't affected him too much, indeed most people could lead this Australian side now, and he has a very gifted set of players to bat with him. Damien Martyn, Darren Lehmann and Michael Bevan are all pedigreed players and invariably there is support from the lower order.

In South Africa, where unlike the sub-continent they believe bowlers have a role to play, Australia's attack will back up its batsmen wonderfully. With four world class bowlers that only leaves the utility man at number seven and Shane Watson at 21, looks good to fill the only problem position in Australian cricket. Only on the sub-continent with its sizzling wok-like stadiums are Australia vulnerable. They don't like the slow turning ball and they don't like the debilitating humidity. But in South Africa, where the wickets are as close as you can get to those in Australia, they will enjoy the conditions.

South Africa, if they get over the scars of the recent past and the anguish they seem to carry in their bosom, can be that team. Like all good sides they bat deep, even deeper than Australia, and always seem to have a bowler in hand. All-rounders, who are the life and soul of the one-day game, grow in plenty on the veldt. Herschelle Gibbs is now a genuine world class player, Jacques Kallis, more at home at number three than number four, is playing good solid cricket but it is Jonty Rhodes who is now their most unsettling batsman.

Since giving up Test cricket, there seems to be a greater hunger to his game and it has bred consistency. With his ability to run twos where most would be satisfied with one, he can keep the scoreboard moving without rattling the fence and he hardly seems to waste a ball. In the autumn of his career, and an autumn he seems to have imposed on himself, he is playing the best cricket of his life.

And they bowl well, if a trifle predictably. The great Donald is ageing and there is no replacement in sight. Pollock isn't quick anymore and Kallis can sometimes look weary. Makhaya Ntini is now the quickest man in the squad and his bowling is immeasurably better than it threatened to be a couple of years ago. They will play hard but will have to fight the opposition and the pressure of home fans for whom the difference between the loss of a game and the loss of a life can seem uncomfortably small.

I believe that if they bat well, the Pakistanis can unsettle Australia. They don't seem to score enough runs but if they do, they have the bowling to beat anybody. They also have the ability to put aside their differences when it matters and the lure of playing India might just be the tonic they need. They are a very dangerous team for they can touch the heights and feel the depths and take both in their stride.

Outside these three a team will need to have a dream run to win; the kind Sri Lanka had in 1996 and India did in 1983. Sri Lanka have experimented with pace a great deal for clearly they see that as their staple at the World Cup but they look a little too unsure to emerge as serious contenders on a surface they have never really enjoyed playing on. New Zealand might simmer underneath the best teams and England, more organised than gifted, could upset a few. But the team that the world will regard as dangerous floaters are India.

They have the talent to go all the way. The batting might struggle a bit on bouncy pitches but it has the depth to rival any and that has now been married to a confidence that was rarely seen earlier. If the bowlers can hit the right spots, and forego their millionaire-like approach, they will be the team to watch. But discipline is not the favourite quality of the sub-continent and it is that alone that can win a long tournament.

The Australians like to think their current team is the equal of the West Indies in the late seventies and early eighties. If they can become the only other team to win back-to-back World Cups, that claim might come a little closer to justification.