Cricket: Waugh sounds an early warning

BY STEPHEN BRENKLEY AT CARDIFF Glamorgan 21-2 v Australia Match abandoned
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ONLY 10 overs were possible here yesterday. They were quite sufficient to encapsulate the nature of the challenge that Australia will present to all 11 other teams in the World Cup.

By the time heavy rain arrived to end their first warm-up match Australia had bowled with accuracy, movement and menace. There were wickets for Adam Dale and Damien Fleming and a slip catch for Shane Warne. Glenn McGrath, for goodness sake, was not even called on to bowl.

"I would say that this is the best balanced Australian team I have been involved in," said their captain Steve Waugh after the game had been curtailed. "The guys have been jumping out of their skins this week. They know they've got to do well because it's tough to be in the one-day side. A lot of the guys aren't here. I think it probably goes back to the teams changing 18 months ago."

It was then that the Australian selectors decided that the Test and one-day teams should have different personnel. That elevated Waugh to the captaincy (and led indirectly to the retirement of the great Mark Taylor) and brought in to the side skilful specialists like Adam Gilchrist and Dale.

The shift in direction did not pay immediate dividends but they have now developed into a formidable, assured unit. They have, as Waugh has suggested at every opportunity, balance. They also have hunger.

Many of them have been charging round the world since last September (Malaysia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, West Indies and, oh, Australia) and Mark Waugh has not missed a single international match in that time. It is not the obvious preparation but Steve Waugh was not alone in bringing up their enthusiasm since arriving.

Others, both close to the team and new to it, have been taken by their practice sessions. Here are a bunch of terrifically talented individuals, but they have conveyed the essence of the team. It is a frightening prospect. But tiredness, surely, may yet creep up on them, particularly if they lose a tight match early. Some hope. Waugh and his men like the one-day hothouse, probably thrive on it. The format of this World Cup suits them.

"It shapes up as the best," said Waugh. "The most consistent sides will get through to the last four. Being able to carry the points on gained against the teams who also qualify makes for really tight cricket. And that's how it should be in the World Cup." He said this with a friendly smile. Scotland may notice that this is missing at Worcester when the sides meet a week today.

The 10 overs, apart from underlining their sleek professionalism and ability, also suggested that they might be about to unveil a potent, new strategy. McGrath, the most hostile bowler in the world, normally takes the new ball but was held back yesterday.

With Dale and Fleming moving the white ball about at acute angles it made it possible to wonder what inroads McGrath could create in the middle of an innings. Waugh played it down, but then he would. "We're trying a few things out in the warm-up games but don't read too much into it. We're trying to give everybody a game. He's a great bowler and it doesn't matter where he bowls." Well, it might to the opposition.

Yesterday's match gave a glimpse, if no more, of another ingredient that may decide the destiny of the World Cup. Had the proceedings resumed they would have been shortened and decided by the much-maligned Duckworth-Lewis scoring system. Despite its being unfathomable, Waugh gave his full backing to it.

"It's the best system there has ever been by a long way," he said. "If you take wickets you are rewarded, lose wickets and you're under pressure, which is what it should be like. I can't work it out but I think it's the best system. You look at the chart in the dressing-room and know what you've got to do."

It would not do at this formative stage of the seventh World Cup, and the third to be held in England, to promote Australia as omnipotent. Favourites might have a bad record but, as Waugh stressed, the structure of this tournament is geared to them. So what of shortcomings?

There are some. At the toughest of times, for all their own toughness, they can find the strain too much. They can fold after number six. And while their fielding is extremely sound it can be exposed in places. In Ricky Ponting, they have one of the finest fielders but elsewhere in the inner ring they are not so adept. The Waugh brothers, for instance, remain excellent catchers but are not what they were in spreading themselves.

All right, it is a tiny thing, it might be a straw, but it could cost five runs here, six there. In the face of Australia's easy confidence it gives the rest hope.