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A look back at Australia at the 1996 World Cup

96WC

After dominating ODI cricket for several years, Australia’s failure at its home 1992 World Cup was a shock to the national cricket establishment and remains one of Australian cricket’s biggest post-WSC failures. Methods, players and tactics that had been shown to be reliable and successful for several years were shown up to be stale, timid and complacent once the tournament started.

Therefore, Australia had to reinvigorate their one-day cricket in anticipation of the next World Cup to be held in Asia in 1996. The path to revitalizing their ODI cricket only really began once they made opening batsman Mark Taylor permanent captain after Allan Border’s retirement in 1994.

On the surface Taylor hardly seemed an apt choice as ODI captain as he had been a less than regular choice in the side when he was just an opening batsman. But as was to become immediately apparent, he was an inventive captain (and excellent slips fielder) so his moderate ODI batting skills could be tolerated for the greater good.

Australia’s ODI results were largely very strong under Taylor’s tenure in the couple of years leading up to the 1996 WC. Their only poor performance had been a 4-1 series defeat in the West Indies but it was apparent that Australia saw that series as a sideshow to their real aim of winning the Test series (which they famously achieved).

But probably the greatest improvement in Australia’s ODI cricket in the years between the 1992 & 1996 World Cups was Shane Warne becoming an outstanding matchwinner of the side. In truth Warne’s success as an ODI bowler was more unlikely than his Test success as the perception until then was that the 50 Over format was just not viable for leg-spin as it was too high risk to succeed in a format geared towards batsmen.

Indeed, it took almost two years after his Test debut before Warne was given a chance in the ODI format but it became immediately apparent that he was to be an essential part of the side as he broke all the assumed thinking about leg-spin bowling in this format; not only was he an aggressive and successful wicket-taker but he could be relied upon to be economical.
Otherwise, Australia’s side was a strong mix of quality aggressive batting, outstanding fielding and a varied, multi-faceted top-class bowling attack. Any potential weaknesses they might have had in spin-friendly Asian conditions appeared to be mitigated by having the likes of Mark Waugh opening the batting and Warne’s spinning abilities.

Australia seemed well-placed in the months leading up to the World Cup but the home 1995/96 tri-series revealed some unexpected challenges and issues that would crop up in the tournament. And it wasn’t the expected big challenge of the West Indies who played largely labored and tired cricket throughout the tournament; it was Sri Lanka, a side that had previously had little ODI success in Australia.

While Sri Lanka didn’t win the tri-series, their cricket had a freshness and daring that made Australia’s style look old-hat. This was especially so when they moved wicket-keeper Ramesh Kaluwitharana up to the top of the order with Sanath Jayasuriya which was a groundbreaking move on two counts. Firstly, there had been aggressive, risk-taking opening ODI batsmen before but hardly ever both openers being this way and also the concept that a keeper could be infinitely more valuable in this format as a genuine bat in their own right.

Still, Australia looked a formidable prospect for the World Cup and despite having to forfeit a match against Sri Lanka over security concerns their passage to the knockout stages was never in doubt.

Particularly impressive was beating India on their home turf in a high-quality encounter. Australia batted first and Mark Waugh – probably at the peak of his powers – continued his golden tournament by scoring 126. While Australia’s innings fell away towards the end to only score 258 it proved enough for a 16 run win with Damien Fleming taking 5 wickets

A look at Australia’s bowling scorecard for this match shows how Taylor was prepared to be unconventional in his plans; main strike bowler Glenn McGrath didn’t get to bowl his full compliment of overs while Mark Waugh’s modest off-breaks got the full 10 overs, and the pivotal wicket of Sachin Tendulkar.

Australia were heavily favoured in their quarter-final against New Zealand but looked for a while to be heading for a shock defeat when keeper/captain Lee Germon & all-rounder Chris Harris combined for a brutal 168 run stand. However, New Zealand failed to fully capitalize in the later overs and only managed 286 when they should’ve got well over 300. As it turned out 325 may not have been enough as Australia cruised to the target with 6 wickets and 13 deliveries to spare on the back of another Mark Waugh century.

Taylor’s strengths and weaknesses as a ODI captain/player were again on display in this match. His leadership inventiveness was shown when he brought Shane Warne up the order to No. 4 as an effective pinch-hitter (a tactic hardly ever employed before or since) with his 21 off 14 providing invaluable momentum in Australia’s chase. On the other hand, Taylor scored a stodgy 10 off 24 and frankly his early dismissal probably helped his side with the rest of the batting lineup much more adept at chasing down the target. His limitations as a one-day batsman were to become unavoidable over the next 12-18 months.

Then came the semi-final against the West Indies, still one of the most famous ODIs Australia has ever played. The West Indies had a tournament of extremes, a humiliating loss to Kenya but also managed to beat Australia in the group stage and then a shock quarter-final win against South Africa on the back of a Brian Lara masterclass. They were clearly a side on the decline but still had champions galore and highly dangerous.

And it appeared that the West Indies had the match won within the first 10 overs, reducing Australia to 4/15, including their best batsman in Mark Waugh for a duck. But Australia still had Michael Bevan, the perfect batsman to form a rearguard in this situation and with Stuart Law they had a stoic 138 run partnership and enabled the side to manage 207; a score under par but certainly defendable.

But the West Indies looked to be cruising with young left-hander Shiv Chanderpaul scoring 80 at the top of the order and by the 42nd over, only needed 43 runs to win off 53 deliveries with 8 wickets. Taylor tried 8 bowlers to change things around but even the most ardent of Australian fans would’ve thought the match was lost.
But even in this dominant position the TV commentators were noting the West Indies were a bit panicky in their batting seemingly wanting to try and slog boundaries when it wasn’t needed and once Chanderpaul departed, the soft underbelly of the West Indies batting lineup with a long tail and horribly out of form batsmen like Keith Arthurton to come was exposed.

And with a player like Shane Warne, Taylor had the perfect bowler to exploit the panic as a series of wild shots resulted and even with Richie Richardson still there, they had a major collapse.

By the final over the West Indies needed 10 runs for victory with just two wickets in hand (a tie would’ve seen Australia out) but when Richardson scored a boundary off the first ball of Fleming’s over, it appeared the West Indies had control. But in another sign of muddled thinking, Richardson when for a desperate single next delivery which would’ve seen tailender Curtly Ambrose be on strike and play right into Australia’s hands; in any case he was run out and there was only going to be one winner from that point. Undoubtedly this was the high point of Mark Taylor’s ODI captaincy tenure.

But, alas from Australia, the mental and physical effort to win the previous two knockout matches seemed to tell on the side as they were no match for Sri Lanka in the final. Batting first Australia started off well with Mark Taylor scoring 74 (at an atypically brisk rate) but once he fell, Australia’s batting got ground down by the plethora of Sri Lanka’s spinners and 7/241 appeared about 30-40 runs short.

And despite losing their two aggressive opening batsmen early, Sri Lanka were never troubled in chasing down the total, winning with 22 deliveries and 7 wickets to spare on the back of an Aravidna De Silva century. Even Shane Warne could do little to turn things around this time.

On a broader level, the final illustrated the changing of the guard that had been begun during Australia’s battles with Sri Lanka in their home summer. Sri Lanka’s increased level of self-belief and their increased aggression – initially through their openers – had manifested itself throughout their entire batting lineup and had seen some astonishing scoring feats during this tournament and made them deserved winners.

In contrast, the final was the beginning of a dire period of 18 months of ODI that would result in major upheaval in the leadership and structure of the side. Would Australia learn from this period and become an even stronger ODI side over future World Cups? Only time would tell.

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