January 5, 2000

Australia completes series clean sweep

In many ways, this series has represented both the best of times and the worst of times. Well nearly anyway, for Australia has played about as well as might be expected and the Indians have been about as poor by comparison. It was far from a surprise then that this was yet again the general formula in accordance with which matters transpired on the third day of the Third Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground, at the very end of which the tourists plunged to defeat by an innings and 141 runs.

For those who may have expected a more competitive and enthralling series, it also sadly served as yet another celebration of the twin abilities of Australia's batsmen to take toll of flagging attacks and for its own bowlers to work their way through an opposing batting list. Nevertheless, there was some time for three significant individual highlights all the while - Justin Langer chalking up several notable feats in the course of scoring his first Test double century, Ricky Ponting making an excellent century of his own and VVS Laxman registering his maiden Test hundred in bravely inspiring manner. There were also several bizarre curiosities late in the day - foremost among them a decision by Umpires Ian Robinson and Darrell Hair to grant the Australians an extra half hour at the end of the day to complete their seventh successive Test victory.

These seven and a half hours began amid brilliant sunshine with Australia again on the offensive with the bat. Around two run out chances which were badly fluffed by Rahul Dravid, Langer (223) and Ponting (141*) indeed opened in lucent style. In front of a crowd delighting in their dominance, Ponting was the chief architect of a run-spree in the course of which seventy-two runs were plundered in the first hour of proceedings and the rate rarely slowed thereafter.

Even by Langer's own admission, his was far from a great innings in terms of substance and, by its end, it had become difficult not to recognise the impact of a string of close decisions (at least four - at 7, 22, 25 and 55 - springing to mind immediately) that had gone in his favour. But one can not deny him considerable plaudits for his effort. It was another performance among many from him in recent seasons which offered a great testament to his powers of concentration, his reserves of energy and his ability to take toll of a labouring attack. Confirmation of the impact of the innings came in the notion that his is now the highest score ever made by an Australian against India, exceeding the 213 made by former captain Kim Hughes in 1980/81. What was additionally only the fifth ever double century by an Australian against this foe ultimately finished twenty minutes before lunch when he launched a tired off drive at the gentle off spin of Sachin Tendulkar but succeeded only in lofting a short distance to the right of Venkatesh Prasad at extra cover.

Whilst clearly not as productive, Ponting also performed a superb job for his team. Continuing a stellar run which has seen him now score three hundreds (ironically after three successive ducks!) in the space of four Tests, the young right hander incorporated sparkling power and timing in what was an excellent all round exhibition. His century, which came when he delightfully drove a Tendulkar delivery to the long on fence, was indeed in many ways significantly more impressive than the one made by Langer.

Once Langer was out, Ponting and Adam Gilchrist (45*) then permitted themselves the luxury of accumulating some of the easiest runs that might ever be granted them at this level before a declaration was mercifully enacted. Cuts, pulls and flowing drives were all in evidence as both Ponting and Gilchrist enhanced their Test averages with a rapid unbroken stand of 95 runs for the sixth wicket to take the score to 5/552 before the closure came at 2:27pm with their team's lead beyond 400 runs.

As if their plight had hitherto not been galling enough, the Indians then crashed headlong toward complete ignominy. From the manner in which they began, it seemed likely that the weary tourists must have already been completely rattled by the time that they then came in to bat. Or that is the way that it initially appeared anyway as they crashed to a score of 3/33 and illustrated barely even a scintilla of fight against some unremarkable Australian bowling.

Mannava Prasad (3) certainly heightened such suspicions when he meekly pushed forward at a Glenn McGrath (whose 5/55 gave him only his second ever Test ten wicket haul) leg cutter and angled a low catch to Mark Waugh at second slip. At the end of a miserable three Tests in Australia, Dravid (0) then reinforced them when he played a defensive shot at a straight McGrath delivery outside the line of off stump. The result was an outside edge straight to a juggling Shane Warne at first slip who, despite his best attempts to transform an easy catch into a difficult one, completed the honours to a roar of approval from the unashamedly partisan and noisy crowd.

And then even worse was to follow when superstar Sachin Tendulkar (4) seemed to take temporary leave of his normally perfectly assured senses in the following over. After a magnificently authoritative shot to the mid wicket boundary against the brilliant McGrath from his very first ball had provided the indication that he was in a mood to butcher the attack for one last time in this series, complete disaster soon followed. It came in the form of a loose cover drive at an outswinger from Damien Fleming, the result a spooned shot and the easiest of catches for Langer at cover.

With doubt surrounding the likelihood of the injured Vijay Bharadwaj's ability to bat later in the innings, that left the Indians with effectively only six wickets standing and still well over two days to play to avoid defeat.. But it was at about this stage that Laxman (167) seemed to sense that the time was right for someone to fill the breach. And so he did with a grace and an air of majesty that has not been apparent in too many of the innings played by him or most of his teammates in this series.

He did survive the odd slice of fortune (the most notable at 54, when he edged a McGrath no ball straight to first slip), but otherwise his fluency was uncompromising. Moreover, he played in exactly the fashion for which Indian supporters have been crying out throughout the series - with aggression, with pride, and with a myriad of glorious strokes to all parts of the ground.

One could almost detect gasps and groans from a stunned crowd as he also made Brett Lee (fifty-two runs brutalised from five of his overs at one point) suddenly look the mere mortal that few at this ground had believed him to be in the wake of weeks of success and favourable publicity. Still searching for the elusive five wickets which will confirm him as the greatest Australian wicket taker in history, leg spinner Shane Warne also took some unexpected punishment, especially through the leg side in the late afternoon. That the Australians were moved to introduce Ricky Ponting and Michael Slater into the attack late in the piece spoke of their sudden and unexpected sense of frustration.

Nevertheless, such frustration was not prolonged all that much longer in what remained a hopelessly lopsided Test. This reality was further encouraged by the strange decision - with India only having just lost its sixth wicket - of the umpires to extend play when the conditions apparently did not allow them to do so. Frankly, Robinson and Hair did not enjoy good games, they did little to quell the suspicion that the Indians had consistently been on the wrong end of several poor decisions in this series, and they regrettably did nothing but confirm the impression even more acutely with what was almost their final act amid the Australian whitewash.