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Pakistan, Australia in fight to top group

Australia haven't lost a World Cup match since losing to Pakistan in the 1999 edition.

Trevor Chesterfield | |March 18, 2011, 7:02 PM IST
Pakistan, Australia in fight to top group

Colombo: In far off Pallekele, the night Pakistan crushed Zimbabwe in their World Cup Group A game, two former captains met and had a long on-field post match chat. It even held up the team bus for more than a few minutes. As the coach, you can get away with such minor delays.

As Waqar Younis, now the Pakistan coach and captain of the 2003 World Cup team and Rameez Raja, one-time Test leader, chatted you can be sure it wasn't about Ray Price's bowling or even the pending retirement announcement of fast bowling maverick Shoaib Akhtar. They were surrounded by four security officers, so you can bet they were chatting in a dialect they understood and the security boys didn't.

From the occasional laugh, there was some humour in it as well. More to the point though, it appears the chat was about Pakistan’s Saturday game against Australia at the Khettarama venue of Premadasa Stadium. It was, says an insider, what bowling attack to use.

Fast-forward five days, we have Australian coach Tim Nielsen, involved in his own discussions and doing a check of the distance from the wicket to the boundaries on either side of the pitch as the one selected for the game is not that Ricky Ponting's side played Sri Lanka on that soggy night so long ago it seemed to be in another year.

Understandable, as the middle surface is being rested for the quarter and semi-finals, it is why the pitch for this game is two surfaces closer to the scoreboard.

Nielsen's chat was with a groundstaff member had been whether the current boundary on the scoreboard side of the ground would be moved closer to the scoreboard fence. The shorter scoreboard boundary may not seem a big deal to spectators, but when playing a key World Cup game, it can affect the length the bowlers need use as well and field placings. Such are how bowling and fielding strategies synergised.

It is why, when Shahid Afridi, when questioned about the Pakistan bowling attack and whether three spinners would be used he gave a broad grin and stroked his trimmed beard.

"Well, as you have Abdur, Ahmad and myself, how many more spinners do you need?" he joked. "It will be a different pitch, we know that. It is why we are not thinking of playing more than three spinners in this game."

Quite understandable as the way the World Cup is turning out, Pakistan are under more pressure for this match; a razor knife-edge of introspection that is where Pakistan can either play a classic game and win, or forget the basics and lose horrendously: as they did against New Zealand. It is more than the mind game; it is about skills and application, not make believe.

As Ponting pointed out, Australia have won all their games and are not under pressure. He also felt how the World Cup was now taking shape for his side. He agreed how his side, as World Cup holders, were proud of their CWC record, but every game as this one is a challenge.

"We are really exited to be playing Pakistan at this stage (of the tournament)," he commented. "During the breaks (in India), we have been training hard. I think we will get a better feeling where we are going after tomorrow's game."

Yet he tipped his cap at Pakistan’s flair and brilliance. It is why Australia would not be focussing on any one player in the Pakistan team. Shahid and Umar Gul are quality players and need to be looked at closely. It makes them a dangerous team.

As for Shoaib's retirement announcement, he admitted with a coy grin how the pace bowler from Rawalpindi had been a hard bowler to face. A few bruised ribs and knuckles were the testimony to the abrasions of battle.

"I have always said he is the fastest of bowlers and has always been entertaining with it," Ponting added. "There were times when he was very, very fast and you knew it. Amazingly, he still has good pace and we should think of that side of his game. So we are looking at the retirement of one of the modern greats and it is a pity as he will be missed."

There was a feeling though that Australia were not quite at the top of their game the last time they were on the island for the Sri Lanka game. They just didn’t seem to be clicking at the right time. The bowling was often flat and the slowness of the pitch and the need for an extra spinner would not have been lost on Nielsen and Ponting.

Whether they feel the pitch conditions for this game is worth changing their current policy is another matter: not so much a guessing game or playing a calculated risk with certain players, but knowing how the conditions can be used to benefit the World Cup holders since 1999. It is why Ponting was quite open about how the players felt about the team and the need to defend its record and capture a fourth title.

Always a tough call and like Pakistan, the yellow-clad Aussies will not be a pushover.

Team Rankings

Rank Team Points Rating
1 India 5046 120
2 New Zealand 3241 112
3 South Africa 3177 102
4 England 4593 102
5 Australia 3672 102
see more
Rank Team Points Rating
1 England 6745 125
2 India 7364 121
3 New Zealand 4837 112
4 Australia 5543 111
5 South Africa 5193 110
see more
Rank Team Points Rating
1 Pakistan 8366 270
2 Australia 6986 269
3 England 5568 265
4 South Africa 4720 262
5 India 10071 258
see more