Cricket World Cup: Waugh must dig deep

Stephen Fay says Aussies' captain faces a real battle for survival
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The Independent Online
LEAVING THEIR hotel in Durham on Friday, a couple of Australian cricketers called out to say they would see us next week. What that means is that they expect to qualify for the Super Sixes. Steve Waugh goes further. He states that Australia can go all the way, which means winning six games on the trot. He may even believe that. But, having watched the team play and win only against Scotland and Bangladesh so far, their followers are still questioning Australia's ability to survive at all.

They refer you to the performances tables of batting and bowling excellence, and note the absence of Australian players from the lists - with the exception of Adam Gilchrist among the heavy hitters.

It has been a lot of hard yakka so far, and Waugh's problems were on open exhibition at the Riverside ground in Chester-le-Street when Australia played Bangladesh on Thursday. The bowling was opened by Glenn McGrath and Damien Fleming - one great bowler, another most accomplished one. The opposition was comparatively feeble. Up in Edinburgh, the West Indians were plundering the Scots.

The same thing should have been happening in Chester-le-Street, but neither McGrath nor Fleming made a dramatic impact. As the day wore on they grew very cross. Between them, they conceded 89 runs for three wickets. Waugh sympathised with McGrath: "I think he's a bit frustrated. He's a great bowler, but he's not bowling his best. When you set such high standards and they're not happening, you get very down with yourself. If he gets the ball in the right spot and gets a nick, he'll be all right." The contrary is also true and if McGrath does not take his chance today Australia may not get another.

Waugh was more cheerful about the performances by Gilchrist and Tom Moody, though he could not erase the suspicion that Gilchrist, the wicketkeeper and dashing opening batsman, was picked for the wrong World Cup. While Gilchrist failed against the swinging ball in Australia's previous games, raising doubts about his technique on English wickets in the spring, Michael Slater, one of the world's finest batsmen, was opening for Derbyshire. This is the right time, but Slater is in the wrong place.

Moreover, Waugh has still to identify which of four all-rounders can bat at seven and contain the runs conceded by Australia's fifth bowler. Asked how he had chosen Moody for Thursday's match, Waugh laughed and said he'd picked his name out of a hat. The selection was either shrewd or very lucky. Moody won the man of the match award for taking 3 for 25 and scoring a very quick 56 not out, but it has not secured the all-rounder's role for him yet.

Perhaps Waugh's greatest problem is that confidence in his captaincy is diminishing. If he is aware of this himself, his own confidence will be eroding too. He has never been short of it but, in adversity, he becomes even less demonstrative than usual on the field. He may simply be ageing, but the lines around his mouth seem to be getting deeper. Mike Coward, cricket columnist for The Australian, believes that a captain's behaviour is conditioned by the performance of the team when he became a Test cricketer.

If this is so, Waugh is a cautious captain because he came into Allan Border's losing side in the mid-Eighties. His rival Shane Warne has only a fleeting acquaintance with defeat, and his captaincy of Australia's one-day team earlier this year when Waugh was injured was energetic and imaginative - two qualities the admirable Waugh is not long on.

Waugh and Moody have been here before. They were in the team when the World Cup was held in Australasia in 1992. Australia - then the trophy holders - lost to South Africa (twice), England, New Zealand and Pakistan, and failed to qualify for the semi-finals. If West Indies beat Australia at Old Trafford today, the same fate awaits them. If Australia win, it will all depend on run rates. Warne says he has not taken such an interest in decimal points since his schooldays.

Australia's start to this World Cup has the makings of a sad story, but if it should begin to stir feelings of pity, recall the words of John Arlott, the late, great guru of cricket commentary. He declared that no Englishman should ever feel sorry for an Australian cricket team. Whether Arlott meant that they do not need it, or do not deserve it, I am not sure, but I think that Arlott meant that Australian cricketers are self- motivated. To defeat them you do not need to plunge a stake through their heart, but it helps.

Out of respect for their hatred of defeat, Arlott would have forecast that Australia will qualify. And Arlott was often right.