October 18, 2007

Australia won the big moments and small

The big difference between the sides was skill. Australia had better batsmen, greater depth, better fast bowlers, better fielders, and, would you believe it, the better spinner. And as ever, they were focussed, driven, and relentless



The difference between the two sides was that Australia, unlike India, won most of the "50-50 moments" © Getty Images

If you were looking for a few instances that illustrated the difference between Australia and India in this series, billed as the "battle of champions" by some local television channels, try these couple of moments, both from the sixth match of the series in Nagpur.

The first involved free hits. Brad Haddin looked to swing Murali Kartik down the ground, but the top edge ended up in Sreesanth's hands just outside the circle at mid-off. Haddin, however, managed to scamper two. Later Sourav Ganguly, looking for a free swing over midwicket, top-edged Brett Lee behind the wicketkeeper and Adam Gilchrist collected the ball on the first bounce after making considerable ground. The Indians strolled a single. Palpably the difference here was in the intent.

In the same match, with Australia 109 for 3, Andrew Symonds top-edged Harbhajan Singh, and the ball swirled high over midwicket; Sreesanth, who was back on the ropes, was quick on his feet to make the ground, but his hands let him down and the ball slipped out of his grasp. Symonds, on two, went on to smash 107 off 88 balls. Later, Ganguly floated a tired lofted shot off Brad Hogg in the direction of long-off and Brad Hodge made the distance from the boundary and caught the ball with a slide. India never recovered from losing their set batsman. Give the Australians a chance, and they are most likely to make the most of it.

In his syndicated newspaper column on the morning of the final match, Gilchrist reflected on the closeness of the series despite the 4-1 scoreline. The difference, he wrote, was that Australia had won most of the "50-50 moments". In other words, whenever the match had been in the balance, Australia found the men and means to swing it their way.

All that separated the teams in Nagpur, possibly the best match of the series, was a couple of loose overs at the start of Australia's innings and a few tight ones in the latter half of the Indian innings. The margin was 18 runs - not insignificant in the context of one-day cricket - which boiled down to a few extra singles, some singles converted into twos, and a few runs saved in the field.

In the end, a 4-2 result looks far better than 5-1, which it could have easily been. But India will reflect and rue that it could very well have been 3-3. It will be difficult to argue, however, that Australia weren't decidedly the better side.

The first ten overs of the match tell a story. The ball swung prodigiously, a wicket fell first ball, batsmen were struck on the pad and they played and missed regularly. In far less testing conditions in Vadodara, India had been reduced to 45 for 5. But Australia were 66 for 2
Even the match at the Wankhede Stadium, which India won because of Murali Kartik's six wickets, and the unlikeliest of rearguard fightbacks, exposed India's limitations with both bat and the new ball. The first ten overs of the match tell a story. The ball swung prodigiously, a wicket fell first ball, batsmen were struck on the pad, and they played and missed regularly. In far less testing conditions in Vadodara, India had been reduced to 45 for 5. But here Australia were 66 for 2.

In between the odd balls that were on target - the batsmen looked uncomfortable every time the ball was in the right zone - the Indian bowlers, RP Singh in particular, were horrid. Eleven wides were sprayed on either side of the wicket, four of them in Singh's first over. And, more criminally, the new ball was wasted in conditions tailormade to make it talk. When Australia bowled, the ball did talk. Brett Lee swung it away at pace, Mitchell Johnson curved it both ways, and Nathan Bracken made it wobble. After their first ten overs, India were 38 for 2, and were lucky not to have lost a couple more.

For this Australian team to lose, two things need to happen. The opposition must play at the top of their game; and Australia need to be slightly off the boil. When the series was alive, it happened only once, when India won in Chandigarh.

The big difference between the sides was skill. Australia had better batsmen, greater depth, better fast bowlers, better fielders, and would you believe it, the better spinner. And as ever they were focused, driven and relentless.

Australia's success in any form of cricket - give them a year, or perhaps a month, they will master Twenty20 - has never been a mystery. They are an outdoors-loving country with a strong sports culture; their domestic system produces tough, competitive cricketers who are ready for the big stage; they pursue victory single-mindedly; and they are supported by the most professional administration of all the cricket-playing countries. Most Australian teams have possessed a couple of great cricketers, but eventually it's the sum of their parts that makes them a great team. After an indifferent performance in Twenty20, a form they regard with suspicion, they were awesome again, and for India there is no disgrace in losing to them.



India are in the process of building a new team and they have just gone through their toughest test © Getty Images

Perhaps India needed the reality check after being swept away by the hysteria generated following the World Twenty20 victory. By all accounts the felicitation at the Wankhede Stadium bordered on the obscene, with politicians clambering on to the stage to appropriate part of the glory. To those older fans who remember 1983, this series must be an eerie reprise of the post-World Cup drubbing at the hands of the West Indians, the best team of that era.

But unlike then, India now are in the process of building a new team, and they have just gone through their toughest test. After competing with Australia, it can only get easier. Hopefully they have learned more from their opponents than how to give lip.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo and Cricinfo Magazine

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