Cricket World Cup: Waugh's debt to the talisman

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SUCH IS the sudden impact Glenn Mc-Grath is having on this World Cup that if DNA tests were done on the strike bowler it's highly likely the boffins would find a bloodline trace to that other Australian icon of mayhem, Mel Gibson.

Worldwide, when admirers of the art of bowling gather to discuss the ball's greatest moments, all but forgotten is Eric Hollies' deception of Don Bradman for a duck at The Oval in 1948; mostly minds flash back to the Ashes in 1993 and that ball, Shane Warne bamboozling Mike Gatting.

But I ask you, was that ball really any better than the one with which McGrath castled Brian Lara at Headingley in this World Cup, pitching leg and eluding what looked like a textbook-straight defensive bat to crack the top of off? The historic value of Hollies' ball was guaranteed, it being the final moment in Bradman's career, and Warne's ball propelled him into history.

History may yet have a place for McGrath's ball. At The Oval, as he was scuttling an Indian top order with batting medals to burn, the thought probably crossed more than Australian minds that the ball to Lara might have been the turning point in Australia's then wobbling campaign, might even eventually lead to World Cup glory.

It was clear against India that there is a new spirit about the Australians. For recently despondent fans it is the kiss of life, especially for those in tour support parties who'd paid up months ago and were faced with the prospect of negotiating the arrivals area at Heathrow just as Waugh and Co were filing into departures.

Any one of the plethora of cricket psychoanalysts crowding the dressing- room scene these days would announce that the Australians are "peaking" at the right time, but that would naively imply that their early indifferent form was in some way planned.

Who is to say this team of Steve Waugh's might not have been victims of the same "rust factor" that threatened the Australians in the very early stages of the 1997 Ashes tour, which by the end was an unqualified triumph?

Against India there were further good signs that the resurgence begun by McGrath's one-man demolition of the West Indies had spread. Some form from Mark Waugh is always important, because the longer he stays generally the bigger the Australian score. Overall the batting approach looked less skittish, orthodox even. The only glitches were the "twin" dismissals of Mark Waugh and Ricky Ponting, then later Steve Waugh and Darren Lehmann.

True, in each case, the surviving "set" batsman, Ponting and then Lehmann, was out of luck, but such dissolving partnerships introduce two new batsmen and that can freeze a run-rate or worse, opponents with more firepower than India and captains with more imagination - South Africa and Pakistan - might instantly wreck the innings.

The bowling of Paul Reiffel was of a tighter line and he bowled sharpish, with bounce. Batsmen who carelessly offer no shot in limited-overs cricket deserve no sympathy, and it was hard to understand why umpire Steve Bucknor offered any to Ajay Jadeja when he padded at a Reiffel in-slanter locked on to off stump, the bowler's coup de grace after some foreplay earlier in the over.

Now fit, Reiffel is a seam bowler with few peers, and is no slouch with the bat. There can be no need now to toss a coin to decide between Reiffel, Adam Dale, Brendon Julian or Shane Lee. Moody's all-round aggression suggests this is Australia's best mix, a theory enhanced by Steve Waugh's body language, slightly hangdog early in the tournament, but brighter at The Oval.

The question is, how long can McGrath keep doing this? Without wanting to suggest Australia can't win unless McGrath fires, it is true that when he's on song he provides a level of managed aggression that intimidates opponents, even the very best like Lara and Sachin Tendulkar. At the start of the year McGrath was asked by a sports magazine to nominate his 10 best batsmen in the world and, to add some spice, asked to highlight a particular trait in each. He came up with a top three, and "the rest": 1 Tendulkar (class); 2 Steve Waugh (competitor); 3 Lara (ego).

Then, in no particular order, he named Saeed Anwar (wristy), Mark Waugh (entertainer), Aravinda de Silva (shotmaker), Hansie Cronje (deter- mination), Graham Thorpe (hooker), Sanath Jayasuriya (scientific hitter) and Mohammad Azharuddin (flashy).

Cronje is the next of those on McGrath's hit list and for Australia next Sunday's match with South Africa will carry with it as much importance as the last two survival tests. Because of this cup's unpredictability - the weather, the ball and the points system - it may not turn out to be a must-win game for Australia, but Waugh will be keen for his team to stay on "the roll" and grab any psychological edge at all against a team he thinks can be suspect under the maximum pressure.