Ponting puts Australia one up
Australia 224 for 3 (Ponting 88, Hayden 50, Balaji 3-52) beat India 222 (Badani 60*, Agarkar 53) by 7 wickets with 9.5 overs to spare
Matthew Hayden kept his end up while Adam Gilchrist and Ricky Ponting blazed away
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Australia outclassed India with the ball and bat, and in the field, to register a thumping seven-wicket win in the first of the three finals of the VB Series. To their credit India fought hard, engineering a mini-recovery. At the end of the day, though, there was little to cheer about for Indian fans. The team will have to shrug off this loss in a hurry if they are to stretch Australia to a third final.
The day began well for India, when Sourav Ganguly won the toss and chose to bat on a light-coloured dry pitch. From there on little went right. Australia's fast bowlers, rejuvenated after a couple of games on the bouncy tracks of Perth, hit a perfect length. The batsmen had nothing to drive at and slowly but surely were pushed onto the back foot. From then on, the bowlers merely had to persist. Every now and then a ball did a bit extra, a batsman committed a mistake and the wickets fell.
Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar both departed inside six overs. Sehwag fended Jason Gillespie awkwardly to Adam Gilchrist while Tendulkar played a half-cocked drive to a full one from Brett Lee and was bowled through the gate (14 for 2). Soon after, VVS Laxman (24) and Rahul Dravid were gone with the score on 48 and India were in deep strife. Each of the four Australian bowlers used - Gillespie, Lee, Williams and Harvey - had struck.
Ganguly walked out to the wicket amidst a rain of short balls, no doubt ruing the way things turned out after he had decided to bat. He played and missed more than once, attempting pull shots that would have been more in place on a beach in the Caribbean than an international tournament final. In the event, he was put out of his misery soon enough, by the bowler least likely to get him, when he cut and edged Ian Harvey to the keeper. Yuvraj Singh had a breezy yet pleasant stay out in the middle, clipping two effortless boundaries. Then, he became the latest casualty, edging a full one from Lee to the keeper. At 76 for 6 India were dead and buried.
Ajit Agarkar then wafted out like a refreshing breeze and hit the bowlers all around the park. The pressure of being so many down for so few seemed to act in reverse. After all, Agarkar had little to lose. His driving down the ground was crisp, his whips off the hip well-placed and his pull shot phenomenal. Hemang Badani, the last recognised batsman, watched in disbelief as a lesser batsman made light of the task at hand. Fortunately for India, Badani did not attempt to match Agarkar stroke for stroke. Instead he buckled down, brushed off the times he played and missed, and held up one end.
Agarkar's dramatic pull shot off Harvey, when he swiveled with the twirl of a ballerina and deposited a perfectly good ball over the stands at midwicket, was the highlight of a 102-run seventh wicket partnership that breathed life into the game. But even then, Agarkar's breezy 53 (62 balls, 4 fours, 2 sixes) and Badani's determined 60 not out (81 balls, 4 fours) could only take India to 222.
When India came out to attempt a defense of 222, it was almost an impossible task. Yet, Agarkar and Lakshmipathy Balaji began well enough, sending down two tight overs. And then all hell broke loose. Gilchrist opened his shoulders and launched the kind of assault you need when you're chasing 323 rather than 223. His bat came down fast and furiously with metronomic efficiency. Anything that was full, or wide, and preferably both, was dispatched with an arrogant air.
Gilchrist (38, 20 balls, 7 fours) was particularly savage on Balaji early on. He crashed him for three boundaries in four balls, and had scored 18 runs from the first five balls of the over before he finally slipped up. Balaji came around the wicket, dug the ball in short and Gilchrist's pull sailed high and handsome into Tendulkar's hands at deep backward square leg (48 for 1).
If India were happy to see the back of Gilchrist, the smiles were wiped off their faces by a rampant Ponting. He attacked the bowling from the moment he walked out to the middle, getting his eye in well against the medium-pacers before expanding his victims list to accommodate the spinners. His quicksilver footwork formed the basis for his clean hitting. He was not always to the pitch of the ball, but that hardly mattered as he drove on the up and through the line with sure hands. Small wonder that he was happy to walk when he edged one on 88 (80 balls, 7 fours, 2 sixes) with the score on 193.
Balaji picked up three consolation wickets, including that of Hayden in unusual circumstances. Hayden drove uppishly at a slower ball and only managed a gentle scoop back towards the bowler. An apologetic appeal from Balaji was upheld by the third umpire. Hayden's unusually restrained 50 (91 balls, 4 fours) formed the backbone of the 139-run partnership with Ponting for the third wicket. Suffice it to say it was more than enough to see Australia home.