Australia romp home by nine wickets at Centurion

The nature of Indian cricket makes it inevitable that much optimism - however unwarranted - is attendant upon each of the team's fixtures. Coming off a pathos-filled tour of New Zealand? Struggled inordinately against the Netherlands? No matter - against Australia at the SuperSport Park, the fans reason, India will come good. They always have done against top-flight opposition before, haven't they?

One man contributed much to the reasoning behind this optimism - misplaced, as it transpired. Sachin Tendulkar's record against Australia, especially in big matches, is majestic, and when he walked out to open with Sourav Ganguly after India won the toss, it was difficult to not recall previous explosive Tendulkar-Australia contests in hungry anticipation.

If there was no reprise at Centurion on Saturday, the blame cannot be pinned on Tendulkar, for he was never in a position to confidently take on the challenge of separating ball from leather. Brett Lee prised out men on either side of him in the batting order, pouring cement around the feet of Ganguly and Virender Sehwag before convincing them to slash at a wide ball. Off Jason Gillespie's first delivery, Rahul Dravid tried a forcing offside stroke and chopped the ball onto his stumps.

Bowling first change, Gillespie clubbed intelligence and sheer zip to play India's chief tormentor and finish with stunning figures of 10-2-13-3. After Asoka de Silva handed down an unfortunate leg-before decision against Yuvraj Singh - the ball sliding down leg - Gillespie lured Mohammad Kaif into the pull, Andrew Symonds running in from his position on the square leg ropes to take a fine catch diving forward full length. From 41 for one in 7.1 overs, India were 50 for five in 18.

Matters got rapidly worse. Tendulkar climbed into his shell, and he was not helped by his compatriots' obstinate refusal to turn the strike over. He was finally out-thought by Gillespie in the 28th over, just when his stand with Dinesh Mongia looked promising. Noticing Tendulkar's tendency to move inside the line and work the ball to leg, Gillespie produced a slower ball right on middle stump; Tendulkar played the same stroke, but he was too early and was plumb leg-before. That cleverly planned dismissal pointed as much to Australia's organised, intellectual approach to this game as it did to India's unpreparedness.

Little resistance remained in India's batting line-up. Lee had Mongia caught by a diving Symonds at cover, and although Harbhajan Singh belted four unorthodox fours and an even more bizarre six - slashed over deep point off Lee - it was hardly enough. Zaheer Khan was leg-before to a Darren Lehmann floater with lovely loop and late dip, and with Javagal Srinath in the middle, the inevitable run-out occurred to leave India all out for 125 in 41.4 overs.

If one were to go by body language, defending India's lowest total in World Cup cricket seemed beyond the quartet of regular bowlers before they even sent down the first ball. Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden - belligerent even in hostile conditions - exploited the drooping shoulders and half-hearted run-ups thoroughly. The openers posted 100 for the first wicket, and even when Gilchrist (48, 61b, 6x4) did fall - stumped after he danced down to a wide Kumble delivery - it seemed more like an aberration, a minor blip that Australia would brush off as casually as an elephant would a lethargic fly.

Matthew Hayden only faced 49 balls for his unbeaten 45, a knock that included only one four but two steepling sixes - a straight one off Srinath and an even bigger one over midwicket off Harbhajan - that will remain in the Centurion spectator's memory for long. And after Ricky Ponting had bustled into 24 runs off as many balls, making all but two of the runs remaining for a win, Australia had romped home by nine wickets.

Clearly Australia were the superior team - by a long margin - in this contest, but equally clearly, judging by past record, India had the potential to elevate their game accordingly. That they did not get even half a chance to do so was a testament to their opponent's thorough professionalism.