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January 16, 1999


India Down Under

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The Waugh has just begun!

Prem Panicker

Find one batsman who will bat through, let the others bat around him. Sounds so simple. Like, anyone could do it. But few in recent memory do it so well, so consistently, as the Australians.

Today, that man was Steve Waugh, who batted his team to a clinical win against Pakistan, by six wickets. And suddenly, the way the Australians are playing is becoming reminiscent of that moment during their World Cup campaign when they sat up, shook themselves awake, told themselves okay, we got to win seven on the trot -- and then went out and did just that.

On a rain-truncated day at the MCG, with the match reduced to 41 overs a side, Steve Waugh got the call right and promptly opted to bowl first. HHe got that right on two counts -- one, with the overcast, and the wet outfield, batting (and finding the boundaries) was going to be tough in the first session. And secondly, Waugh also denied the Pakistan bowlers, who more than the Australians use swinging conditions to the optimum, first use of conditions that would have favoured Akram, Akthar and Younis.

Australia, which goes by the theory of 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it', stayed with the same line up. Pakistan, desperately seeking stability at the top, brought in Wasti for Afridi.

The change didn't work. It never does, really which is a point the Indians could also learn from. Fiddling around with the late middle order in an emergency is one thing, but shuffling openers from game to game only produces an under-confident head to the batting, and McGrath exploited that lack of confidence with the precision you expect from him, when he took out Wasti early with his trademark line outside off, coming in just the touch to take the outer edge through to the keeper.

Ijaz Ahmed, especially on quicker pitches, is a patsy for the LBW mainly because he takes this huge stride across to off even as the bowler delivers. Increasingly, bowlers are beginning to bowl the very full length to him on off and middle, looking to beat the bat -- since he plays from the crease early on, you do that and you are almost guaranteed the LBW. This latest one went down in the books to the credit of Fleming.

Inzamam looked in good touch and was hitting them off the middle of the bat -- it took a great catch to get rid of him, but then that is precisely what makes this Australian side so difficult to beat. It is not just the bowlers who know their jobs and do it to prescription -- the fielders regularly perform prodigies and chip in with wickets (as in basketball, would you call them 'assists' here?) just when they need them. Here, Inzamam drove, a touch away from his body, to the line outside off, and looked to have the angle covered. In the earlier over, he had smashed a similar shot through coverpoint, for the boundary. This time, it was just those couple of inches closer to a fielder -- in this case, Symonds, who flung himself to his left and pulled off the two-handed take to have Pakistan 42/3 in the 12th over.

Anwar, not really among the runs thus far, seemed set for one of his trademark innings. His timing on the cover drives was back to his best, the cuts were well placed and played. He did mishook thrice, obviously mishitting because of the extra bounce on these tracks, but he was lucky to find the ball always dropping wide of or short of fielders, and he rode that luck well to play himself back into what looked like his real form. Predictably, just when the bowlers seemed incapable of the breakthrough, the fielders chipped in. Symonds bowled Anwar's pet line, on off and middle and full in length, Anwar got nicely under it and flicked up and over midwicket. Out on the line, Michael Bevan, fielding in the squarer position as sweeper, raced around, timed his jump to a nicety, and converted what looked like the boundary to get Anwar his 50, into the batsman's dismissal. And that was twice in two goes that brilliance in the field bailed out bowlers who seemed to have lost the edge.

What followed was one of those fits of madness that come to batting sides at times. Youhanna, coming in off a big century in the practise match ahead of this one, was middling the ball quite nicely, but looking a touch frustrated as the fielders kept cutting off his best shots. Shackled by the tight fielding, Youhanna kept trying too many shots, got one from Shane Lee on off and middle and flicked, hitting the shot harder than he normally would (a direct result of having his best shots choked by the fielding, perhaps?) and as a result, got it in the air and straight to midwicket for a simple take.

Three balls later, Akram was walking back as well -- this time, all Lee had to do was bowl one outside off and the Pak skipper obligingly touched it through to the keeper, to provide the fielding side with a gift wicket.

This was where the game first turned. At one point, Pakistan were 86/3. With Anwar and Youhanna looking good, it meant that Pakistan could make a push to take the maximum off Shane Lee and Andrew Symonds. Between the fourth ball of the 25th over and the last ball of the 26th, though, three big wickets had fallen and, in the process, Pakistan had given Australia the luxury of bowling the fourth and fifth bowlers through without undue pressure being put on them.

