By Faraz Sarwat
The World Twenty20 championship opens on Tuesday with the once all-conquering Australians ranked a dismal No.9 in this format of cricket, and on no one’s list of the favourites for the tournament.
A quick look at their team reveals jarring oddities. In George Bailey, Australia have a greenhorn for a captain, who earlier this year was plucked from virtual obscurity to be handed the captaincy and his international debut on the same day. Before Bailey, the last time this happened in Australian cricket was 1877. A captain short of international class and experience is alien enough for Australia, but is their secret weapon really a 41-year-old spin-bowler who retired four years ago, and who it must be said, even at the peak of his powers looked more like a real-estate agent than a cricketer? Australia have either totally lost the plot or have something special up their canary-yellow sleeves. I suspect the latter.
Australia will open their batting with power hitters Shane Watson and David Warner — and if even one of them has a good night, Australia will post an imposing total or make early and devastating inroads into any target. Watson and Warner feed off each other and in Australia’s last Twenty20 match before this tournament, they struck a combined 11 sixes off Pakistan — one of the world’s best bowling attacks. That match ended in a mammoth 94-run win for Australia and felt like a turning of the tide, returning the confidence if not some of the swagger to the team.
The openers are crucial to Australia’s chances in this tournament, but should there be a wobble, lower in the order waits Mike Hussey, a man with ice-water running through his veins. Winning games from seemingly-impossible positions is part of Hussey’s brief. He is a master of keeping the scoreboard ticking, running singles, deflecting good balls to the boundary and then winding up for a big six. Hussey, more than any other player, has shown that in Twenty20 cricket, even the widest of chasms between two sides can be bridged in the matter of a few balls. He is unflappable and the perfect player to have in the middle of a middle-order comprised of rookies. Australia’s batting plan appears simple, but effective: Warner and Watson set it up, and Hussey brings it home.
It remains to be seen what a 41-year-old Brad Hogg can do. Significant hopes are pinned on him and if he can’t come good, then Australia will struggle with their spin bowling. Their fast bowlers however, are quicker than one might expect, and even in this day and age of over-analysis, will catch some batsmen by surprise.
There are other teams in this tournament that are better equipped for Sri Lankan conditions, have a more varied bowling attack or a deeper batting line-up, but none of them have Australia’s steel — and in a competition where the talent gap between No. 9 and No. 1 is minimal, determination is what may well be the definitive factor. Few teams keep their heads in a fight the way the Aussies do. They believe they can win every game and it is rare for them to be weighed down by a bad sequence of results.
The Australians are not used to being thought of as no-hopers in major cricket tournaments. Before this tournament, the last time they were completely written-off was in the 1987 World Cup, held in India and Pakistan. It was Australia’s first World Cup win and that may well be all the inspiration George Bailey’s team needs.