India v Australia, TVS Cup final, Kolkata November 18, 2003

Silver lining, touch of grey

You just can't keep the Australians down © AFP

This match typified India over the last couple of years: substantial passages of brilliance, interspersed by outbreaks of mediocrity. One didn't know what to think. Was the silver lining a sliver of sunlight? What was that touch of grey? How good is India, really? On the evidence of this game, and the last two years: brilliant, at times; but not consistent enough, and not against Australia.

Many things went right for India today. Ajit Agarkar and Zaheer Khan bowled hostile, finely controlled spells first up; Murali Kartik and Harbhajan Singh choked up the runs in the middle overs; Hemang Badani and Agarkar lit up Eden Gardens with their controlled aggression. But all of this was punctuated by a slew of dropped catches, by the usual indiscrete strokes, by the inability to go on and finish things off. Time after time, India flickered; in the end, they burned.

The brightest spark was Kartik. In a form of the game where spinners, if they bowl at all, bowl flat and look to contain runs, Kartik flights it, loops it, and goes for wickets. He was outstanding, both lethal and economical, against West Indies in the home series around this time last year, and he bowled in a similar vein in this tournament. He has lifted himself to becoming India's first-choice spinner in one-day internationals - even if that is partly by a process of elimination.

That makes it all the more befuddling that Kartik is still not being given a run in the Test side. He is not going to Australia with the Indian team, which is a pity, because Australia have - against Ray Price recently and Daniel Vettori two years ago - been occasionally discomfited by top-class left-arm spin. Kartik is an intelligent bowler who has plenty of guile and variation in his bowling, and going purely on form - Harbhajan's bowling has recently been utterly devoid of ideas and intensity - he should have been in the Test squad.

Aavishkar Salvi is part of the squad to Australia, and how that will please the Australians. Salvi's lack of pace - and his lack of big weapons to make up for it - will make him easy pickings for Australia, as he was today. Why did he play? He was the fifth man accommodated due to India's five-bowler strategy, and it was a waste - he bowled three overs for 23 runs. An extra batsman would have helped, and playing Anil Kumble, given the state of the pitch, would not have been a bad idea either.

And now for Australia - what superlatives are left to heap upon them? In the pressure cooker of world cricket - the noisiest ground in the world, Eden Gardens - they played with composure and professionalism to make sure that all of India's pockets of brilliance went to waste. As we saw in Kolkata and Headingley in 2001, and at Antigua in 2003, it takes sustained brilliance to beat Australia - because that is exactly the quality they possess. There is no let-up in their intensity, ever. To beat them, you have to match them; they do not come down to your level.

It has been speculated in recent times that too much of the Australian team is over 30, that they do not have a younger generation of equally talented players waiting to take over. Piffle. Michael Clarke is a batting great of the future - as he showed today, and has shown earlier in the tournament as well, he has the ice-cold nerves of Michael Bevan, the audacity of Ricky Ponting, and a footwork against spin which surpasses that of any of his team-mates. His left-arm spin is handy, too. Along with Nathan Bracken, he represents a future of Australian cricket that appears likely to be as bright as the present. No clouds, and no need of a silver lining.

Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.