Rediff Logo Cricket Find/Feedback/Site Index
January 23, 2000


India Down Under

send this story to a friend

Aus pull off a sizzler to down Pak at the MCG

Prem Panicker

Chasing 261 to win, Pakistan at one point seemed to be coasting, at 200 for four. The trouble with this Australian team, though, is that it doesn't know when to give up. When the going gets tough, they just turn the pressure on a couple more notches. Pakistan cracked, lost six for 45, and with it, a match they looked to have won almost through its duration.

>Comfortably through to the finals of the CUB triseries, Australia took on Pakistan at the Melbourne Cricket Ground knowing it was playing merely to keep its momentum going.

That is the kind of situation where sentiment can afford to play a hand in team selection -- vide the dropping of Glenn McGrath, giving the lanky speedster time at home with wife and new born child. Pakistan too made one change -- on form, against sentiment, when Younis despite his sterling performance with the bat was dropped for lack of form with the ball, Azhar Mahmood the all-rounder stepping back into the lineup.

The pitch, produced by curator Tony Ware, turned out to be one of those ODI belters that promised a run-feast, irrespective of whether a team took first strike or no. And the benign nature of the pitch became evident early on when, powered by Mark Waugh driving fluidly through the off, Australia raced away to a good start particularly against Shoaib Akthar, who went for 32 in his first five overs (of an Australian total of 48/1 in ten, Akthar thus obviously negating all the good work Akram was doing at the other end.)

The only wicket to fall during this phase was that of Gilchrist, whose run of indifferent form continued when he mistimed a pull off a short ball from Akram, the ball balooning high in the air for Youhanna to judge and hold well at backward square leg.

That wicket brought Ricky Ponting to the crease and for a while, the batsman must have thought he was in a rainforest as Pakistan surrounded the Australian vice captain with a thicket of green-clad figures, trying to add to the pressure three successive ducks must have put on him.

The nervousness showed in the way he kept pushing and looking for singles, until finally an Akram misfield let him complete what looked a dodgy run. From then on, Ponting's nerves settled. He has this habit of pushing on the strokeplay right from the start -- as much a factor behind his early dismissals as any -- and this time round, he backed himself on a batting track and pulled it off, with a flurry of shots that had the score fair racing along -- a cover drive on the up off Shoaib being the shot of the morning.

Abdur Razzaq, rapidly emerging as the star to watch for Pakistan, struck with his first ball when he had Mark Waugh driving an edge to Moin for a regulation catch. While Waugh did time a few nice shots in his innings, his form continues to look patchy, and the muted questions about his presence in the side could only increase in volume from here on.

Michael Bevan joined Ponting and the two picked up the tempo of scoring, Bevan matching Ponting in strokeplay with a standout shot, going down on one knee to lift Saqlain over mid on, sending the ball sailing way into the stands. Around this time, Ponting had a let off when he walked into a push at Razzaq, only for the bowler to fluff a simple return catch. Unfazed, Ponting kept going for his shots until the quicker-through-the-air bowling style of Afridi found him going too far across to off to be trapped in front trying to play off the pads to leg.

At the halfway mark, Australia had made 125/3, at exactly five an over, and Andrew Symonds was sent in ahead of skipper Steve Waugh presumably to maintain the rate of scoring. Symonds obliged, backing his power and eye to smash the hapless Saqlain over mid on, to bring up the 150 in the 29th over. At the other end, Bevan, who has been in good form through the series, brought up yet another half century, this one coming off 62 balls.

It took Shoaib Akthar, coming back, to halt the charge as he had Symonds miscuing an intended push to third man, from the line outside off, to give Moin a simple take, ending a brisk cameo innings of 35. At 188/4, with Steve Waugh to come in, Australia in fact looked on course for a score of 280 or more. Waugh, however, seemed to be in some kind of physical problem, constantly stretching his hamstring. The way he ran between wickets seemed to suggest that he was less than fully fit. This was also evident in the way he stood in place, with no feet movement at all, and swatted a delivery to his counterpart at mid off -- the kind of shot you play when something is hurting bad and you'd rather be back in the pavilion having it attended to.

Akthar, brought back for his second spell, not only had the wickets of Symonds and Waugh, but showed very good control of both the yorker and the slower ball, to bowl a spell as mean as his earlier one was prodigal. Three overs of his second spell cost 8, for two wickets, as opposed to the 32 he gave away in his first five overs.

The tight bowling of Akthar, backed at the other end by Afridi, checked the momentum of the Australian batting. Runs dried up, and what seemed a huge score in the making, was rapidly downscaled as Pakistan clawed its way back into the game. Shane Lee, backing up too far on a Bevan cover drive, found himself out of his ground to a direct hit from the fielder there, and Afridi helped things along further when he had Bevan, yet again looking on course for a century, pushing outside off, the pace of the top spinner beating the batsman on the shot and taking the edge through to Moin.

