Aus/Pak/Wi: VB Series Preview

Australia’s annual triangular ODI series kicks off again in Melbourne on the 14th on January, and with Pakistan and the West Indies taking on the world champions, this year’s series promises to be far more competitive than last year’s incarnation.

The 2003/04 VB Series saw Australia take on India and Zimbabwe; it was not difficult determining who the finalists would be, and in any case, Australia thumped India by seven wickets and 208 runs when the finals series came around. Zimbabwe were simply in a class below the other two teams, while India were consistently competitive but rarely threatening, as evidenced by their solitary win from six matches against Australia. The series, moreover, was often monotonous and predictable, not helped in the least by the seemingly interminable schedule of eight preliminary matches apiece.

This year’s series, if reputations are to be believed, will be anything but monotonous and predictable. The schedule has been trimmed from eight to six preliminary matches apiece, and this year’s participants offer something completely different. Two teams of unquestionable talent but often questionable application, Pakistan and the West Indies, are set to unleash their own brand of cricketing entertainment on the Australian cricket-watching public. Though placed right in the middle of the ICC ODI Championship table at fifth and sixth respectively, they can, on any given day, play as though they were ranked first or last.

The West Indies showed just how good they can be by winning the ICC Champions Trophy in England last September. Most encouragingly, they did it from a position of near-defeat in the Final – eight down with 71 to get – but the ninth-wicket pair of Courtney Browne and Ian Bradshaw demonstrated a resilience so often lacking in recent years in shepherding their side to victory.

A largely impressive 2004 for the West Indies, in ODIs anyway, yielded twelve wins from twenty completed matches, a testament not only to the much-maligned captaincy of Brian Lara but also to the renewed spirit instilled in the side by fresh-faced youngsters, most notably vice-captain Ramnaresh Sarwan, Chris Gayle, Dwayne Bravo and the ever-enthusiastic Tino Best.

The most notable factor of the Windies performance in 2004 was their remarkable capacity to chase totals: ten of their twelve wins were achieved batting second. Aside from the brilliant (and in-form) Brian Lara, the West Indies possess the batting talents of Sarwan (who averages nearly 48), Gayle, and the ever-dependable Chanderpaul. It is the inexperience of the others which makes the West Indies prone to collapse, but the emergence of intelligent young players such as Bravo is a positive sign. An injury to offspinning allrounder Ryan Hinds may well prove a blessing in disguise, as his replacement is the explosive/implosive Ricardo Powell, whose strike rate of nearly 100 may prove crucial at some time in the series.

The bowling attack has a less assured look about it, with injuries to young quicks Fidel Edwards and Tino Best, among others, giving the West Indies attack a somewhat one-paced appearance. This may not necessarily be a bad thing, though, as the relative consistency of Bradshaw and Dillon should restrict the scoring of opposition batsmen. Pedro Collins may well be a major force with his left-arm swing, and the return of Reon King to internationals after nearly four years could be a masterstroke. The promise of Bravo will be given a major test, and the ever-dependable Gayle and Hinds may be required to roll their arm over on more than a few occasions.

Without any internationals since the Champions Trophy win, a new coach, and a mixed report in their two matches against Australia ‘A’, it is (as ever with the West Indies) anyone’s guess as to how they will perform. Almost undoubtedly, though, they will entertain even the most cynical audience.
Squad: Brian Lara (c), Ramnaresh Sarwan (vc), Courtney Browne (wk),Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Chris Gayle, Wavell Hinds, Marlon Samuels, Dwayne Bravo, Ian Bradshaw, Pedro Collins, Mervyn Dillon, Reon King, Xavier Marshall, Ricardo Powell

Pakistan, by all appearances, have a lot of work to do, and fast. Their primary concern at the moment is ensuring match fitness for several major players, not least captain Inzamam-ul-Haq and pace spearhead Shoaib Akhtar. Despite a poor showing in the Test series, Pakistan must quickly put that behind them, and realise (as the West Indies have shown) that Test cricket and One Day cricket are fundamentally different games. They can perhaps draw encouragement from the Test series though, as they were able to dominate two or three sessions at a time, only to fall down in the latter stages. One Day cricket requires teams to be on top for a maximum of 100 overs and no longer, and Pakistan certainly have the capability to do this.

