Matthew Hayden: epitomised Australia's overwhelming superiority
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It wasn't so long ago that Rahul Dravid and V V S Laxman were piling up another 300-run partnership in a Test at Adelaide to shouts of Kolkata, Kolkata from the Swamy Army. Today at the SCG, you didn't need hecklers to be reminded of Johannesburg. Once again, Australia at their awesome best came up against another appalling one-day performance from the pretenders. That India were at one point competing against Namibia for the heaviest defeat in the history of one-day cricket, also at the hands of Australia, must put the match in perspective.
On the face of it, it is more than a little perplexing to find the gulf so wide between two teams that fought so evenly and so gloriously in a Test series ended just more than month ago. For the Indians to blame it on physical fatigue and mental drain would be a poor excuse. The truth is, one-day cricket demands a different set of skills, both physical and mental, and Australia, on the evidence of the two finals, remain light years ahead of India.
It helped of course that the pitches were flat, Glenn McGrath wasn't there and Brett Lee was a joke, but in the Tests, India's success was built around - barring Virender Sehwag's adventurism - classical methods. Dravid and Laxman, and even Sachin Tendulkar in the one Test that he scored runs, took time to consolidate and construct. Their traditional weaknesses - tardiness in the field, the lethargy between wickets, an inability to bowl straight and full - weren't as costly.
One-day cricket may be the lesser game, but requires the level of intensity, alertness and aggression that Australia have epitomised in recent years. In the fourth over of the match today, Matthew Hayden took three steps down wicket, punched Irfan Pathan straight to Tendulkar and ran a single. Tendulkar, with three stumps in sight, shied, and missed. Even if he had hit, the decision would have been marginal.
Later in the day, Dravid tapped the ball towards extra-cover on the back-foot and Damien Martyn's direct hit, with a single stump to aim at, found him a couple of yards short. Of course, the match was over by then, with Lee virtually ending the Indian challenge, before it could begin with a stunner of catch to dismiss Sehwag, but upon such intent and precision is one-day greatness built.
In Tests, the Australians can be occasionally frustrated by resolute stonewalling and the value of Aakash Chopra, despite a series average of 23.25, can be seen in proper light now, but when Australia turn it on in one-day cricket, they leave no room for strategic retreat. The Australian approach was brought home in the most brutal manner imaginable by, first, Hayden and, then, Andrew Symonds.
Hayden's towering stance at the batting crease is always an intimidating sight for the bowler, and when he chooses to stand a foot outside and walks a couple of steps down the pitch before the ball can be bowled, he eliminates quite a few options for the bowler. And because he has the eye and skill to make late adjustments, banging it short is not quite an option. It took Irfan three balls in the 12th over to learn the lesson of a lifetime.
The first one didn't yield a run, but Hayden's walk down the wicket forced a change of length next ball that Hayden waited on to punch for four past point, before strolling down wicket to give Irfan a stare that prompted a bouncer, which was swatted away to midwicket. Irfan was wise to quickly look away this time. It was only Hayden's fourth one-day century, but the third against India. Between them, Tendulkar and Ganguly have 58 one-day hundreds, but here was another instance of an Australian batsman raising his game when the stakes were the highest.
Symonds, had he decided to stay back in England, would arguably have been a higher capped and more celebrated player than Andrew Flintoff, but is unlikely to ever play a Test match for Australia. Without letting that weigh down on him, he remorselessly savages one-day attacks with surgical cleanliness. At one point towards the death, India had bowled five overs for 22 runs, and keeping Australia down to 300 had seemed a possibility.
From there on, Symonds took charge and there was no place to bowl. An attempted yorker from Ashish Nehra was hoisted over mid on for a one-bounce four, a quicker ball from Tendulkar was deftly deflected to third-man and pulls were executed from mid-pitch. It can be argued that the inexperienced Indian pace bowlers lost the plot, but truth was that they were bludgeoned to senselessness.
For India, it was a shame to have ended a glorious tour on such a despondent note. It was ironical for their batting, so magnificent all summer, to have returned to the abjectness of 1999-00 in the last four matches of the tour. It is perhaps not a coincidence that Lee's return to top form on a fast wicket at Perth started the slide, but on batsman-friendly pitches at Melbourne and Sydney, Australia once again demonstrated qualities that have ensured their zero-loss record in one-day finals in the last four years. India have grown as a cricket nation in the last three months, and their dismal performance in the finals won't go to waste only if they have managed to absorb a few lessons from Australia, who remain, for everyone's money, the pace-setters for the rest of the world.
Sambit Bal is editor of Wisden Asia Cricket.