Cricket World Cup: A nation united by the Waugh effort

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The Independent Online
THAT UNIQUELY palpitating semi-final between Australia and South Africa has generated a range of emotions and reactions not likely to be seen again for a long while, if ever. Radio has been full of it.

An elderly lady rang in to accuse Lance Klusener and Allan Donald of committing cricketing hara-kiri, then after a pause offered the mischievous punchline: "What will they tell their grandchildren?" A young mother described the roller-coaster of her early morning when her priorities swayed between baby at breast, an instinct to leap and punch the air, ironing to stay calm and arranging breakfast for a work-bound husband.

Our Prime Minister, John Howard, who dabbles in social cricket and was once described by Mark Taylor as a "cricket tragic" (a player's term for obsessed fans), was just about in meltdown over the Shane Warne leg spinner which knee-capped Herschelle Gibbs, and which at the same time tightened every jock strap in the South African dressing-room.

"It is everyone's national duty to stay up and watch the World Cup final," the PM enthused. Another of our PMs, Bob Hawke, once got so excited over an Australia victory in a sailing race for the America's Cup he announced: "Any boss who sacks a worker for taking the day off is a bum." No such largesse from the capital C for Conservative Howard, who added: "But I still expect you to turn up to work."

Howard's stern reminder moved one conscientious newspaper editor to publish a guide on how to stay awake for the game and still get to work. "Burn essential oil of basil to increase the concentration span" is one tip. And "to calm down at 4am when the game is over, have a glass of warm milk". What's burned and what's drunk will depend on the result.

Of course, today's final cannot possibly match the semi-final. No two games in a row could offer so many twists and turns, grunts and groans, so many improbabilities: Klusener's fierce swat that burst through Paul Reiffel's usually glue-like hands and on for six. How many throws missed the stumps with batsmen desperately stretching for safety? What if Steve Waugh had been run out early?

And at the death, the equation of one run from four balls, simple enough based on one look at glum Australian faces, but the recipe for pandemonium, despair for some, and joy for others.

When Klusener hit those two tracer bullet fours from the first balls of the final over it was an invitation to remark on his awesome hand-eye co-ordination. When he called on Donald to run, one could only wonder about a dysfunctional brain. Surely he panicked.

Panic seduced Shaun Pollock and finally the very impressive Jacques Kallis, who abandoned his disciplined approach against Warne for the riskier, and calamitous, method of slices over the off side. Perhaps it was warranted, for by then the difference between runs-to-get and balls-to-play had widened so much that even mention of the rallying war cry, "Klusener's still to come", seemed pointless.

Intensity sorts out character. Gibbs was expected to be a pushover, his mind bent by his simple dropping of Waugh previously and the jibe it provoked - "you've just dropped the World Cup" - but he batted sweetly in tough going. The more experienced Gary Kirsten was the pushover, so startled by Warne's sudden impact he played a wretched shot.

When it comes to World Cup "best practice" the measuring stick is the Australian captain. In cricket, raising hypotheses can be a maddening exercise, but what if, say, Steve Waugh had been in Klusener's boots? Would Waugh, grim, street smart, have tried to take a high-risk single off ball two? Waugh offers the impression that pressure is as much a part of his diet as carbohydrate. He dispenses toughness and there is emerging evidence that Michael Bevan is grasping more of it than either Darren Lehmann or Ricky Ponting, who was out softly again.

Whether Australia win or lose the final, Waugh has surely set his captaincy in cement. Those who favoured the extrovert, chancy Warne ahead of him should now concede that colourful cricketers don't always make the best captains, but can be useful vice-captains and motivators. Warne produced a spell many had questioned he still had in him. He changed the course of the game and only the true champions can do that consistently.

His cup form has been a bit up and down and most observers would agree that the test set by Pakistan's batsmen will be tougher than that of the South Africans, whose batsmen are as mesmerised by the sight of Warne at the crease as are England's. Pakistan are more likely to be intimidated by McGrath, who has been ominously quiet. Pakistan look to have the bowling strength, although that can soon be compromised by floundering fielding. If there is to be a miracle might it be Inzamam running out not one of his own batsmen but an Australian?

The rubbery form-lines of both teams suggest an individual is likely to swing the result. Pakistan do look better equipped than Australia in the "from left-field department". But the Australians are on a roll. They have looked vulnerable so often, yet now, after that semi-final, they look bulletproof.

One indisputable point can be made. Any one silly enough to quit before the 49th over of the chasing team's innings risks missing the miracle.