Ponting forges team in his own image

From the moment they stepped on to West Indies’ soil in St Vincent, Ricky Ponting’s Australia team have been men on a mission.

Even judged by the exalted standards of previous Australia captains, Ponting is a particularly driven individual. Over the past Australian season he has forged a team in his own image.

Before the summer had properly started, Australia captured the only major trophy missing from their cabinet by winning the Champions Trophy.

They then avenged their 2005 Ashes defeat by thrashing England 5-0. Still not satisfied, and with the added stimulus of upset losses to England in a tri-series final and then to New Zealand in the three Chappell-Hadlee matches, Australia targeted the World Cup to complete an unforgettable season.

Remorseless progress

Their progress has been remorseless since they beat England in the warm-up week in St Vincent.

England were beaten again, South Africa and Sri Lanka dismissed and New Zealand humiliated by a record 215-run margin.

The last three are the other semifinalists with South Africa earning the dubious right to play Australia in St Lucia on Wednesday.

Statistics need to be treated warily in one-day cricket but in Australia’s case they do tell a tale as the teams take a break between the end of the Super Eights and the start of the semifinals.

Matthew Hayden has scored three centuries and compiled the most runs of the tournament so far with 580 at an average of 82.85. Four of the top 10 in the batting averages are Australian.

One of them, Brad Hodge, has played as a substitute only when first Andrew Symonds and then Shane Watson were injured.

Australia were expected to have the best top-order batting at the World Cup.

Three of their top five batsmen — Ponting, Michael Clarke and Andrew Symonds — also form the best infield, a trio of predatory prowlers within the circle on the off-side during the Powerplays.

What will have given Ponting particular satisfaction is the performance of his bowlers. Glenn McGrath (37) was believed in some quarters to be susceptible on slow Caribbean pitches.

He has been hit, but never consistently, and the vastly experienced paceman who retires from all international cricket after Saturday’s final in Barbados, heads the list of tournament wicket-takers with 22.

Three men follow on 19. One is Sri Lanka’s Muttiah Muralitharan, the best spinner in the world after Shane Warne’s retirement. The other two are Shaun Tait and Brad Hogg.

Tait, sensitively handled by Ponting, has visibly matured throughout the tournament into a strike bowler with the potential to match the giants of the past.

Hogg, who endured five wicketless internationals against England and New Zealand, is finding Caribbean wickets ideal for his jaunty left-arm wrist spin.

”He’s bowled beautifully through the tournament, bowling as well now as he ever has and he’s beating a lot of batsmen with his variations,” Ponting told reporters during the Super Eights in Grenada.

In contrast to just about everybody else, the entire team is always practising some facet of their game at full intensity.

The day before the 215-run demolition of New Zealand last Friday, two Australians batted on in the nets hours after their teammates had finished.

One was Hayden, who scored his third century of the tournament against the Kiwis. The other was Ponting.

”It’s a very motivated team,” Ponting said after the match. ”A lot of champion players and you don’t have to motivate champion players.”

Hayden, invited to comment on his innings, preferred instead to talk about the team.

”Everything we have worked for so desperately this summer, and it started before the ICC Trophy, is now on the line,” he said. ”There’s no replacing hard work. There’s not one bloke who isn’t doing as much work as the other.” – Reuters

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