Australia survive for tense victory
If the best way to spark interest in a seven-match ODI series is to stage a brilliantly tense opener, then Australia and India achieved their goal in Vadodara. Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey set up what looked like being a comfortable Australian win until a lively, crowd-lifting partnership from Harbhajan Singh and Praveen Kumar threatened to snatch victory for India.
In the end, nine were required from the final over and Peter Siddle held his nerve to confirm a four-run margin in Australia's favour. The key moment came when Harbhajan (49) was bowled from the second ball of the 50th, trying to launch a boundary off Siddle. Six from the last ball was too much for Ashish Nehra to produce.
The feisty 84-run stand from Harbhajan and Praveen was unexpected after India fell to 201 for 7 with ten overs remaining, when they needed more than nine an over. Shane Watson won't want to watch the replay of his final overs; he became predictable with his full tosses outside off and when he sent down the 49th of the innings it cost Australia 20 runs.
Ultimately, Australia got off the hook, largely because India had let themselves down in the field and through the middle overs of their own innings. Although Praveen, with his unbeaten 40 from 32 balls nearly got them home, his ten overs earlier in the day had cost 77 and Australia's batting contributions were even and widespread.
Ricky Ponting thinks a seven-match one-day series is too long; Michael Hussey would play cricket 365 days a year if he could. Both men looked sharp at the start of this tour in setting up the challenging total of 292 for 8. Ponting and Tim Paine built the platform before Cameron White and Hussey drove the total higher, and all four men posted half-centuries.
In reply, only Gautam Gambhir fired up properly out of India's top order. Gambhir had fought his way to 68 from 85 deliveries when he fell to the first ball of the batting Powerplay, which was also the first delivery with the changed ball after 34 overs. Mitchell Johnson found some dip and a hint of swing that trapped Gambhir in front of middle stump and the chase was threatening to derail.
The runs had been well restricted by Brett Lee and Peter Siddle in the middle overs and Gambhir and MS Dhoni were under pressure to make full use of the Powerplay, with the required rate climbing to 7.87. A pair of wickets to Johnson slowed India further.
That Johnson bowled even a single delivery was a positive for Australia after he rolled his ankle early in the fielding effort and appeared to be in significant pain. He left the field briefly and returned to have an impact, although the loss of James Hopes to a leg injury after he sent down two overs will be a concern for the remainder of the series. Australia had the bowling options to cover for Hopes and the part-time spin of Adam Voges accounted for Virat Kohli, who had combined with Gambhir for a 58-run stand until he skied a catch for 30.
Gambhir was comfortable rotating the strike and found the boundary six times, also clearing it once with a strong strike over wide midwicket off Hopes. He was at the crease at No. 3 thanks to the return of Virender Sehwag, who opened with Sachin Tendulkar, although neither of the veterans could make it to the ten-over mark.
But whereas India's two most experienced players failed, Australia's two most capped batsmen stepped up to guide their team. Ponting's 74 was the innings that set the tone but it was Hussey's 73 from 54 deliveries that kept things on track and ensured a healthy total when India threatened to fight back late in the innings.
Australia took their batting Powerplay from the 43rd over and it brought 3 for 33 (India's would later result in 3 for 32) after the powerful White skied a catch for 51 from the second delivery. It was important that Hussey bat until the end and he did survive to the final few balls, accumulating his runs in typically anonymous and understated fashion.
One exception came in the penultimate over when he launched Praveen for a monstrous straight six that left the ground and was so impressive that Hussey was even caught by the TV cameras raising his eyebrows and mouthing "that's big" to his partner. But for the most part, Hussey pierced the field along the ground and ticked the score over with hard, tireless running between the wickets.
He followed the lead of his captain Ponting, who was fierce against the fast men, punching off the back foot and going over the top when the occasion warranted. Few batsmen in the world would have the confidence to hook a fast man after walking down the pitch and being surprised by a bouncer but Ponting did just that, launching Praveen over the boundary for six.
Praveen felt the brunt of Ponting's form and he was also whipped through leg by Paine, whose 50 was important in setting up Australia's effort. Ishant Sharma was more dangerous with a fuller length that allowed the ball to swing and his 3 for 50 was well deserved.
Nehra collected two wickets and bowled reasonably, while Ravindra Jadeja's figures improved when he trapped Ponting plumb lbw. But ultimately India had too few contributors while the Australians all played their part.
The only visitor who didn't contribute was the umpire Mark Benson, who sat out of the match through illness. He missed a classic of the 50-over format.
Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo