Cricket: Australia assume air of fallibility

England's cricket revival has put host nation under pressure in the one-day series. By Stephen Brenkley in Sydney
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The Independent Online
SOMETHING was seriously wrong. Catches were dropped and balls along the ground disappeared into the distance through outstretched fingers or beneath ill-timed dives. When the bowling was not being slogged at the end, it was being milked in the beginning and the middle and, while the batting got them back into the proceedings, it blew it at the death. It was all pretty inept. It was also Australia.

Australia, that is, who are the best Test side in the world, who make a great deal of leaving nothing to chance in preparing their players and waste no time in reiterating to Poms any home truths that occur to them. If their defeat in Sydney on Monday night showed that the balance of play can tilt swiftly in one-day cricket, it also confirmed their fallibility. England seized comprehensive advantage. They played what might be called proper cricket, eschewing fancy tricks, and constructed their innings thoughtfully, ensuring they did not lose wickets and establishing a substantial total.

"England are always going to be a good side in one-day cricket," said Australia's captain, Steve Waugh. "All the sides are much closer together than in Tests and in 50 overs the skill goes out of the game. You don't get a long enough bat to wear down an attack and as a bowler you only get 10 overs. Sides know each other because they play each other a lot more."

Whatever Waugh's observations on the transient nature of one-day cricket, he will be aware that in a long and arduous campaign such as this the best team should emerge. Australia are not omnipotent, though one defeat in a high-scoring, perpetually gripping, contest hardly rules them out of contention. As a bad day at the office, it was probably a matter of mislaying the paper clips as opposed to England's version in the nine- wicket hammering at Melbourne where the phones were cut, the photocopier jammed and the computer system went down. But it was a bad day.

It is a year since Australia ditched their old approach to one-day cricket, that is, simply pick the Test team, and applied some more advanced science to the selectorial task. The outcome was that Mark Taylor, together with Arjuna Ranatunga the smartest and shrewdest captain in world cricket, was dropped and Waugh was given the job. Other one-day specialists such as the wicketkeeper-batsman Adam Gilchrist and the seam bowler Adam Dale have been identified.

The results have gradually improved from a loss ratio of 40-60. Australia won last year's Carlton & United tournament (against South Africa) and, although they failed to bring back gold from the Commonwealth Games and have twice been roundly thumped by India, they were masterly against Pakistan earlier in the winter. It seemed certain that they would lose the final match of a series which they had already won 2-0, but they made the 316 required and equalled India's chasing record.

For all that, one-day Australia are not Test Australia. Waugh said they lost Sunday's game because of their fielding. "It was one of the worst displays I have seen from us in the field." The captain himself shelled a chance at square leg off Graeme Hick when the batsman was 23. Although it cannot accurately be said that Glenn McGrath dropped Nasser Hussain running in from the boundary because he never remotely looked like making contact with the ball, that could not disguise how elementary it was.

There were around a dozen other fielding errors, several involving Mark Waugh. Usually he paws the ground ready to pounce on unwary batsmen, at Sydney he pawed the ground only after the ball had gone past. It was shambolic. Waugh also pointed out that three of the main bowlers all went for 50 but they also had three part-timers sharing one allotment of 10 and they went for 70 altogether.

The batting kept them in touch but that, too, ended in peculiar failure. Michael Bevan is commonly billed as the best one-day batsman around and his average of 57 is 10 runs higher than anybody else to have played one- day internationals. In this month's Inside Edge, the Australian cricket magazine, Ian Chappell, the commentator and former Test captain, states categorically that he is the best in the business at No 6. "Bevan has an uncanny knack of scoring boundaries in the final few overs no matter how great the pressure or how little lead-up time he's had at the crease." In Sydney, Bevan faced 59 balls for his 45, hit no boundaries and took no risks when the innings demanded high adventure.

The balance of the side is uncertain, too. The batting order fairly oozes class - Greg Blewett was at seven the other night - but they can be a bowler light. It seems that they have already settled, bar perhaps a name or two, on the World Cup squad and they are playing now. Their selectors are not bothering to name a preliminary 30.

Australia have a habit of keeping their powder dry in this triangular tournament. They win as many games as they need to in the qualifiers and then let loose with both barrels in the finals. If Sri Lanka were to beat them in Hobart on Thursday, it would impose additional pressure on them, with England having regrouped so well.

England are beginning to look a shade tired, for the understandable reason that this is a gruelling series and so many of them have been on tour for so long. They may also have to play to their limits. But they have seen enough by now to know that Australia can be beaten, and that the Carlton & United Series trophy could be coming home at last.

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