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VB Series 2006 Preview
08 Jan 2006
By: Arunava Das

The 2006 triangular VB Series tournament featuring Australia, Sri Lanka and South Africa, kicks off this Friday, the 13th of January when Australia takes on Sri Lanka under the roof at the Telstra Dome in Melbourne. The 2005 VB Series was a competitive affair even though Australia, as expected, took the honours with Pakistan and the West Indies providing some exciting cricket. A shortened format of the series, with each team playing six matches not including finals, was tried last year. However, this year the tournament reverts back to the old, and oft-criticized, format of eight matches for each team and then a best of three finals series.

Going by recent form, this year's series is set to be shootout between the in form South Africans and the always-brilliant Australian team. South Africa have been in stellar form in the shortened form of the game of late recently setting a new South African record of 20 consecutive matches without a loss, second only to Australia's magnificent run of 21 wins encompassing the World Cup in 2003, and have moved up to 2nd in the ICC rankings. Unfortunately for the legions of Sri Lankan fans in Australia, the Sri Lankan team is looking like coming a distant third in this year's contest having suffered humiliating losses in recent times to India and New Zealand. However, they will be looking to turn their fortunes around and will certainly fight hard to challenge the top two teams.

The current Sri Lankan team has often been accused of succeeding only in favourable conditions at home, and current form certainly backs up that theory. In 2005, Sri Lanka played 16 One Day Internationals with a 50% win/loss record. However, delving deeper reveals that at home they won seven out of eight matches while away they lost seven out of eight, including a 6-1 series loss to India. Responding to this record, the Sri Lankans have brought several youngsters in their squad for the VB Series. Chamara Kapugedera has been plucked from Under-19 level to represent the national team at the age of just 18, while young leg spinner Malinga Bandara and pace bowler Nuwan Kulasekara will be relied upon to provide support for the Sri Lankan bowling stars, the brilliant Muralitharan and the steady Chaminda Vaas. Also in the squad are the recently recalled left-armer Ruchira Perera, medium-pacer Farveez Maharoof and pace bowler Dilhara Fernando. Fernando will in particular be looked at to perform; having already played 79 ODIs without great success while recently installed coach Tom Moody will also be looking to prove his coaching credentials to his home audience.

The batting line-up will also have an inexperienced look about it, with the explosive Sanath Jayasuriya ruled out of the series due to injury. Sri Lanka will be expecting a lot from their middle-order batsmen, particularly from wicketkeeper-batsman Kumar Sangakkara who has been in excellent form, and captain Marvan Atapattu. The promising Upul Tharanga will most likely open the innings with another young gun in Jehan Mubarak. Another batsman to watch out for is Michael Vandort, rewarded with a national recall after years of success in Sri Lanka's domestic competitions.

The South Africans will begin the VB Series full of confidence after their good showing in the Test Series despite a 2-0 score line. Their ODI form of late has been brilliant, running through the West Indies away and then performing in some pressure games against New Zealand to win 4-0 at home. Their performance in India was also creditable, coming away with a 2-2 drawn series against a fast rising Indian team. They also have history on their side - the last time South Africa played in the VB Series they won the tournament and managed to keep Australia out of the finals.

Like the Sri Lankans, South Africa is blooding a few youngsters in preparation for the World Cup in 2007. Pace bowler Garnett Kruger has been included in the squad and will no doubt get a chance at some point in the series while another pace bowler, the injury-prone Monde Zondeki, has been recalled to the national squad.

Despite being reported for a suspect bowling action, off-spinner Johan Botha will also play in the series after impressing in the ODIs against India and in the Sydney Test match. South Africa will be without their pace-bowling spearhead in Makhaya Ntini, who was injured in the Melbourne Test match. However, the ever-reliable Pollock and the fiery Andre Nel will form an effective new-ball pairing while the inclusion of in form all-rounder Andrew Hall strengthens the attack.

The South African batting on paper looks excellent, with ODI specialist Boeta Dippenaar and Graeme Smith at the top of the order, followed by Jacques Kallis, Herschelle Gibbs and Ashwell Prince. However of the top order, only Smith has a better than career average against main contenders for the series, Australia. Australian audiences will no doubt be looking forward to some big hitting from all-rounder Justin Kemp as well. Although having brushed aside all-comers in the lead-up to the VB Series, South Africa will find taking on a determined Sri Lanka and a world number one Australian side a tough challenge.

Australia is again the favourite to take VB Series as they have done for the last three years. However as was shown in the recent Chappell-Hadlee Trophy, there are weaknesses the challengers could hope to exploit.

The bowling in particular was lackluster, with New Zealand allowed to cross 300 twice and pull-off a world record run chase of 332 against an inexperienced bowling attack. Of the squad that went to New Zealand, Cameron White, Brad Hodge, Mitchell Johnson and Michael Lewis have been axed.

Pace spearhead and the 2nd ranked fast bowler in ODIs Brett Lee makes his ODI return after leaving the Chappell-Hadlee series early with injury while the rested Glenn McGrath will also make his ODI return. The surprise selection in the squad is undoubtedly Brett Dorey. Having shown excellent form in both the Pura and ING Cup in domestic cricket, the tall fast bowler is another selection for the future with the 2007 World Cup in mind while Queensland all-rounder James Hopes is being given another opportunity.

With the absence of Cameron White, Brad Hogg is the sole spinner in the squad although Andrew Symonds and Michael Clarke can be expected to bowl spin when needed. With a new-ball partnership of Lee and McGrath, the Australians will be providing a considerable challenge to any team with hopes of beating them. Lee's fiery pace coupled with McGrath's unerring accuracy will test all of the opposition batsmen.

On the batting front, Damien Martyn returns after injury while the rest of the batting looks fairly settled. There have been calls within the media to recall Test opener Matthew Hayden while any injuries will surely results in Phil Jacques getting the call-up.

Boasting the top 2 ranked ODI batsmen in the world in Adam Gilchrist and Ricky Ponting, the Aussies will be a formidable challenge. They will also be looking to avenge the embarrassment of having a world record run chase scored against them and will be consolidating in preparation for a World Cup title defense in 2007.

The VB Series for 2005 promises to be an exciting contest between the two top ranked ODI teams and a team with a lot of pride at stake. The Australians will as always be favourites to take the series but Smith's South Africa will provide a stern challenge while a rebuilding Sri Lanka will be hoping to turn their fortunes around and regain some lost pride in the process.

Australia Squad: Ricky Ponting(c), Adam Gilchrist(wk), Simon Katich, Damien Martyn, Michael Clarke, Michael Hussey, Andrew Symonds, James Hopes, Brad Hogg, Brett Dorey, Brett Lee, Nathan Bracken, Glenn McGrath, Stuart Clark.

South Africa Squad: Graeme Smith(c), Mark Boucher(wk), Jacques Kallis, Johan Botha, Boeta Dippenaar, Herschelle Gibbs, Andrew Hall, Justin Kemp, Garnett Kruger, Charl Langeveldt, Andre Nel, Shaun Pollock, Ashwell Prince, Jacques Rudolph,
Monde Zondeki.

Sri Lanka Squad: Marvan Atapattu(c), Kumar Sangakkara(wk), Jehan Mubarak, Upul Tharanga, Mahela Jayawardene, Tillakaratne Dilshan, Michael Vandort, Russel Arnold, Chaminda Vaas, Farveez Maharoof, Muttiah Muralitharan, Malinga Bandara,
Ruchira Perera, Dilhara Fernando, Chamara Kapugedera, Nuwan Kulasekara.

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