Aussies playing dead until World Cup comes to life

The most successful team in Cricket World Cup history is out to shake off the shame of Sandpapergate and, with their backs against the wall, Australia are in the exact circumstances under which they thrive.

Australia are still world champions. Lest we forget. Through all the trials, tears and tribulations of the past year and more, the men from down under are still the standard bearers when it comes to 50-over cricket.

That ICC Cricket World Cup victory in Melbourne in 2015 might seem forever ago, but the history books still have the Aussies marked as defending champions. And, importantly, they are the last winners of the tournament when it was hosted in England in 1999.

For all the upheaval that a strip of sandpaper caused in March 2018, when they were caught tampering with the ball, the one thing that Australia know only too well is that redemption comes easier when it is papered over by the ticker tape of glory.

Loathed or loved, Australia are spoiling for a scrap this summer. They knew they would get it – and good – the minute the Ashes were inserted on to the back of a World Cup, in August and September. English cricket is hoping for one long and glorious feast this summer, and the weather is playing up to that prospect. 

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The only problem is that Australia are planning their own barbecue on English soil, complete with a spicy side of David Warner and Steve Smith for public relish. Smith – the former captain who was reduced to a blubbering mess as his world and team crumbled under the controversy that came to be known as Sandpapergate, which included vice-captain Warner and young teammate Cameron Bancroft – put on the blinkers to craft a beautifully tempered century in a World Cup warm-up game against the eternal English foe in Southampton in late May.

The louder the chants from the crowd of “Cheat! Cheat! Cheat!” got, the crisper the ball came off his unerring blade. Former Australian captain Allan Border and his generation of hardnoses would have grunted their approval at the sheer bloody-mindedness of it all.

If that was a portent of what may yet come in the middling months of 2019, England will know that they have a big problem on their hands. There are few more dangerous foes in sport than a wounded Australian. They are much like a wounded viper, lying ominously in the shadows, waiting to strike fiercely at any passer-by who forgets to look out for them.

From breakfast boxes to New York bars  

The past year has been brutal for most people associated with Australian cricket, as their culture, character and collective conscience were called into question. Smith bore the brunt of it as captain, so his early summer offering in England says much about how deep his wells of willpower run.

His fall from grace saw him go from being the face on breakfast boxes across the country to being a serial visitor of bars in New York as he attempted to escape the furnace of fury that threatened to engulf him in his homeland.

He paid a price, for sure. Warner, meanwhile, was very nearly lost altogether in the ceasefire. Many called for his head, feeling his place was untenable after his supposed treachery.

Time heals. Time, and talent. And a realisation that the dynamic left-hander remains the very best bet upfront.

Warner was an animal unleashed in this year’s Indian Premier League. He savaged attacks, often in cahoots with England’s Jonny Bairstow, as he made it clear that his time as an Australian cricketer would not be defined by a strip of sandpaper.

He is not done.

His tempo at the crease dictates how Australia play. He sets the agenda, bullishly confronting length and line and any passing comment from a bowler. Warner can appear like a ticking time bomb at times, but the shrapnel over the past year has hurt the opposition a lot more than his own team. 

Australia will encourage that, because they know that his unwavering brutality holds much sway for them. It will have to be the batters who do it, because several of the bowlers have not quite been themselves since South Africa 2018, the site of the infamous sandpaper incident. So it is down to those who wield the willow to wield the influence. 

A shot at redemption

Warner is often at his best when in the heat of a ball-by-ball debate with a bowler, each combatant trying to force their will on a matter. That is what he seemingly craves, the eternal confrontation between bat and ball.

That is what Australia crave, for that matter. Their cringeworthy displays of “elite honesty” and related public relations jargon fell on deaf ears, because the rest of the cricket world prefers its Australia snarling and sledging.

Those who were caught have atoned, and the others have also been cast a dubious eye. But it is time to focus on the cricket once more and, traditionally, no one does 50-over tournament better than the men in yellow.

Or gold, as they might argue.

A world champion doesn’t wilt overnight and Australia are certainly not so far diminished as to be complete also-rans in this World Cup. They would have watched quietly as England and India were declared the overwhelming favourites. India have the best player in the world, but he’s never won a tournament alone.

England have what appears to be the deepest batting line-up. But just two years ago, they wilted in the ICC Champions Trophy dress rehearsal on home soil, losing to eventual winners Pakistan in the first semifinal.

As did India, losing to Pakistan in the final of the same tournament. It is easy to talk up the prospects of a team in form before a ball is bowled in anger. Australia will point to that mental vulnerability of the more fancied, and they will poke at it whenever they get the chance.

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No nation in world cricket performs better with their backs against the wall. It is not an easy road, drinking from the last chance saloon. It is laced with danger, but Australia seem to thrive on that edge. They feed off the danger, taking on the boundary rider, hooking the short ball and defiantly keeping the slip in place.

They insist that the tide will turn, convincing themselves so thoroughly that they even con the opposition into making a mess of the mundane.

They live for pressure.

England’s cricketers may be swept along on a wave of hysteria, but that crescendo of noise lives and dies by how the team performs when the lights are at their brightest. Australia won the 1999 World Cup through sheer will from their captain, who refused to listen when logic said time was up.

Sure, the total of 213 that was the centrepiece of the greatest game of all time is now small fry in terms of team totals, but the pressure will still be there.

Seizing the moment two decades after England

Be it 213 or 380, someone will have to gather themselves and seize the moment. World Cup cricket demands that clarity of thought. Steve Waugh dug in and took his moment when it came in 1999, scoring 120 not out against South Africa. The other Steve, the modern one, might not be captain any more, but he has the chance to leave his own mark on the coming weeks.

If he does that, in his own style, the cricket world will recall it forever. Redemption comes in many complicated colours, but the gold of victory is the easiest for most nations to reconcile with. Thus, Australia are on a significant mission.

Their 2019 visit to the United Kingdom is a throwback to the old days, when they would be in England for so long that they played as if at home. They will be in England for most of this summer. Such a long time passes more easily when you’re winning.

They want to get back to that comfortable place, where the banter flows off their backs as if it was coming from lubricated mates in the notorious Bay 13 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, where rowdy spectators are known to gather, instead of Southampton. Smith did a good job of filtering out the heckling in their warm-up game in that English town and Australia will need more of that. A lot more, in fact.

There are some hurdles to overcome, and personnel that are still figuring out the whole baggy green culture, but they have two of the most dangerous players in world cricket – and both those players have a point to prove. A wrong to right. They will want to show Australia and all who follow the game that they have made a fresh start.

And lest we forget, they remain the most lavishly decorated nation in world cricket. Despite their sins and their shame, Australia are still world champions.

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