Cricket: Australians in the shop window

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AUSTRALIA HAVE a hidden agenda for winning the World Cup that goes beyond the bonuses and ticker tape parade they can expect if they bring the trophy back home. Many of the side, including Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, are keen to use the event as a shop window to tempt English counties into a bidding war to employ them next season.

Once something of a rarity on the first-class scene in this country, Australians have in recent years virtually monopolised the overseas player berths. Indeed, a quick head count this season reveals that 12 of 18 overseas players are from Down Under, a figure unprecedented in the history of county cricket.

But if players of Warne and McGrath's pedigree will not struggle for employment, the likes of Adam Dale and Adam Gilchrist, potentially two stars of the tournament, know their case will be enhanced by a good showing in English conditions. Even Steve Waugh may be looking for a swansong, though as the successor to Mark Taylor's impressive legacy as captain, he would probably like to secure the trophy first.

This will be Waugh's fourth World Cup but you would not know it by his grasp of geography. Introducing his team at Cardiff Castle, the Australian said how pleased he was to be back in England, the home of cricket. Waugh, along with just about everyone else in these parts, appears unaware that the principality could have its own government by the end of the week.

Waugh knows his way round a cricket field though and says he is quite happy Australia are one of the favourites. If being fancied is not a burden, the amount of cricket many have played - since the Commonwealth Games last October, Mark Waugh, for example, has played 12 Tests and 22 one- day internationals - must surely have dulled the Australians' appetite.

Not according to Waugh, who played down the contention that it was fatigue that brought about their dire showing in the 1992 World Cup, where they failed to reach the last four. "We've been gearing up for this for the last 18 months," said Waugh, no doubt referring to the controversial period when Mark Taylor and Ian Healy were axed from the one-day side to allow younger players time to bed down for the "big one".

The move, precipitated by the selectors rather than Waugh, and compounded by poor results, created an outcry that has only just died down. Yet over time, the team have gelled and Waugh yesterday proclaimed them "the best balanced team I've been a part of for the last 15 years".

With batsmen such as Mark Waugh and Michael Bevan, regarded as being among the finest one-day exponents, and with bowlers like McGrath and Warne to exploit extremes in conditions as well as the shades between, the Aussies will take some beating.

Asked to pinpoint the area in which most games will perhaps be won or lost, Waugh felt that the use of the new white Duke balls, and the way batsmen coped with them in the early overs, would be important. "The Duke balls feel harder and the seams feel bigger," Waugh reckoned. "That could mean the early overs will be more difficult, and batsmen may have to adjust the way they play.

"I think this World Cup is one of the most open ever. I give England a chance, especially with home advantage. But with everyone playing more one-day cricket generally, I reckon eight or nine sides could win it."

As the only current player to have been in the 1987 final when Australia beat England in Calcutta, Waugh knows what it is like to win the only global trophy in cricket. "The World Cup is the ultimate for any cricketer and winning in Calcutta was one of the highlights of my career. Back then we trained hard and peaked at the right time. That was the key."