Cricket World Cup: McGrath's cool will test Shoaib's fire

Lord's final: Australians believe experience of extraordinary semi-final win will serve them well against Pakistan
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The Independent Online
IF TOMORROW'S World Cup final between Australia and Pakistan goes down to the last over, one team will be clear favourites. Over the past week Australia, mainly on the back of two brilliant individual performances, have shown that their resilience and steel have been forged in the heat of combat. Providing Thursday's draining scrap with South Africa did not take too much out of them, they come to Lord's believing that no setback is beyond them.

After their week, in which they twice prevailed against Hansie Cronje's men, with just two balls to spare, you tend to believe them too, and Pakistan will need to have one of their "on" rather than "off" days, if the final is to have any of the delicious tension of the game that preceded it.

That match, which many reckon was the finest one-day game ever seen, was sport at its most transcendental. A heady cocktail of skill, error and failure, it was drama on a scale undreamed of by other sports.

They say World Cup semi-finals are the cruellest hurdle of all, and those privy to the dramatic twists and turns will be analysing the detail for some time to come.

"It would have been a sensational final," remarked Glenn McGrath, Australia's rangy fast bowler the morning after. "The favourites must have changed three times in the last two overs. We always back ourselves in any situation, but when Lance Klusener hit those two fours in the last over I though that was it. After that, like everyone, I was hoping for a miracle."

McGrath, who had bowled the penultimate drama-filled over, was fielding at short fine leg when Klusener and Allan Donald undertook their fatal hesitation waltz with the scores level. Once again, South Africa had stumbled against Australia, with the finishing tape inches from their nose.

"South Africa seem to intimidate other teams," said McGrath. "Yet it's different for us and we tend to do it to them. Mind you, I feel for their guys, especially AD [Donald], who I get on well with. You try to think if the roles were reversed how you'd feel and it is a tough call for him to cop all the blame. He was pretty down afterwards. Like me he takes it personally and losses like that really hurt."

McGrath, who had a quiet match, conceded his match-winner's role to Shane Warne, who produced a spell on a par with his pre-shoulder operation brilliance. "Everyone has been writing Warney off recently, but he showed he's got a long time to go yet," said McGrath. "The ball that got Herschelle Gibbs gave us all a big lift and it suddenly put a different complexion on the game."

While it is heartening to see Warne able to find his old brilliance, Pakistan tend to play spin well and it will probably fall once more to McGrath to provide Australia's cutting edge with the ball. Given that Shoaib Akhtar is Pakistan's enforcer, comparisons between them, despite the difference in top speeds, are inevitable.

If the pair were cars, Shoaib would be a temperamental thoroughbred, an Italian beast like a Ferrari or Lamborghini. Fast, flashy, but with a chance that it could all go horribly wrong if the roads suddenly got slippery. McGrath on the other hand, reeks of Teutonic efficiency and is probably in the BMW class with its emphasis on high performance, whatever the conditions.

"Shoaib has got genuine pace, but he still has a long way to go," reckons the Australian beanpole. "When I got started, I had pace and raw talent. But I'm largely the bowler I am today due to experience. Knowing how to react, because of all the situations you've been put in, will take him another three or four years.

"Of course, while he's young, fit and feeling good, he may as well charge in like he does. Obviously, the crowd likes that but it can be a pressure. Looking at the speedo and trying to bowl quicker all the time can be a distraction and you can forget to concentrate on the job in hand."

Over recent years, the main struggles between Australia and Pakistan have been off the field, rather than on. The match-fixing accusations which have been levelled from both camps, have bred an animosity that cannot be converted into anything positive on the field and those concentrating solely on the cricket will probably prosper most on the day.

Nevertheless, the private duels between certain players will be fascinating and none more so than the one between the two captains, Steve Waugh and Wasim Akram.

Waugh has grown up in the last few weeks. A man always likely to lead by example, he is now adopting the unusual flourishes of his predecessor, Mark Taylor. Why else would he have given brother Mark eight overs during Australia's most vital game of the competition. Wasim too is a gambler, though with so much raw talent to call on, his desire to risk everything in all-out attack is borne from Plan A, rather than as a contingency lower down the alphabet.

Other skirmishes to watch will be Inzamam-ul-Haq versus Warne and Moin Khan against anyone who cares to step in his way. Although a World Cup final will have no difficulty in motivating those involved, you cannot help but think that Pakistan's relatively easy route to the final may count against them when the pressure bites.

Whatever the outcome of the match, however, cricket - especially with England long forgotten - needs a spectacle we can remember. So far it has taken 41 matches for this World Cup to reach boiling point. One more while the water is still hot, will do everyone a service.