India falter in pursuit of 289
Australia 288 (Symonds 88, Clarke 63, Agarkar 6-42) beat India 270 (Ganguly 82, Tendulkar 63) by 18 runs
Ajit Agarkar was a cut above the other Indian bowlers and scalped a career-best 6-42
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The opening match of the VB Series didn't quite produce the enthralling cricket which was on view during the Tests, but it was another close contest which, in the end, Australia nailed by 18 runs at Melbourne. After Andrew Symonds (88) and Michael Clarke (63) - both players who had missed out on the fun in the Tests - revived the Australian innings to take them up to 288, their bowlers just about managed to keep the in-form Indian batsmen in check.
The Indians had a couple of heroes in the match: Ajit Agarkar kept the Indians in the hunt with a career-best haul of 6 for 42 to restrict Australia to a sub-300 total, while Sourav Ganguly led the run-chase with a superbly paced 82, but his run-out proved to be the turning point, as the Indian lower order fell away and handed Australia with the first points of the VB Series.
The Indian run-chase got off to a splendid, if chancy, start. Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar put together 103 for the first wicket, but the partnership could easily have ended in a single-digit score, as both Sehwag and Tendulkar played and missed on numerous occasions. With Sehwag, a regular dose of play-and-miss was only par for the course, but more surprising was the way Tendulkar struggled to come to grips with the pitch and the bowlers.
Gillespie was especially superb, homing in around the corridor and shaping the ball away from the right-handers. On more than one occasion, Tendulkar groped for the ball, which shaped away just enough to beat the outside edge. As if those near-misses weren't enough to ruin the day for Gillespie, Tendulkar added to his misery, top-edging a pull over the wicketkeeper's head for six, and then clipping one off his legs for four.
Sehwag was rather subdued throughout his 59-ball 35, which finally ended when he dragged a drive off Ian Harvey back onto his stumps. The next three pairs all put together useful stands, but each time a pair seemed to have the measure of the bowling, a wicket fell. Tendulkar fell to a miscued pull off Symonds, which Ricky Ponting, at short midwicket, hauled down with a perfectly timed leap to bring off a one-handed catch (134 for 2). Tendulkar's 63 came off just 69 balls, but he was nowhere near his best.
VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid made 16 apiece, and fell attempting to force the pace, bringing Yuvraj Singh out in a familiar scenario - 94 required at over a run a ball. He immediately got to work, working the ball into gaps and running hard. In the process, he forced Ganguly, normally fairly slack between the wickets, to sprint the twos and threes as well.
Ganguly struck the big blows well too, giving himself room to club the ball on the off side and over the bowlers' heads. The pair had added 62 in just more than nine overs, when Australia dealt the fatal blow to the innings, dismissing both batsmen in successive balls. First, Clarke at short midwicket held on to a scorching drive from Yuvraj, whose 24-ball 25 included just one boundary, and next ball, Ganguly failed to regain his crease after being sent back by Sanjay Bangar (257 for 6). The lower order was ill equipped to deal with an asking rate which had climbed to well over eight.
Earlier, Symonds and Clarke revived an Australian innings that was in danger of being bowled out well within 50 overs. After Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden had got the innings off to the customary frenetic start, four wickets fell in the space of 39 balls, as Australia slumped from 59 without loss to 89 for 4. Agarkar caused most of the damage, taking three of those wickets. He wasn't particularly impressive in his first spell - in fact, Irfan Pathan, with his ability to swing the ball late, troubled both batsmen far more.
However, Agarkar was the chosen one for the day, as Gilchrist flicked a leg stump half-volley to Pathan at fine leg (59 for 1), and Hayden slashed one to Yuvraj at point (70 for 2). Agarkar then nailed Damien Martyn first ball with a superbly directed shot ball, which Martyn pulled despite being cramped for room, and top-edged to Lakshmipathy Balaji at fine leg. When Ponting spooned a return catch to Balaji, a dream start for Australia was suddenly going sour, but Symonds and Clarke turned it around.
Both were unhurried in their approach, putting the bad balls away in style, but without taking undue risks. Whenever given the opportunity, Symonds freed his arms to awesome effect - Balaji and Ganguly, especially, felt the heat. Balaji was slammed for six over extra cover and then square cut for four off consecutive balls, while Ganguly was tonked for consecutive sixes over midwicket when he pitched short.
Clarke, on the other hand, was altogether more polished, essaying some superb flicks and cover-drives, and showing some twinkle-toed footwork against Anil Kumble, whom he pulled with exquisite timing for his only six. Kumble did finally nail him, when Clarke miscued a lofted shot to VVS Laxman at midwicket (232 for 5), but by then, the Australian innings was back on track.
Even a rare failure by Michael Bevan, chipping a flick to Ganguly at midwicket for 1 (233 for 6), didn't affect the momentum, as Ian Harvey chipped in with a vital cameo of 28 from 24 balls. Agarkar came back with a much-improved second spell, though, ensuring that Australia failed to bat out their 50 overs, and ended up with a score which was about 25 short of what seemed likely at the 35-over mark. As it turned out, the total proved enough to win the match for Australia.
S Rajesh is assitant editor of Wisden Cricinfo.