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January 12, 2000


India Down Under

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India go down to Oz at the MCG

Prem Panicker

Australia and India lined up at the Melbourne Cricket Ground for a game that was crucial to both sides, each going in with a defeat to its name.

Or was it? Given that each side plays the others four times apiece, perhaps this game did not have the immediacy you find in one of those 7-game triangulars, but there is no denying that a team going through with two defeats on the trot would be that touch less confident as the tournament progresses.

With a belter of a one-day track laid out at the MCG -- aided and abetted by the fact that the ropes were brought in a touch, to slightly shorten one of the longest grounds in the business -- it was always going to be a big scoring game. Both sides made changes. For Australia, Shane Lee came in for the injured Shane Warne while Steve Waugh, consistent with his policy of playing a home boy, brought Fleming in ahead of Adam Dale. (By way of aside, I've got to hope the Indian selectors are not watching this -- imagine this policy being implemented at home, with a player from Guwahati picked for a match played there, and so on?). India meanwhile made a change that indicated that the management is finding itself helpless to beef up its batting -- Kanitkar out, and many would say he should never have been in to start with -- and Martin in.

Australia won the toss and opted for first strike. The intent was obvious, and signalled right from the start -- turn it on, go for the shots, and bat India right out of the game with a huge score. Given the conditions and the depth of the Australian batting, 275 and over, nudging the 300 mark, seemed on the cards going in.

Srinath, true to type, struck with an early wicket when he bowled one close to the stumps, angling across the left-handed Gilchrist, drawing him into the shot and forcing him to push at a lifter, for the edge to fly low into the slips. Laxman at second slip dived to his right to snaffle a catch that was never going to carry to first slip, and Australia were 10/1.

Mark Waugh, playing his 200th ODI, looked edgy and was quickly taken out by Agarkar, with a ball just outside off, seaming away, the movement finding the edge as Mark Waugh shaped to play to leg, Laxman taking the leading edge at second slip.

Ricky Ponting, the newly installed vice captain, came out and promptly took charge in a brilliant demonstration of counter-attacking cricket. Getting onto the front foot even as the bowler delivered the ball, he backed himself to hit on the up and go through the infield, on either side of the wicket. Nerve, guts and confidence paid off big time and sudenly, the Australian scoring went into overdrive as they raced to 77/2 in 15, 102/2 in 20. At the other end, Bevan for the most part seemed content to work singles around and let Ponting do the hard work, launching into his shots only after the 20 over mark, and rather uncharacteristically looking to hit on the up and over the infield.

It was obvious around this period that the Australians, aware of the depth of their batting, had decided to go for broke and let all the batsmen play shots. One such hit got Bevan out, as he attempted to hit a slower ball over the top and only managed to find mid on.

Steve Waugh picked up where Bevan had left off, and went for his shots from the get-go. A rather strange run out sent him back, when he hammered one out on the on side, ambled a second and apparently did not notice that Ponting was pushing for two right from the start. Waking up too late, he took off but failed to beat the relay throw to the keeper, and was run out by half the length of the pitch.

India in fact did much better in the second phase than in the first -- from 175/4 in 30, when the indications were that Australia would pile up a big score, the Indians bowled and fielded with a lot of energy and heart to keep the Aussies to under 5 an over for the next 20 overs. One of the main contributors was Ganguly, who bowled with a lot of intelligence to return 5-0-16-0 -- which made Tendulkar's decision to replace him at that point rather inexplicable.

Ponting had in the meantime got to his century -- he seems to love the MCG, all three of his ODI hundreds on Australian soil having come on this ground. Once past the landmark, he pushed the pedal to the floor and perished by the same sword, hitting a slower ball to midwicket and finding the fielder.

Andrew Symonds, for the second straight innings, fell cheap, this time getting run out trying to sneak a single after being rapped on the pad with the Indians appealing for the LBW, and Australia had got to 232/6 at the end of 45.

That became 234/7 when Tendulkar at midwicket dived at midwicket to take a good catch to send back Shane Lee. At that point, the Indians had gone 18 overs having conceeded only two boundaries, which represented a very good come back. The Australian tail, however, has the strength and self-belief the Indians lack, and 269 at the end of the 50 over mark was a very good total -- more so given that the Australians field with such electricity that they add a further 40 or so runs to any total they put up.

The Indians lost the game before their innings began. They lost it by opting, yet again, to open with Laxman. Facing a target of that magnitude, the only way India could go was to open with Tendulkar and Ganguly, the two players more qualified than anyone else in the lineup to take toll in the first 15 overs. Instead, it was Laxman out in the middle, and the poor lad, trapped in the twilifht zone (symbolically, as he struggled, twilight was in fact spreading over the ground) between wanting to play shots and wanting to make sure he stayed out there long enough to keep his place in the side, kept checking the same shots he was playing so fluently at Sydney.

Is there, one wonders, a lesson here for the Indian management and the selectors? Isn't it about time someone told Laxman that he has a job for a specified period of time? When he played at Sydney, it was with his flight ticket home stuck in his back pocket. With nothing to lose, he played his natural game. Now in the side in a last minute recall, he is back to doing what he did earlier -- trying to find a balance between playing shots and surviving, and in the process, ending up doing neither. This, to me, speaks of a batsman not sure of his place in the side and that is a huge pity.

That hesitation proved his undoing, as he shaped to play a drive outside off, but without the full flourish of the bat you expect from him when he is going well. What resulted was an edge outside off, to Gilchrist.

Already one strike down, strategy-wise and in real terms, the Indian management -- read Kapil Dev, Sachin Tendulkar -- put themselves further behind the eight ball by promoting Samir Dighe. Or rather, it was not the promotion per se that was badly conceived -- if the intent was to use Dighe as a pinch hitter, with instructions to throw his bat around and hit a few lusty ones in a bid to bring down the target a bit.

