It was an apt background. When Brett Lee charged in to bowl early in the Indian innings, the batsman would have seen him framed by chunks of concrete, awaiting their final shape, in the distance. You could think of the desolation as ruins, or you could see it - as it was - as a landscape under construction. Steven Lynch, present at the MCG, described the ground as "a doughnut with a hefty bite chopped out of one side", a simile that the Indians would not have found too appetising, as they ended up on the receiving end of a ferocious Australian bite. India have been touted in recent times, with some justification, as the one team likely to challenge Australia's domination at the top. Well, as at the 2003 World Cup final, they are still under construction.
On that occasion, on March 23 last year, the Indian bowlers could not take the pressure, and the match slipped away in the first 15. This time, it was India's batsmen - more experienced, more talented, harder, than the bowlers - who crumbled. Much of the credit here, as in the World Cup final, must go to Australia's excellence. There, Adam Gilchrist attacked the Indian bowlers brutally, stomping up and down on their brittle nerves. Here, Brett Lee and Jason Gillespie, and later Brad Williams and Ian Harvey, bowled hostile, accurate spells, attacking the batsmen's weak spots, blasting holes in their technique. India had made some stirring fightbacks from three wickets down earlier in the tournament, but from 75 for 6, there was hardly a way back.
Ajit Agarkar and Hemang Badani fought valiantly, though. Agarkar, for all his talent, frustrates his fans more than his opponents. The moments when he shines, with bat or ball, act more as reminders of his potential than as a fulfillment of them. He was wonderful today, though more than two-thirds of his innings was spent facing Harvey and Andrew Symonds, in the calm after the storm. But, sigh, that probably means we'll have to wait a few more months before his next display of batting competence. There is clearly a problem, and it has nothing to do with his talents.
Badani's first ODI century came against Australia, in a losing cause, and he again showed refreshing common sense in the manner in which he rebuilt India's innings. During his first stint with the Indian team, in which that century had come, VVS Laxman had described Badani as India's Michael Bevan, as a player who would keep his nerve during tense times in the lower middle order. What happened subsequently? Badani fell through the cracks - presumably of his own mind, as his talent was evident. This innings should help him get more opportunities, though so far in this series, Rohan Gavaskar has been preferred to him, and the vacancy only opened up in the first place because of Mohammad Kaif's injury. Can Badani hold on to his place this time? The talent, and the hunger, which is also key, is clearly there. But that's not enough.
What is missing? Why does a talented player like Agarkar not deliver often enough, why does a gifted player like Badani fall away, why does a team as strong as India - their top six reads Sehwag-Tendulkar-Laxman-Dravid-Ganguly-Yuvraj - crumble at the crunch? It seems churlish, after the recent Test series, to accuse the Indians of lacking mental strength, but what else can explain this? Look at Australia: their confidence, their self-belief, is perpetually at an awesome level. When they are struggling, they don't rebuild, they destroy. They are mentally on a different plane altogether, and their ability is enhanced by their self-belief, and also bolsters it, in a constant self-reinforcing loop. Thus, no matter how well India does against the other teams, to beat Australia, they require something exceptionally special - as they managed in the 2001 Test series and during this one. While they are improving, they still have some distance to go before they can reach Australia's level.
Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.