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June 11, 1999


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Australia are coming good at the right time

R Mohan

Master blaster Viv Richards, cricket's latest knight, picks the Aussies to win the World Cup.

That may sound strange, considering how much Richards did in his career to torment Australia because they were the leading claimants to the world Test crown the West Indies wore for so long.

"Yes, I fancy the Aussies," said Richards, in the course of his duties as a television commentator for BBC, whose telecasts he makes lively with his comments and opinion.

Somewhat prone to keeping his opinions to himself in his playing days, Viv opens out these days. His willow used to do all the talking those days.

"I have no doubt South Africa deserves the title of favourites. I believe the Australians have struck form at the right time, and I pick them for the plum. They are on a roll," he said.

Cricket, as much as life, is a matter of timing. The Aussies may have got it right by coming good at the right time, their win over Zimbabwe coming from a good batting performance at Lord's.

The South Africans have been running steadily. They are so solid and so consistent that they need no roll. They seem to have momentum all the time as they showed in their clinical destruction of New Zealand, on Thursday, in which they could even afford to see Lance Klusener get out. His world record breaking run stops exactly at 400 which should please many since it is so easy to remember that figure.

The South Africans may be in a position to choose who they would play in the semi-finals. Given the fact that the Australians did not believe they were doing anything wrong when they tried to manipulate the West Indies into the Super Six, why should the South Africans not lose their match on Sunday to the Aussies so that they bring them up to the second or third spot in the table?

What Steve Waugh and his Aussies did in their match against the West Indies still rankles. What they did was against the spirit of the game although no rules were broken. They still did win which is laudable, considering the charge these days is that teams lost matches for some strange reasons.

If the Proteas lose to the Aussies, which the record itself suggests is not an unusual result, they can set up a clash with Zimbabwe or India or New Zealand in the semi-finals, depending on what happens in the match between Pakistan and Zimbabwe on Friday and the one between India and New Zealand on Saturday.

The most likely scenario would be the one in which South Africa, Australia, Pakistan and Zimbabwe would qualify on points, and since the South Africans would know the exact position when they play Australia at Headingley on Sunday they can choose their opponent in the final.

They slipped at the hurdles short of the final in both the World Cups they have played in. On the first occasion, they were denied a shot at a reasonable target against England by a Sydney shower on a day on which the Australian rain rule was shown up for what it was -- simly ridiculous.

The second time around, the Proteas lost control of their match against the West Indies and were beaten into submission by one Brian Lara, who gave his century a racial twist by saying how much he enjoyed beating the white South Africans. That was in the quarter-final of the 1996 World Cup.

Ironically, it may suit the South Africans to play in the semi-final the very team they lost to in the preliminary league. No one is taking Zimbabwe lightly since one day's good cricket can bring them right up to the final.

It is just that on current form they may not be in the same league as their opponent. Also, the sense of occasion of a semi-final may dampen Zimbabwe's enthusiasn and bring on the pressures of expectations.

Wasim Akram is backing Pakistan. That is understandable, perhaps even more so since he is beginning to resemble Imran Khan more and more, in that he writes columns on the cup he is playing in and also states strong opinions about playing conditions and player facilities.

The Aussies will pick themselves, of course. Their tardy start under a lacklustre skipper in the wake of a tiring tour of the Carribean just ahead of the World Cup seemed to have doom written all over them. But their defeats against Pakistan and New Zealand did not bother the senior Waugh, who knew one good game against the West Indies would put them in the Super Six and another good match would send them towards the semi-finals.

In retrospect, Mohammad Azharuddin, who generally announces his team decisions at the toss rather than his own, may have given the Aussies the perfect opportunity to tune up their cricket. Given the conditions at the start of the match, Azhar did no wrong, but found out subsequently that to back his batsmen was the more logical route out of the dilemma captains face at the toss in English conditions.

The World Cup is moving quickly towards it second cut and the match at The Oval later today would have already decided which four will go into the semi-finals.

There is some scope for gamesmanship since the South Africans can "tank" on Sunday and do themselves a favour. Or they can simply play their reserves saying they are preserving the major players for the knock-out.

But will a team risk losing momentum at such a critical stage of the competition?


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