Sydney: Australia, the reigning champion, deserves to be installed as favourite to retain the World Cup in the sport's four-yearly showpiece about to unfold in South Africa and Zimbabwe.
While Limited Overs matches will always embrace a quota of shock results, the better teams narrow the margin for upsets. Ricky Ponting's Green and Golds have unfurled an irresistible brand of cricket in the just-completed tri-nations series at home against England and Sri Lanka, winning nine out of 10 scraps - and the last six in a row. Ponting, at the helm for just on a year after the controversial axing of former skipper Steve Waugh, has moulded his side into a formidable unit which looks set to peak at the optimum time.
Powerful batting, potent bowling and precision-plus fielding add up to a heady mix few opponents can match. The only cloud hanging over the squad was a crop of injuries - most relatively minor - which sparked some consternation a few weeks before the World Cup. Highly-rated physiotherapist Errol Alcott was confident most players would be fully recovered in time for the start of the contest. One player definitely ruled out at the 11th hour is all-rounder Shane Watson, immediately replaced by another all- rounder, Ian Harvey. Another member of the 15-man squad who was under a cloud is left-handed middle-order batsman Michael Bevan (torn groin muscle).
But selectors decided on Monday (January 27) to retain him in the 15-man squad, believing he will be ready for early games. Key players who had been sidelined, but are expected to be ready for Cup duty, are pacemen Glenn McGrath (sore back) and Jason Gillespie (elbow) and match-winning leg spinner Shane Warne (dislocated bowling shoulder). Australia's batting is spearheaded by two of the most electrifying stroke makers in the modern game, tall left-handers Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden. Their ability to decimate even a quality attack was illustrated in a recent match against England when the pair fashioned an unbroken stand of 118 in 57 minutes off 12.2 overs to wrap up a one-sided victory.
Gilchrist (69 not out) and Hayden (45 not out) each faced a mere 37 balls. The right-handed Ponting and Damien Martyn, along with left-hander Darren Lehmann, are also punishing players. Middle-to-lower order batsman Andrew Symonds is one of the world's biggest hitters. Right-hander Symonds clobbered 16 sixes in an innings and 20 in a match for Gloucestershire against Glamorgan in 1995 to set two world records. Lower-order batsmen Ian Harvey, Brad Hogg, Brett Lee, Warne, Gillespie and Andy Bichel are all good for intermittent flurries with the bat in the later overs. On paper, Australia has one of the best attacks the game has seen.
McGrath, Lee, Gillespie and Bichel combine pace, hostility and economy. Leg spinner Shane Warne - provided he has fully recovered from surgery on the right shoulder he dislocated mid- December - will dispense the magic that has terrorised batsmen for 10 years. Quality back-up will come from medium-pacer Harvey, left-arm Chinaman bowler Hogg, a farmer's son from Western Australia, orthodox left-armer Lehmann and Symonds, who sends down off spin and medium pace. Australia's fielding in some of the tri-nations fixtures reached a new level of excellence.
Desperate chasing and acrobatic diving, first-time gathering of the ball and computer-like throwing gave the side a decisive edge on opponents. Hogg was in the Jonty Rhodes class, repeatedly uprooting the stumps with pin-point direct shots. Ponting was not far behind. Certainly there are no guarantees in this abbreviated form of the game - but it will take an outstanding side to relieve Australia of its crown.