Your team by team guide to the World Cup
Australia’s World Cup selections are getting a finger-in-the-dyke look about them. No sooner had they addressed their batting worries than their bowling sprang a leak. As Sri Lanka staged a spirited if ultimately vain assault on Australia’s 9/376 in Sydney, the hosts appeared to be a bowler, if not one or two fielders, on the light side.
As Kumar Sangakkara passed 14,000 one-day international runs and set off after 15,000, Sri Lanka gave the Australians a persistent anxious tremor. Could a team that battled to defend 376 win the World Cup? Perhaps this was to be expected from a team packed with all-rounders.
Shane Watson, picked for his bowling experience, batted vibrantly but was manhandled with the ball. On a turning track, the spinners went for 95 off 13 wicketless overs, even if one of them, Glenn Maxwell, had played the innings of his life. Only Mitchell Starc and James Faulkner were able to maintain consistent pressure. Australia achieved their aim of ensuring a likely place in the top half of Group A, but the ideal selection remains a riddle.
Michael Clarke, at least, filled the gap that had been opening most visibly under pressure. The debate over whether Clarke should have batted against Afghanistan in Perth was moot. A late slog is not why he is in the Australian team. He is in for when early wickets are down, the stakes are up, and sandbags are needed.
When he came to the wicket in the ninth over, at two for 41 with both openers gone on a slow, grippy pitch, there were no thoughts of massive totals.
The biggest mountains often don’t seem so high until the summit is reached. With the World Cup campaign potentially on the line, Clarke’s appearance alongside Steve Smith was reassuring. Smith was already in full flight, with a straight drive and two cover-drives off Angelo Matthews, the first and second raking the grass, the third on the up and beautifully controlled, squarer of the wicket.
Clarke, on the SCG, against spin bowling, is a banker. Steadily, he and Smith regained control. Clarke was comfortable whether skipping down the wicket or backing away for a Doug Walters-like cut shot. There will never be a hand-painted canvas Michael Clarke Stand, but there will never again be an SCG Hill.
While comfortable, Clarke’s batting didn’t look painless. Pink in the face from humidity, he was far from quicksilver between the wickets. After the 27th over, a medical-looking gent paid him a visit. Once the partnership had passed 100, Clarke began hitting more aggressively, if not quite more loosely. His first 50 balls yielded 38 runs and one boundary; off his next 17, he scored 30 more, with five hitting the fence.
Clarke the batsman has been rarely sighted this summer. Early on, his role was secondary to grief and statesmanship; later, it was overshadowed by hamstrings and headlines. His strike rate of controversies per balls faced was at an all-time high. But in cricket, to paraphrase Chairman Mao, power grows out of the middle of the bat, and here Clarke was back doing what he does best.
Lasith Malinga was brought on from the Paddington End in the 32nd over. He had not, so far, bowled a ball to Clarke. Malinga’s action is so strange, the ball looks like it might be coming from mid-off before it releases from somewhere near mid-on. It resembles a wall-eyed gaze: one looking at you, one looking for you. After an opening bouncer, which Clarke pulled away for two, Malinga tried three yorkers. Two were overpitched, and the third Clarke drove majestically back past the bowler. Malinga tried again and hit paydirt. Clarke was out for a run-a-ball 68, and in the next over Smith was gone for a true number three’s innings of 72.
The remaining 18 overs would be Maxwell’s big showcase. His long-awaited first international century was a very special innings, and when he passed the milestone he had more man-love for his partner Watson than had been seen in Moore Park for, ooh, at least 12 hours. This was flamboyance on parade, and Maxwell’s flourishing reverse sweep is cricket’s feather boa.
Australia was by then closing in on a one-day international score on the SCG that would have been a record until last week. But much of this had been a grim battle for survival, when Australia needed the mid-innings batsmanship they had lacked in Auckland. All big scores need groundwork – MS Dhoni says that even a 15-ball knock in a Twenty20 match needs to start with a patiently-laid foundation – and this platform was out of the textbook, built under high pressure by the firm of Smith and Clarke. By the end of the night, Australia would need it.
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