McGrath and Gilchrist make the difference
For a moment, it seemed it would end as it had opened. Pakistan's tour to Australia began with a humiliating defeat at Perth and at first, today's finale was hauntingly familiar. Eventually, Pakistan fought back just as they had done on Friday, and they pushed Australia most of the way. But once Adam Gilchrist and, in particular, Glenn McGrath had done what they do so well, the fight didn`t matter.
It is a sign of how resoundingly McGrath has answered those who suggested he was finished, that there is now as much talk and applause - ironic though it may be - about his batting as there has always been about his bowling. It means that his primary function, and its effectiveness, is once again unquestioned. He picked up five wickets today, throttling any notions of a fight at the very top of the order and snuffing out clear signs of it at the bottom.
McGrath was always going to get one, if not two, of the top three out - he has made men with much better techniques than Kamran Akmal and Mohammad Hafeez look silly often enough. But it was his dismantling of the linchpin of Pakistan's hopes, Inzamam ul Haq that bore testament to McGrath's ability to rip the heart out of sides just when it matters.
He bowled two balls in what should now officially be rechristened the "Corridor of McGrath", both just short of a length with a slight hint of away movement outside off-stump, before pitching the third delivery much fuller and nipping it back. Traditionally a scratchy starter, Inzamam was trapped on the crease and plumb in front. Pakistan's captain and star batsman, with five fifties and 364 runs in the last seven matches, was gone, and the match, in essence, was over.
At least Pakistan will not have to hire a rocket scientist to see where they went wrong. Today, as has been the case throughout the VB Series, they might as well not have had a top three. In eight matches, Pakistan tried three different opening combinations and three different No. 3s. Akmal, a gritty lower-order batsman and an increasingly impressive wicketkeeper, became an unlikely opener. Salman Butt, who had faded as the series went on, was replaced today by Taufeeq Umar, once a specialist Test opener but now playing his first international of any variety in almost a year.
Shoaib Malik, fast becoming a sturdy upper-order fulcrum, was inexplicably shifted from that position in this tournament. Mohammad Hafeez, back in the side to make up for the loss of Malik's bowling, instead took his batting place and barely bought a run. Given that neither Inzamam nor Youhana are keen to bat at No. 3, the refusal to let the proven Malik bat there was bewildering.
If it seems a muddled policy, then it made for disastrous results as well; Pakistan's "starts" in this series have been 30 for 2, 36 for 2, 38 for 3, 65 for 2, 41 for 2, 9 for 3, and 38 for 3. That they had managed to stay afloat this far had been due, almost entirely, to the efforts of Inzamam and, in particular, the lower-order of a revitalized Abdul Razzaq (is it the spinach?) and Shahid Afridi.
It is a shame they crumbled again, for by doing a passable impression of Sri Lanka in the field, they had done wonderfully well to restrict Australia's batsmen for the second time in three days. Much of Sri Lanka's success in ODIs, and some of it has come against Australia, has been based on the slow choke - a method that is effective on sluggish pitches with a number of quickish spinners who aren't really spinners. They dart, rather than flight the ball; they often choose not to extract significant turn, and they hurry through their overs, never allowing batsmen to settle.
In the past, the likes of Jayasuriya, Chandana, Arnold and Dharmasena have successfully strangled Australian run-scoring in the middle overs, and today, the ebullient Afridi and Hafeez played the part admirably, first hauling back a Gilchrist-fuelled run-rate and then picking up crucial wickets in the middle order. They were backed up well by the seamers, and if Rana's opening over lbw appeal against Gilchrist had been upheld, it might have made a difference (and despite what commentators have said, there have been more than a few appalling decisions in this series).
Gilchrist's hand was characteristically abnormal and crucial; on a pitch where many struggled to get the ball away, he started as if he was batting in the nets. A sumptuous straight drive, a stinging square cut and a spanked cover-drive - three boundaries in the first over and six (as well as a hooked six) in total where his team-mates combined to hit twelve in the 41 overs after his dismissal. He did his thing then, McGrath did it later.
Osman Samiuddin is a freelance journalist based in Karachi.