But was that the instruction? It does not seem evident judging by the way he studiously watched balls go through outside off, in a laboured innings of 25 balls that yielded just three and, in the process, saw the ask rate climb above the six an over mark. After all the fuss, Dighe added insult to the injury with a wild heave at a ball outside off and lifting, managing only to top edge one to second slip.

That brought Tendulkar to the wicket. He began with a square cut four off Fleming and at the other end, Ganguly suddenly opened out against Brett Lee, with a spectacular cover drive followed immediately by a square drive, both finding the fence. Suddenly, the singles were coming, as were the boundaries, and India seemed to be back on course as they took 37 runs off 30 balls. And then came the run out the Australians, who by then had begun hitting the stumps from every conceivable and some inconceivable angles, had been threatening all along. Tendulkar played one down to deep backward square and took off for the second. Against an Indian fielding side, he would have made it with a minute to spare. Here, it was Shane Lee who charged round, picked up, swivelled, and rifled in a laser-guided throw over the top of the stumps that caught Tendulkar an inch short of the crease.

That brought Dravid to the crease. Word coming back from the camp is that the batsman, following his failures in the Test series, had availed of the services of an Indian hypnotherapist now based in Australia. Dr Muthu Krishnan is being rated one of the best in the field, in Australia, and part of the treatment consisted of having Dravid lie prone on a couch, visualising in the mind the shots he used to play when at his best.

The value of this, I suppose, will unfold with time. Here, one thing was noticeable -- gone was that ugly swish outside off, as Dravid, still a far cry from his World Cup form, gritted his way through a partnership that yielded 109 off 132 balls. At the other end, Ganguly -- who, throughout this tour, has been threatening a big one -- seemed to gain in stature with every over, and was soon playing at close to peak form.

By the time he was half way into his innings, a century seemed there for Ganguly's taking, and he made it to the mark with easy assurance, his tradedemark offside play buttressed by signs of increasing assurance against the ball dug in short and targettting his ribs. As he moved into his 80s, he even began dancing down to the medium pacers, flat batting them with power and placement, taking on the fielders set in the deep and bringing the hits off (on one occasion, very narrowly as McGrath misjudged the flight of a big hit at long on, and came in a couple of yards too much to make the catch possible).

His departure was sheer farce -- and as so often, underlined that Indian batsmen dont bother to drill themselves in the basics of the game. Patting one to mid off, Ganguly took off for the single. He got to the other end very comfortably, too -- in fact, his bat was half a foot over the line when the throw hit the stumps. Only, Ganguly had omitted to ground it, instead carrying it like a gent out for a Sunday stroll would carry his rolled up umbrella!

At this point, the Indian section of a full-house crowd decided apparently that the team wasn't doing enough to disgrace the country, and began saying it with bottles. It was a disgraceful act, pure and simple, and right-thinking Indians would have cringed at the sight of the cynical smile on Steve Waugh's face as he watched the proceedings. It seems to be India's misfortune that the few contribute to the disgrace of the many -- whether on the field, or in the stands.

Robin Singh, coming in at the fall of the wicket, found the pace of Lee too sharp for his trademark short arm jabs, and was batting himself into a hole out in the middle. At the other end, Dravid attempted to take over from Ganguly, but though his innings of 60 off 85 was a far better effort than anything seen from him thus far, his confidence did not appear to be fully back, the big hits fetched just singles, the bigger ones hit only air, and the game got out of India's hands as they went into the 40-over mark at 180/4, and made that 211/4 at 45. In the 46th over, Dravid fell, attempting to swing Lee around and finding Martyn taking a brilliantly judged catch at mid wicket. Off the very next ball, Jacob Martin tapped out to wide mid wicket, took off and Damien Martyn, racing around to field at a very close mid on position, aimed at the one stump he could see and hit it.

Two strikes in two balls in the 46th over, and from then on, the best India could do was reduce the margin of defeat as much as possible. Robin produced a lusty six over midwicket, but it was all too little too late.

Where lay the difference between the two teams? To my mind, it lay in the fielding. Consider this: Ricky Ponting strikes brilliantly to record 115 off just 121 deliveries. Yet, there are only 9 fours, and a six, in his knock. The bulk of his runs coming in singles, twos and threes run where you thought there were only tight twos to be had.

In contrast, take Ganguly's 100 off 127. Ten fours in the knock, on par with Ponting -- where the difference came was in the lack of twos, and threes. And for this, credit has to be given to the Australians. Within the first few overs, Symonds, Ponting, Steve Waugh and a couple of others hit the stumps full with throws from various parts of the ground -- it was a display of in-your-face fielding that had the effect, on the Indians, of high powered headlights on a rabbit: from that point on, there was never any time when the calling and running was sure, the Indians apologetically ran singles rather than risk the accurate throwing of the Australians on a second, and the bowling was allowed to be a lot tighter than it deserved to be.

Australia, thus, go in with two points in two games. India, with none in two.

A fan, writing in, pointed out that the Australian side was in worse shape in the World Cup when Steve Waugh made his famous comment: "All we have to do now is win the next seven games" -- and famously, pulled it off.

His logic was that the Indians are not out, yet. True -- but the question remains, do the Indians have the skill, espeically in the field, to match this Australian outfit? Or the nerve to survive, and win, another close one against Pakistan?

In finding answers to that one is where we will separate the men from the boys -- and to my mind, we won't begin to even look for answers until the team reverts to the opening combination that has done well by it in the past.


Mail Sports Editor