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A boxing promoter might have been proud of the hyperbolic billing that preceded this series. The drum roll carried from Mumbai to Melbourne, but the entire cricket world was aware of a rare frisson of anticipation. Although India were the world's fourth-ranked side when Australia arrived at the end of September, there were many who viewed the meeting of these teams as Test cricket's blue-riband event, based on the epic nature of the preceding two series, in India in 2000-01 and in Australia in 2003-04.
But heavyweight match-ups are often a letdown, and this one never even went the distance, as Australia took an unassailable 2-0 lead in the Third Test. Arguably, the series could have been drawn had it not rained in Chennai with India on top. But by the end of the series Australia had established themselves as much the better side, and the 2-1 scoreline rather flattered the Indians. Steve Waugh's "final frontier" had been breached at last, even if Waugh himself was now back home in Australia watching the series on TV. The Australians had not won here in 35 years, but the modern team could now claim to have beaten everyone everywhere (except Bangladesh away, because they had not yet bothered).
Australia, led for the first three Tests by Adam Gilchrist in place of the injured Ricky Ponting, played the better cricket in the opener at Bangalore, where Michael Clarke made an astonishing debut. Though they could have lost in Chennai, Australia were again the stronger side at Nagpur, on a pitch that could not have been better prepared to assist their fast bowlers. And they outplayed India for most of the final match at Mumbai before showing, once again, that they are perhaps the worst chasers since the Keystone Kops. Their other negative reputation - for losing dead rubbers - has looked a little unfair in recent years, but was also reinforced, even though they lost by just 13 runs on an awful pitch that saw 40 wickets fall for 605 runs in the equivalent of not much more than two days. Even Dilip Vengsarkar, the Mumbai Cricket Association's vice-president and a former Indian captain, said it was unsuitable for Test cricket.
Australia won because of the superiority of their batsmen and fast bowlers. Just one Indian batsman, Virender Sehwag, passed 200 runs in the series. Australia had six, with Damien Martyn (444) and Clarke (400) leading the way. Martyn was voted man of the series. But the award, arguably, should have gone to Clarke, who contributed more in the field and, at Mumbai, with the ball. He also brought a sense of energy and exuberance to the side and was immensely popular. The game might have witnessed the arrival of a great player.
Jason Gillespie, rhythmic, hitting the seam and always making the batsmen play, was the leading fast bowler in the series, with 20 wickets at 16. But the support was massive, with Glenn McGrath, who recorded his 100th Test and 450th wicket at Nagpur, taking 14 at 25, and the improved Michael Kasprowicz nine at 28. Contrast that with India's most successful fast bowler, Zaheer Khan, who took ten wickets at nearly 37. The promising Irfan Pathan was second with just two wickets at 84 and simply too much was left to their two admirable spinners, Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, who claimed 48 wickets between them. Australia's fielding, though suspect in the Second Test, was also considerably stronger and often outstanding in the other three.
There was another reason, however, why these Australians won. John Buchanan, their tall, grave and schoolmasterly coach, had been planning this tour with an almost forensic attention to detail since their previous one ended, in April 2001. Then, Australia won the first of the three Tests with some ease - by ten wickets at Mumbai - and thought they had the series wrapped up when India followed on 274 runs behind at Kolkata. But India, remarkably, won, and did so again, narrowly, at Chennai to clinch a famous series victory. Buchanan, aware that India had been beaten in only two home series since the success of David Gower's England side in 1984-85, prepared methodically. Their batsmen learned how to play spin - their success in Sri Lanka earlier in the year was a key - and their fast bowlers decided to work on reverse swing, for the first time, according to McGrath.