Looked at another way, Pakistan looked okay at 71/3 in 20 overs. Not so, at 105/6 in 30 -- which meant that the side had managed just 34 runs in the middle phase, and in the process lost three big ones.

Moin Khan was facing the problem of needing to bat out overs, yet keep the runs coming. He climbed into a ball just short of length, and again, fielding of a high class made the bowler look better than he was, as Damien Martyn backpeddalled at deep midwicket, to make a lovely overhead take look deceptively simple.

If Pakistan recovered, Saqlain deserves a lot of the credit. This time, he only made 11 out of 16, but he looked rock solid out in the middle and this in turn freed his partner, Razzaq, to play with increasing assurance. Once sure that his partner could hold his own, Razzaq began setting himself and hitting cleanly through the line on both sides of the wicket, authoring a spectacular recovery that saw 70 runs posted in the last 10 overs, and in the process, taking on both McGrath and Brett Lee and smashing them repeatedly down the straight field.

Saqlain, reprieved as he hooked at a short one and managed a huge skier for the normally reliable Martyn to grass at square leg, had less luck the next time he tried the shot. Again he miscued the hook, the higher bounce defeating him as it had Anwar earlier, for the skier to be easily held by mid on. Younis -- who like Saqlain has shown remarkable improvement with the bat in this series -- kept the good work going, however, and Razzaq with his spectacular late spurt produced a fine 54 ball innings of 51 to give Pakistan 176 on the board -- a total that was a long way shy of the 200 or so that a track like this demanded.

Pakistan needed superb opening spells by Akram and Younis. What it got were four badly directed overs that both Mark Waugh, for once driving on the off with a semblance of his former pomp, and Gilchrist took toll of to the tune of 32 runs in the first four overs.

Akram, desperate to stem the flow, took himself off and brought on Akthar and the speedster responded magnificiently with twin strikes in his first over. His very first ball was bang on line, bowled at top pace and Gilchrist, trying to work off his pads, was beaten and taken plumb in front.

Ponting, in his previous outing, had shown a tendency to play too wildly outside his off. Akthar exploited that with one wide of off and lifting, drawing Ponting into an airy drive for second slip to hold, the Australian vice captain walking back for his second successive duck.

Mark Waugh must be considering himself particularly unfortunate. For once, he was playing with a semblance of fluency, and looked en route to a confidence re-building knock when he took one on the pads from Akthar, there was a huge shout (it did look a good one what's more) and the batsmen went into an uncharacteristic yes-no routine, Waugh was finally sent back, slipped on the turn and saw Youhanna, at square leg, race in, field and, with one stump to aim it, hit foursquare with Waugh yards shy of the crease.

Suddenly, Australia were 38/3 and Pakistan appeared to have clawed its way back into the game. Bevan and Steve Waugh had other ideas, though, as they combined in a gritty partnership, weathering the lifting deliveries of Akthar, and concentrating on tapping the ball around, rotating strike and working to upset the rhythm of the bowlers.

The recovery looked to be well on track when the wicket went against the run of play. Bevan coped with pace very well, but seemed all at sea against the off spin of Saqlain. Both Waugh and Bevan looked to keep turning the strike over, trying to upset the offie and, in that attempt, Bevan perished. Waugh pushed one out on the off side and took off on a suicidal run, Youhanna came in very quickly from cover and underarmed a throw to Moin bang alongside the stumps, and Bevan wasn't even in the picture when the bails came off.

>But that was it. From then on, Waugh, batting with increasing freedom, and Martyn, content to play the supporting role, batted Pakistan right out of the match with clinical precision. Waugh played to his strengths, working singles, twos, and threes around, constantly chipping away at the target and whenever the ball was short and adjacent to off, rocking back to thump with conviction through the extra cover region. Martyn batted with more circumspection, till Australia got into the 34 over mark before suddenly opening up into strokeplay, repeatedly giving Akthar the charge -- which took some doing, incidentally, since the bowler was going way over the 140 mark at the time -- and flat batting deliveries with stunning power into the straight field and over cover.

Pakistan had one glimmering of a chance when Saqlain got Waugh cutting hard at the straight one going through outside off. The batsman got the bottom edge, Moin stayed down well enough to get his gloves to the ball only to see it pop out, and elude a second grasp before going to grass. That half chance was the only one Pakistan got, it went to waste, and the game was neatly taken out of their hands with some confident, precisely paced batting.

And in the process, Australia have restored points parity with Pakistan, and gone ahead on run rate as well.


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