Cricket World Cup: After the blinkered come the blind faithful

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The Independent Online
HERE'S HOPING it is miracle week in Manchester, which is the sort of wishful thinking most fans Down Under have been reduced to.

These are heady days for the jokers in pubs: England may not have heard the one about the New South Wales rugby league coach who, nervous about bonding sessions that involved his players doing what comes naturally at such functions - gulping alcohol, opted for horse riding ahead of bar stools. Two star players fell off, suffered severe arm injuries, and missed the big game - which New South Wales lost.

The jokers delight in offering congratulations on the whackings of Scotland and Bangladesh and predicting that we can now only win the World Cup if we attach crampons to our cricket boots. Winning the next six games in a row is certainly an order as tall as scoring two goals in injury time.

If Australia's Cup miracle fails to arrive it won't be long before the current gnashing of teeth loses out to the sharpening of knives. It has already been mentioned, and not just by Ian Healy or Mark Taylor in their one-day roles of television commentators, that the teams doing best, South Africa and Pakistan, are more or less fielding their most recent Test line-ups.

Some of us down here find that confusing because we have been brainwashed, told that this is the era of the one-day specialist and that there are very few vacancies in one-day teams for a cricketer with "Test" stamped on his forehead.

How then can Australia's cricketing think-tank - the selectors - explain the Pakistan batting blitzkrieg that sank Steve Waugh's men at Headingley? And, why did South Africa's "Test team" trounce England, a bunch of one- day specialists? The South African captain Hansie Cronje said in an interview before the Cup: "This time will be very similar to 1992 with disciplined seam bowling and top-order batting being used to lay the foundation."

"Discipline" is a conversation line you are most likely to hear in the company of Test cricketers. Late last year in one of Australia's most delightful sandy, saltwater settings, Mooloolaba in Queensland, a couple of Test cricket's most disciplined old hands, Geoff Marsh and Taylor, were discussing this World Cup. The occasion was a final hit for Australia's one-day squad, matches against New South Wales and New Zealand, before heading to the Commonwealth Games. Marsh was coach, but Taylor was a sort of bystander because he was wearing the blue of New South Wales, having long lost his green and gold accreditation for one-day cricket.

Their topic of discussion was Cronje's point exactly. Should the selectors bring into the squad for England a recognised opener whose technique would stand up if conditions, weather, pitch and ball, turn fickle?

Considering the career technical strength of both men - rather than their one-day strike-rates of 50-something - and Taylor's intuitive skill as a captain of being two steps ahead of the rest, no one should be surprised by their inclination to think ahead. The names that cropped up were Michael Slater and Justin Langer.

Walk into any pub or down any street in Australia and it is odds-on you'll be collared by someone who remains confused as to why Slater, one of the finest stroke-makers in the Test game, one of the finest technicians, can't command a spot in Australia's one-day team. Maybe it's his fielding, but is it really any worse than Darren Lehmann's? Or, is it Lehmann's bowling that carries the day?

The most niggling aspect to this Australian squad's balance was always the absence of any recognised opening batsman and the presence of three all-rounders. The latter weighting raised the probability that the game plan was to play at least two all rounders, thus strengthening the lower- order batting.

Instead, Adam Dale or Paul Reiffel have been preferred as the third seamer behind Damien Fleming and Glenn McGrath. Tom Moody, the veteran all-rounder with all the experience in England, has been wasted. In the light of this, two all rounders in the party were enough - and Taylor and Marsh knew what they were talking about.

The use of McGrath with the older ball raises the most important question about Australia's approach: whatever happened to the "Australian way?" The McGrath tactic mimics South Africa's with Donald. The Adam Gilchrist tactic mimics Sri Lanka's with Sanath Jayasuriya. Worst of all this philosophy - that Test cricketers are not up to one-day cricket - mimics England. It is cuckoo cricket.

And every one of those points ignores the truth about cricket - that with few exceptions the Test players are the ones with "edge", the ones who, the night before the toughest game of the year, pray that it will indeed be tough. Meanwhile, Australian fans are left praying for a miracle. One more thing: Notice how it is always a one-day "squad" but a Test "team".