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Australia send mixed signals on World Cup

Since he graduated to the senior ranks at the age of 17, Australian captain Ricky Ponting has played serious cricket on more than 2000 days, getting up towards six years of bat, ball and field - not to mention training, camps and commercial obligations.

But Ponting remains something of a boy in short pants at Twenty20 cricket and, at 34, goes into next month's ICC World Twenty20 still to prove his relevance at a young man's game. Ponting has played the short-form game just 35 times, 15 of them at an international level.

Australia were knocked out of the first World Twenty20 in 2007 by eventual winners India, who went with a bright young side, in contrast to Australia's elderly Test line-up. India will take that same approach to England next month, while Australia have picked almost a Test side, with NSW blazer David Warner the only genuine Twenty20 specialist, while Nathan Bracken, James Hopes and David Hussey are one-day regulars.

Sure, Brett Lee is back, but the fast bowler, himself 32 and due to bowl against Pakistan in a Twenty20 match in Dubai on Thursday, made his priorities clear last week: "If I can be totally frank, it's the Ashes first, with all due respect to other cricket, Twenty20 World Cup, the Australian tour here [in the UAE] and the IPL."

Given their preparation has most of the squad playing one-day cricket on flat tracks in Dubai and Abu Dhabi - while the world's best players are pushing boundaries of cricket's new frontier in the Indian Premier League in South Africa - questions are being asked about how seriously Australia is taking the tournament.

Matches in Australia have been played in an apparent holiday atmosphere with some players rested and others miked up for in-game television interviews. In fact, outside the last tournament, Australia have never fielded the same Twenty20 team for consecutive matches, and they go in with two recent losses in South Africa.

Coach Tim Nielsen said he and the selectors made sure players knew it was important. "You can't ignore it. The game of Twenty20 cricket has taken the world by storm, hasn't it? So to be going to a world championships thinking of it as a second-rate event would be a bit silly," he said.

"Just the way the international structure is, it's difficult to get enough Twenty20 cricket. I think we can only play six, which I think is the maximum any side can schedule in a season."

In fact, the most experienced Twenty20 international is Kiwi Brendon McCullum, with 21 matches (and 50 domestic games).

Experience in the format does count for something, although Australia have caught up, suggested Brad Haddin, who will lead Australia against Pakistan.

"I think in the last World Cup guys were still feeling their way in, trying to understand Twenty20; I don't think that's the case any more. One thing you've got to remember with Twenty20 and Test cricket: the best players in the world are still the best players in the world, whatever format of the game you play."

And fine form at the World Twenty20 could have million-dollar consequences.

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