Strange Days Indeed

It was hard to decide which was the stranger and more welcome sight at Hamilton the other night - New Zealand, with Craig McMillan back to his bristlingly confident best in their middle-order, cleaning up Australia for the third time in a row, or Merv Hughes and John Buchanan watching them do it. Both looked studiedly unemotional about it but you wouldn't mind betting that their thoughts weren't a million miles from 'just how many runs do we have to make to win a game against this side?'. 148 at Wellington? Well, you couldn't expect to win with that. But their 336 at Eden Park and 346 at Seddon Park ought really to have been winning totals and would surely have been so in about 98% of the ODIs Australia have played in living memory. Which, as many people have already said, must mean that there's something been going pretty seriously wrong with their bowling.

Okay, for the West Indies they have McGrath and hopefully Lee to return, with Ponting, Gilchrist and Clarke to further bolster the batting. But McGrath's gone round the park on more than one occasion recently and Lee's fitness may well be suspect even if he makes the plane to the Caribbean. Which leaves the likes of the idiosyncratic Brad Hogg, the hot-and-cold Nathan Bracken, the raw and over-estimated Mitchell Johnson, and Shane Watson (really a batsman who can turn his arm over and none too well at that) to carry the attack. Of course, with the peerless Punter and Gilly back you have to feel that runs won't be a problem and the confidence lost in New Zealand will start to return just with their presence. But totals, however big, have to be defended, and, when bowling first, sides have to be restricted. All the signs are that this could continue to be a big issue for Australia, and it's made even more so by the fact that teams all around the world will have witnessed what New Zealand, and, before them, England, have done to Australia over the past few weeks and they'll all fancy a piece of the action themselves.

It's a trite observation to make, but defeats and confidence have a symbiotic relationship; the confidence of sides that suffer defeats goes down, while that of the sides which inflict them goes up.

The World Cup has started to look a whole lot more interesting over the last few weeks - partly because it now appears to be a more open competition and partly because it'll be instructive to see how Australia respond to circumstances which are as alien to them as winning one-day competitions is to England.

My own feeling is that Australia will - as Australian teams always do - take some beating once the business end of the World Cup comes around, but every other major ODI playing country will have their own reasons for optimism.

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