Pakistan's bowlers produced a commendable effort in the slog overs to peg the Aussies right back, Akram around this point producing a stream of late-swinging yorkers to tighten things up further. With the Aussie lower middle order and tail looking for quick runs, wickets tumbled in a heap and Australia ended on 260/9 off its allotted overs -- no mean score, but a good 20, 30 short of what was possible on a very good batting track. For Pakistan, Akram was superb in each of his spells, while Akthar, after some macho stuff early on, steadied himself with a great second spell which showed that he is increasingly added subtlety to speed.

Pakistan began its innings with Afridi and Anwar and almost immediately, Afridi, throwing his bat in his usual fashion, had a reprieve when the added pace and bounce of Brett Lee had him edging a cut to slips, where Martyn dropped a reasonably simple chance. Rather a surprise, since Martyn, taking over the slot from Shane Warne, has held some beauties in that position. Lee, however, produced the breakthrough -- and triggered off a series of Mexican waves by a pumped up capacity crowed, when he angled one across Anwar, beating the batsman for pace and movement to find the edge, Martyn making no mistake this time round.

His reprieve apparently did nothing to change Afridi's gameplan -- the bat continued to be thrown at ball with a whim, the runs mounted, Pakistan raced to 88/1 in 16 overs (Aus 85/2 at that point) and more than anything else, Afridi's contribution lay in an early assault on McGill, who had wrecked Pakistan the last time round. The leg spinner, brought on early this time, went for 16 in his first two overs and Pakistan seemed to be running away with the game when yet again, Australia's fielding bailed the bowlers out of a hole. Afridi cut one hard behind point and set off for the single he had every right to expect on the shot. Symonds, however, dived to his left, dragged the ball in and blasted a return right over the bails to catch Ijaz and Afridi at the same end, with the former having to begin the long walk back.

With pace making little impact on proceedings, Mark Waugh was brought in to try some off spin. Youhanna, batting fluently as always, made the mistake of trying too hard, and ended up dragging an off spinner from line of off and middle to long on, trying to clear the field and managing only to hole out to the fielder in the deep.

At the other end, Ijaz played a mixture of delicate cuts, streaky edges, percentage pushes and firm drives to keep his end going. The underconfident Moin focussed on staying there, letting his senior partner do the bulk of the work, and Pakistan made it to the 35 over mark without further loss, the score of 164/4 at that point meaning that it had a further 90 deliveries to score 96 runs -- a comfortable ask with Razzaq still sitting in the hut awaiting his turn at bat.

By this point, it was clear that Ijaz would have to be the one to guide the team home. Moin was unabashedly working singles to get to the other end, letting the senior batsman have the strike. Tight fielding, more than outstanding bowling, kept the ask around the 6+ per over mark, but Ijaz in the 38th over chanced his arm, taking McGill from line of middle, getting under the ball and hitting against the turn, a power-packed pull that cleared midwicket for a six that took Pak to 185/4 in 38. That meant that Pak were keeping the rate there or thereabouts, needing at that point 77 off 72 balls -- with wickets in hand going into the slog phase, a very doable proposition.

Rain threatened to add a new player -- Duckworth-Lewis, to give him a name -- as Mark Waugh took the ball for the 39th. A lofted four over midwicket, Ijaz this time pulling with the turn, contributed to another good over, Pak making 11 runs in the 39th even as the rain fell. Brett Lee was tossed the ball for the 40th, but the rain had by then intensified and the players scurried off with Pak 197/4 in 39.1 overs, Ijaz batting 84 and Moin 23, Pak requiring a further 64 off 65 with six wickets in hand. And at this point, you'd need to look back and figure that a key moment in the second innings had to be the Afridi let off, by Martyn, with the opener yet to get into double figures at that point.

When play resumed with Brett Lee bowling his interrupted over, after a break of about 15 minutes, Pakistan moved to 200 in 40 overs, setting it very nicely for a finish, needing 61 off the last 60 deliveries.

Shane Lee bowled the 41st -- and produced a huge breakthrough when he got Ijaz cutting at a short one -- the ball was too close to the stumps, and the batsman too close to the ball, with the result being the inner edge onto the stumps, cutting short an innings of tremendous character from the Pakistan number three.