Akhtar, Razzaq and Afridi epitomise Pakistan’s tendency to produce all-or-nothing players; it is to Pakistan’s advantage though that they need perhaps only one of these players to fire on any given occasion to give themselves a chance of winning. Razzaq, for example, was hit for 50 runs in five overs against the World XI on Monday, making only 11 runs as well, yet on Wednesday managed a matchwinning 89* and 2/45 against Australia ‘A’. They cannot however realistically expect to beat a side like Australia without performances from their faltering top-order. Inzamam-ul-Haq must find confidence quickly; so too Yasir Hameed and Taufeeq Umar. Salman Butt impressed in the Test series and is one of few in-form batsmen, along with Youhana and Younis Khan.

Shoaib is obviously the key bowler in a lineup sadly lacking a specialist spinner, despite the availability of Danish Kaneria and Saqlain Mushtaq. Rana Naved-ul-Hasan appears a bright prospect capable of bowling well at the death, but Khalil and Rao Iftikhar are largely untried and will be tested against two powerful batting lineups. Razzaq, Azhar, Malik and Afridi all help fill the allround quota, and it will indeed be interesting to see if they can all be squeezed into the same XI.

Though they will perhaps be regarded as the biggest outsider in this competition, they will be heartened by five wins from their past six ODIs, and the presence of several potential matchwinners among their ranks.

Squad: Inzamam-ul-Haq (c), Yousuf Youhana (vc), Kamran Akmal (wk), Salman Butt, Taufeeq Umar, Yasir Hameed, Mohammad Hafeez, Younis Khan, Shoaib Malik, Shahid Afridi, Abdul Razzaq, Azhar Mahmood, Shoaib Akhtar, Naved-ul-Hasan, Mohammad Khalil, Iftikhar Anjum

As for Australia, little, if anything, can be said that hasn’t already; suffice to say, they will be clear favourites going into the series. The biggest talking point pre-series is the fitness or lack thereof of batsmen Michael Clarke and Simon Katich, with a foot injury and throat infection respectively. Though neither are out of the series as yet, possible replacements include the Hussey brothers, David and Michael, who have shone for Australia ‘A’ recently, Brad Hodge, and even Justin Langer, long branded as a ‘Test-match only’ player. Apart from that possibility, the squad is unchanged from that which contested the Chappell-Hadlee ODI series against New Zealand recently.

Though still safe at no. 1 in any serious ODI rankings scale, Australia lost five ODIs in 2004, including two of their last three. The recent return to form of Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist will place them in good stead, though the lack of it from Matthew Hayden has resulted in the opener being rested for two games. Darren Lehmann is likewise lacking in form, but will be doubly motivated to succeed after being left out of the Third Test against Pakistan for allrounder Shane Watson, who will also make an appearance in the ODIs. The in-form Martyn, as well as Clarke and Katich, if indeed they do play, will round off an impressive batting lineup, and the ever-explosive Symonds does wonders for the middle-order’s six-hitting potential.

The series may provide an opportunity for the pace quartet of McGrath, Gillespie, Kasprowicz and Lee to play alongside one another, after complications trying to squeeze four into three in the Test series. Brad Hogg continues to hold down his position as a spinning allrounder, though impressive performances from Cameron White may increase competition for that role sometime in the future. Watson will have the opportunity to bend his back, though hopefully without breaking it this time, and Symonds, Lehmann and Clarke will provide opposition batsmen some respite from the pace barrage.

Australia are of course clear favourites, but against two teams as unpredictable as they are talented, anything could happen in this series.

Squad: Ricky Ponting (c), Adam Gilchrist (vc, wk), Michael Clarke, Jason Gillespie, Matthew Hayden, Brad Hogg, Michael Kasprowicz, Simon Katich, Brett Lee, Darren Lehmann, Damien Martyn, Glenn McGrath, Andrew Symonds, Shane Watson

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