AUSTRALIA'S RUN in the World Cup has the sense of impeccable timing. Like all pros-pective champions, like the great team they are, when it mattered they eased down on the throttle. The key players have produced the goods: Glenn McGrath dipped into his locker for a few searing balls marked unplayable, Mark Waugh emerged with sequences of strokes which were as sumptuous as they were effective.
Yet, it has been also observed that the giant strides they have made in the past fortnight happen to match those of Tom Moody. The recall of the tall, lean all-rounder Long Tom has coincided exactly with the side's revival.There was something lacking in the Australian late middle-order, a commodity which other accomplished cricketers could not quite provide.
Moody's explosive batting, his serviceable, journeyman seam bowling, his prowling of the boundary, his immense throw, his experience of England and, simply, his experience have bridged the gap. If Australia have not looked the complete one-day side with him, they have once more become one that nobody wants to play.
South Africa will possess that feeling at Headingley today and they are familiar with it. They may have been the outstanding side of the tournament, the boys who have won from unpromising positions (India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan), but against Australia they have a history. Their place in the semi-final is guaranteed but they will be desperate to deal Australia a blow. Win and their place at the top of the Super Sixes is certain, giving them more control over their own destiny.
None among them will forget the past, whatever their grand feats lately. Six years ago South Africa won the first of three finals in a triangular series in Australia and lost the next two, five years ago they were 3-1 and 4-2 up in a home series and drew 4-4 and most bitterly of all, two years ago, they won all four qualifying ties between the sides in another tri-series in Australia, took the first final but lost the tournament by losing the next two matches.
South Africa may have learned to win by now, citing the Commonwealth Games and the mini-World Cup in Dacca as reasonable evidence, but they need to be rid of the Australian thorn. Pakistan are quite enough to be bothering about for one tournament.
Long Tom, who toured England with the 1989 Australians and played the 1990 summer with Warwickshire, has been with Worcestershire since 1991 and will return to be their captain after this tournament. He was in his usual placid, studied frame as he considered today's match. "I think it is to our advantage for the last game that we will know exactly what we have to do," he said. "But whatever that is, we will be going for a win. When you are in a winning shape as we are at the moment you don't want to give it up easily. Neither will they.
"We have a happy knack of playing the big games like that. It's something we've done in this World Cup. India was a huge game for us as was West Indies before it, and we beat them and beat them by big margins. We knew we had to win. I don't know, but maybe it takes us to go to the wall to come up with the cricket that we are capable of. Two big crunch games and we found that level."
Moody is a touch surprised to find himself lining up in another crunch match for Australia. Last October in the Commonwealth Games he badly wrenched his right knee. It required manipulation and rest and he never made the squad for the Carlton and United Series in January and February. More significantly, when the selectors named their initial 19 for the World Cup, from which the final 15 would be chosen, he was not on the list.
"I rang the chairman of selectors and asked him if there was any chance and he said there was a glimmer. He made it pretty clear that there was no more than a glimmer but Western Australia had three games left and I took that as my glimmer." Moody is captain of WA and he led from the front in the run-in.
There were runs, a century, there were wickets and there was the Sheffield Shield. He was in the World Cup. "I think a few of the senior players had suggested my experience could be useful and I proved my fitness," he said. "I wanted to play another World Cup because it's my last and I missed the final with injury when we won in 1987."
At 6ft 61/2in tall, Moody is the tallest man in Australia's squad, giving McGrath half an inch. That alone makes him a distinctive cricketer, but he has a singular walk as well. Watching him go out to bat from behind he could be Gary Cooper walking up the street to meet his destiny in High Noon. It is a meaningful march, the shoulders are stooped but rigid.
His hitting is as long and sturdy as his frame, his throwing, at 33, is still exocet-like in intensity. He demonstrated this by throwing a haggis a purported 230ft in Scotland during the 1989 tour, while wearing a kilt, naturally, though the Guinness Book of Records claims one Alan Pettigrew, not an Australian cricketer, to hold the distance with 180ft 11in in 1984.
His one-day figures are not spectacular (an average of 23 with the bat, 38 with the ball) but he is an essential one-day team man who contributes everywhere, not bits and pieces, but grit and substance. The present competition is his first trot at the devilishly problematic position of No 7. To learn how to cope he asked advice from the one-day game's best No 6, Michael Bevan.
"He has helped me wonderfully. Most often you're batting in the final few overs and the key to it is rotating the strike at first to keep the board ticking over but also working out when you're going to hit boundaries, who you're going to hit them off and where you're going to hit them. He's a master of it."
This is going to be some final week for this World Cup. Nobody wants the job of stopping South Africa, Pakistan or Australia - but stopping Australia may prove the most arduous.
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