Razzaq began dangerously, slashing at the first ball he received and edging just short of slips,then slashing again and just managing to clar point to get a four. At the end of the over, Pak needed 54 off 54, and the ingredients were in place for a tight finish. Moin Khan pretty much ensured a tamer end to the game, though, when off the first ball of the next over, from Brett Lee, the keeper-batsman backed eye and nerve, plonked his front foot out in front and swung through the line to cart the ball over midwicket for a huge six. 48/53. What was amazing about the shot was that it was played across the line to the fast bowler pitching an inswinger right up -- not the easiest of shots to pull off. Two balls and two runs later, however, Moin attempted an encore, missed witth the swing across the line this time, and was hit low on the pad to bring the LBW, Lee on that occasion steaming in to beat the batsman for pure pace.

Stuart McGill got a taste of pressure at this point, being tossed the ball with Razzaq on strike -- and produced a fine over that had both batsmen in trouble, Mahmood escaping a close shout for LBW, on the benefit of the doubt that the ball could be turning just enough to miss off. 43/42 at the end of the over. Some patchy hitting in the next over, with Mahmood again lucky to see a slog across the line drop short of midwicket, and Razzaq equally fortunate to see a heave miss completely with the ball sailing over the stumps in the next Brett Lee over, took that to 35 off 36. And then McGill did a Shane Warne -- his first ball, of the 45, pitched outside leg, and bowled Mahmood leg and middle as the Pak all-rounder went to slosh a sweep over midwicket. Which made the second over on the trot that the leggie was getting the ball to really fizz and turn, making the situation that bit more interesting. Even more so when, after a swing and a miss, Akram picked the right ball, got under a leg break and lifted with the turn, over the field on the onside for a huge six as his first scoring shot. With five overs to go, Pak needed 28, with three wickets in hand, and you had to back the batting side to take it home from there.

And yet again -- how many times in this series do we say this? -- the Australian fielders pulled it back for their bowlers. Akram cut, Razzaq took off like a startled hare and before he could brake and turn back, Ponting had swooped on the ball from point and flung the stumps down. This was nerves pure and simple -- the world champions, having seen it all before, held theirs better than the Pakistanis, to pull off that dismissal. McGill kept the pressure right up, with Saqlain completely at sea against some top class leg spin --four successive dot balls at this phase from McGill again underlining the point increasingly being made about Steve Waugh's intuitive captaincy. A slip and a very short third man for the paddle were put in place to turn the screws on, and Waugh had backed his instincts to give the leggie the ball at the death, and it was paying off for him here. 21 tto get off 18 balls at the end of that over.

Fleming, the senior bowler in McGrath's absence, came back at this point. Ponting came within a toucher of finishing it off when he got to a slash that screamed past him at point, managing to get his fingertips to a ball travelling at mach speed, but failing to pull it down, giving the Pak skipper two more. 16/12 at the end of the Fleming over -- and the 56,000-strong crowd was by now turning the MCG into a carnival, keeping up a steady drumbeat of noise.

Shane Lee was tossed the ball for the penultimate over, and produced a superb yorker to have Akram runless first up. The pressure inside the cauldron that the MCG was beginning to have a visible impact on the Pak skipper, who looked fidgety out there. The next ball produced the wild drive, at a ball lee held back a touch, and Mark Waugh pouched the skier to pretty much nail Pakistan to the wall. The batsmen crossed while that one was in the air, and Shane Lee, bowling yorkers like they were going out of style (and in the process giving the Pak batsmen a taste of their own late overs medicine) kept Saqlain strokeless, and scoreless. That kind of thing was always going to have an effect on the batsman, as the ask mounted to 16 off 8 -- and Lee finished it off with a beauty, swinging in late to go under Saqlain's flailing bat and flatten the stumps.

Australia had completed a brilliant defence, holding its nerve and breaking that of Pakistan. The home side now looks well and truly on a roll and, on form, the side to beat by all covers.

Tailpiece: Meanwhile, the farcical element of Indian cricket was extended for another episode, with the team management and the board officials continuing to play ego games at each other's expense.

The team management asks for T Kumaran. The board says no way, we are not sending him.

The board's argument is that the team management should have known its own mind, and not sent Kumaran back if the thinking was that he would be useful in the ODI series.

This however raises a question -- when the selectors met to pick the ODI squad, why were Chandu Borde and his men in a hurry to drop the Tamil Nadu pace bowler?

It also raises another question -- even assuming that the team management erred in acceeding to the axing of Kumaran (and that at this point is merely an assumption), what does the board hope to achieve by turning down the request to fly him back?

It is a power play pure and simple, as the board mandarins show Kapil Dev and Sachin Tendulkar that they can deny requests at their whim, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

In the process, the team fails to get a player who could be useful in the remaining ODIs -- but the fate of the team is not, in any case, something the board loses much sleep over.


Mail Sports Editor