Australia v New Zealand Preview, Cardiff, 20 May 1999by John Polack
Battles between Australia and New Zealand are always intense. Whether it applies to rugby union, rugby league, soccer (or even to non-sporting fields, as has been exemplified in their recent squabbles over rights of access to film and television markets in each of the countries), the rivalry between the two close neighbours generally knows few bounds.
As it applies to cricket, the narrative is exactly the same. Whilst Australia's greater player base and depth has traditionally ensured that it has assumed ascendancy, their matches are invariably keenly fought. Memories of the unforgettably contentious 1980-81 series in Australia; John Bracewell's running catch to complete a remarkable last-gasp New Zealand win at Perth in 1987-88; the breathless finish (as tailender Bruce Reid failed to score a run from the last over) at Hobart in 1990-91; dual international Jeff Wilson's late innings batting heroics at Hamilton in 1993; and the incredible conclusions to their successive games at Melbourne and Sydney in the 1993-94 World Series Cup, indeed all spring readily to mind when one ponders some of these sides' past meetings. And, as if more recent evidence was required, then one only needs to recall the countries' last encounter at a World Cup tournament (their epic quarter final in Madras, a game considered by many to have been the best of the entire event in 1996) to find sufficient confirmation of the enduringly close nature of their struggles.
The Australians come into this game with many question marks hanging over the sanctity of their right to be ranked among the favourites to win this seventh World Cup. After a maudlin effort against Scotland at Worcester on Sunday, it is clear that the standard of their play has to improve vastly if they are to win this match and to go about ensuring their qualification for the Super Six phase of the event. Put simply, their bowling and fielding was pitiful on Sunday, and their captain, Steve Waugh, will be seeking a vast improvement from his men here. Whilst his frustrations are eminently understandable, how much of Waugh's own focus on his cricket has been diminished by a series of recent crowd disturbances in games involving Australia is also difficult to gauge.
By contrast, New Zealand's campaign has started smoothly, albeit without the fanfare that has accompanied most of the other major nations. The Kiwis have assembled an excellent one-day side and there can be little doubt that they possess one of the most underrated squads here. Under coach Steve Rixon, they have added a new-found spirit and a hard-nosed edge to their game over recent seasons and they play with all of the will and determination of a side which now has genuine confidence in its ability to beat any given opponent. Whilst it is not of quite the same high quality as those of some of their rivals, their batting list is impressive. Nathan Astle is dependable at the top; Stephen Fleming and Craig McMillan provide strength in the key positions; and Chris Cairns, Adam Parore and Chris Harris lead a steely middle and lower order. As was evidenced in their one Cup outing so far (their demolition of Bangladesh at Chelmsford on Monday) they also have a nicely balanced bowling attack. Most impressively of all perhaps, they have with them (in Cairns and the redoubtable Harris) two of the very finest all-rounders in the world.
In short, this is a critical game for both teams. With four sides in Group B effectively battling for the three places on offer for the Super Six phase of the Cup, neither will want to surrender an early advantage to their opponent. Representing the first of five matches to be played outside England during the tournament, it is consequently likely to be a compelling affair and one that may well live up to the very best in Anzac traditions.
Why you should watch: This is a match that will have a significant bearing on qualification for the Super Six stage and will therefore likely be a tension-laced affair from start to finish. Not only do the losers risk finishing lower than they would like in the Group B standings, but they also invite the almost unthinkable prospect of missing out on a place in the Super Six altogether.
Players to watch - Australia: Adam Gilchrist. The hard-hitting Western Australian opener will have been annoyed by his failure to score heavily in Australia's clash with Scotland at Worcester on Sunday. He is dangerous enough at the best of times; fired by the surprise first-up disappointment, he could conceivably be in even more aggressive mood than usual on this occasion.
New Zealand: Chris Cairns. One of a group of excellent all-rounders in the Kiwi squad, it is rare that the talented Cairns does not play well against Australia and his hard hitting and aggressive pace bowling makes him an especially difficult player to quell.
Neutrals may care to enjoy: Together with the competitive nature of the match, the spectre of the World Cup coming to the beautiful shores of Wales and the sight of an international game being played at Cardiff's Sophia Gardens ground for the very first time is an appealing one. (Two one-day internationals have previously been played on Welsh soil but each was contested at the St Helen's venue in Swansea.)