Proteas’ bogeyman chews gum, has leathery skin, makes a lot of noise … and goes by the name of Oz

2011-02-12 00:00

SOUTH Africa have little to fear except fear itself. Indeed they remain my tip to win the World Cup. But first they have to overcome a bogeyman that exists deep in their psyche. The curse chews gum, has leathery skin, makes a lot of noise, is notoriously uncompromising and goes by the name of Australia.

Subdue this foe and the battle is half won. Certainly other teams are also strong — Sri Lanka have been preparing for months, chose the right team and are well balanced and superbly led. India blend experience and talent, England are rising, Pakistan cannot be taken for granted. But the Proteas can beat all of them provided they dare to confront the Aussies, and their darkest fears.

And the Aussies are eminently beatable. They arrive at the World Cup in a curious position. At once they are the first-ranked team in the format and a tottering giant. After years of suffering under the antipodean yoke, rivals sense that the time has come to turn the tables.

But it’s easier said than done. Like Germany in the football, the Australians relish these meetings of the mighty.

They might not spread fear as in days of yore, but they remain competitive.

Moreover Ricky Ponting’s team have dominated the last three World Cups. Considering the amount of luck supposedly involved in 50-over cricket, it is an exceptional feat.

In every case, too, they took the trophy easily. It is a formidable record. These blokes know how to win.

Sixteen years have passed since any other side lifted the trophy. The trail of failure is long and can cause anxiety at critical moments. In the latter stages the pressure will increase as the excitement mounts. Other nations will be agog, only Australia will stay calm.

Of course, the Aussies might not last that long. After a decade of supremacy they have slipped to fifth in the Test rankings. It is a taste of things to come. As a rule cricket communities fall back first in the longest version of the game and later in the shorter forms. Eventually great players withdraw and their replacements prove to be merely mortal.

Not that Ricky Ponting’s team lacks ambition. Indeed the stakes could hardly be higher. Ponting knows that failure will herald the end of his career. Indeed it might convince the selectors to thank all the older players for their services and to start afresh. Australia does not fall in love with its sporting champions, concentrates on the team and not the individual. Ian Healy was ditched after 99 Tests, and never mind that the next match was to be played on his home ground. It was harsh but it was the way forward.

By the same token, success might persuade the think tank that there is life in the old dog. Ponting is younger than Jacques Kallis and Sachin Tendulkar and can take inspiration from their form in these twilight years.

Ponting will also be desperate to secure a third world title to counterbalance his three Ashes defeats. No Australian captain since Billy Murdoch 140 yeas ago has thrice lost to the old enemy and the incumbent knows that his legacy hangs in the balance. Losing the Ashes on antipodean soil hurt and he is desperate to end on a better note.

Apart from experience, Australia’s strengths will lie in the fast bowling and canny batting. That the country’s quickest flingers conserve their energies for 50 and 20-over cricket says something about the times. Brett Lee and Shaun Tait focus on more brief capers that can fill their pockets without hurting their bodies. Lee has been in exceptional form with the white ball and has given the attack the leadership sorely missed in the Test series.

Shane Watson, Ponting and Brad Haddin give the batting its hard edge and much will depend on the way the younger fry perform. Alas most of the youngsters have been injured. Whether a softer life, easier money or weeks spent on Facebook are to blame is a matter hotly debated Down Under.

Spin is the team’s weak point, a failing that could hold it back on late season subcontinental tracks. Jason Krezja is at once the most dangerous and least dependable of the tweakers. His unexpected return might prove a blessing in disguise.

Inescapably, though, Australia are vulnerable. Ponting has not played any serious cricket for months and his finger still looks angry. Mike Hussey will be missed and the speedsters could break down. Mitchell Johnson is wayward and the fielding has been ragged.

The Proteas can beat them. But they need to rid themselves of the terrible fear of defeat and replace it with a cheerful craving for victory. The contribution of the younger players will be crucial because they don’t bear the same scars. Up and at ‘em!

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