They played more thoughtful, patient cricket. Instead of bowling fast and short to an attacking field they varied it more, often bowling fuller and straighter to split fields. "If you are aggressive all the time you can become predictable without having a fall-back position," Buchanan observed. Zsa Zsa Gabor once supposedly declared "Macho doesn't prove mucho." She was probably a duffer at cricket but would have approved of these Australians. It also helped Australia that they played in the relative cool of October, and not the humid heat of March, as they had done on their previous trip. This time there would be no one-day internationals to distract them from their obsession and they also negotiated a mini-break between the Second and Third Tests, in which the players refreshed themselves in Goa, Mumbai and Singapore. The Australian batsmen wore ice-vests. And during drinks breaks they were given chairs and umbrellas. All their players sipped water constantly, realising, like marathon runners, that drinking is too late once dehydrated. But great players were more important than even this thorough preparation. McGrath and Shane Warne, who had missed the previous, drawn series between the sides in Australia through injury and suspension respectively, were back. Warne, who had never been at his best in India, was something like his old self and at Chennai became the leading wickettaker in Test history, passing Muttiah Muralitharan's record of 532.
India could argue, with some justification, that the luck went against them, and not only at Chennai: they lost the toss in the first three matches and suffered from some ropy umpiring decisions at Bangalore. At Nagpur, they looked as glum as war refugees, the victims of the local Vidarbha Cricket Association's refusal to prepare a pitch according to their requirements. The VCA president, Shashank Manohar, no friend of Jagmohan Dalmiya, the outgoing president of the Board of Control for Cricket in Indian, said five days before the match: "I've got no instructions from either the BCCI or the Indian team management. Even if I do, I'm not going to oblige them." Manohar was as good as his word. When Sourav Ganguly, the India captain, registered his dismay over the way the pitch was shaping up he was magisterially ignored. The surface, with a generous covering of grass, offered bounce and movement, and Gillespie and McGrath took 14 wickets between them. Australia won the match by 342 runs - and with it the series. Ganguly did not play. On the morning of the match he withdrew, handing over to Rahul Dravid who had no time to prepare a strategy. When asked what was wrong with Ganguly, Dravid admitted he didn't know. Some said it was a thigh injury, others that it was a problem with the groin. "I hope it's the groin and not the grass," observed the former Indian all-rounder Ravi Shastri, a little mischievously. Ganguly had appeared fully fit on the eve of the game and his withdrawal caused widespread bewilderment.
The injury may have been real enough but the unfortunate impression he conveyed was that of a general who, denied the munitions he had requested, decided to sulk in his tent. The team's physiotherapist, Andrew Leipus, said the injury was "not very serious". A statement confirmed that there was a problem. The captain was suffering from "intra-articular pathology of the right hip joint noted by increased synovial fluid accumulation". It was difficult to imagine Steve Waugh, that great champion of the primacy of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, being undone by a little synovial fluid.
Meanwhile, Australia's stricken captain, Ponting, was regularly seen running on the field with drinks and supplies. Australia looked utterly professional and motivated while India appeared demoralised and shambolic. Suddenly, a close series felt terminally one-sided, pivoting on the rain that ended the second match and the pitch preparation that preceded the third.
By the time they reached Mumbai both Ganguly and the coach, John Wright, looked vulnerable, despite their impressive records. Again, Ganguly did not play while Wright, his contract almost up, wore the wistful expression of a man who might soon be reacquainted with his treasured fishing-rods.
The selectors were largely responsible for the malaise. They could not decide on Sehwag's opening partner, torn between the strokeless Aakash Chopra and the loose Yuvraj Singh, before finally handing a debut to Gautam Gambhir at Mumbai (between them, the trio managed 34 runs in eight innings). The selectors also decided, too late, to dispense with their wicketkeeper, Parthiv Patel, who had been inept behind the stumps in the first three matches. Essentially, however, it was the failure of their vaunted middle order that hurt India. Dravid, Ganguly and V. V. S. Laxman totalled 349 runs at an average of under 22. Even players as good as these have often seemed mere outriders surrounding the limousine that is Sachin Tendulkar. But the maestro missed the first two Tests with tennis elbow and looked out of sorts in the Third. He produced a thrilling cameo at Mumbai but it was so late it was posthumous.
Match reports for
Mumbai v Australians at Mumbai (BS), Sep 30-Oct 2, 2004