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January 18, 2004
Giant strides: L Balaji was the pick of the Indian bowlers
Even allowing for the glorious uncertainty of sport, few things in recent years have been as assured as an Australian one-day victory. Their last defeat of any significance in a limited overs game was way back on September 27 2002, when Sri Lanka beat them in the ICC Knockout semi-final at Colombo. Since then, they have lost just five out of 40 - encompassing an unbeaten World Cup campaign - and none of those reverses meant much in the larger scheme of things.
Teams like England and South Africa, who last beat the Aussies when it mattered back in the days when Moses was parting the Red Sea, have been so scarred by repeated whippings that they freeze even when they have Australia in a corner. India, by contrast, have been so emboldened by their performance in the Test series that even the strong-arm tactics employed by Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist didn't faze them. Irfan Pathan and Ashish Nehra bowled spiritedly with little luck early on, and even though the runs came in a deluge, the shoulders never drooped as with someone like Javagal Srinath.
The pick of a fine bunch was undoubtedly L Balaji, who came in and showed the giant strides he has made on this tour - sticking to an impeccable straight-and-narrow line that prompted mistakes from the batsmen. The biggest obstacle, literally, was Hayden who, like VVS Laxman earlier in the day, brought up his third ODI century with an eclectic combination of sumptuous drives and crude slogs against the line.
Hayden did his utmost to intimidate India's inexperienced attack, moving around the crease at will and stepping out as far as you would to a slow bowler. But neither Pathan nor Balaji backed down, and Pathan's jack-in-the-box celebration when he got his man said much about his refusal to be cowed by one of the game's scariest bullies.
Words of praise too for Rohan Gavaskar, who did everything that could have been asked of him on debut. First, he kept his nerve in a tense final over to allow Laxman past 100, and then he bowled with commendable control for the most part - taking a blinder of a return catch to send back Andrew Symonds - as Australia were reeled back in.
The hard yards had been run by the batsmen earlier in the day, with a hobbling Sachin Tendulkar providing the initial impetus. Since suffering a blip in New Zealand early last year, Tendulkar has been peerless in this form of the game, amassing 1332 runs in 21 matches at an average of 66.60.
But even he was relegated to the sidelights today by the resplendent batting of a man who has become Australia's chief tormentor. Many have questioned his suitability for the one-day game, and it was their smear campaign that resulted in his exclusion from the World Cup squad last year. Ripostes don't come much better, or classier, than this. Laxman has yet to find a niche for himself in ODIs, having played just 61 of them, but surely you must find a place for a man who averages 46.38 against the only team that matters, having scored all his three centuries against them.
He paced his innings magnificently today, much like the old-timers used to before slap-bang-wallop entered the cricket vocabulary. The platform was constructed patiently - 50 coming in 74 balls - before the final flourishes, 50 to 103 in a mere 39 balls, were applied with the flair that we have come to expect from him.
Australia won't lose too much shut eye over this defeat, since only 11 teams have chased down 300 or more in 2084 one-day games dating back to 1971. But there will certainly be mounting concern over the form - or lack of it - of Brett Lee, who was treated with the sort of contempt usually reserved for bowled from ICC associate teams.
Lee still has much to offer, but he needs to reinvent himself, and quickly. Perhaps a word from Allan Donald would help. Donald was much the same in his early years, fast, furious and prone to conceding runs by the bucketful. Watching Lee being taken apart in the final overs here, you were reminded of how Donald - straining every sinew - had been casually dismantled by Arjuna Ranatunga's deft strokeplay during the 1992 World Cup.
Donald was a different proposition in the halcyon years that followed, relying on variations of pace and movement off the pitch to outfox batsmen. Unless Lee follows suit, we'll soon see Shaun Tait in the green-and-gold.
Dileep Premachandran is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo.
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