If this was a final, as Ricky Ponting wanted his side to view the fifth one-dayer in Vadodara, it was reminiscent of the hopelessly one-sided conclusion to the World Cup in 1999. Mahendra Singh Dhoni let out a big smile at the toss, with the crowd cheering as if the result was a foregone conclusion, but trudged away in the knowledge that his side could no longer win the series. Even drawing level from here will take some getting.
The distinctly brick-red surface, one that demanded application, was to leave India's batsmen ashen faced. A combination of injudicious shot-selection, accurate new-ball bowling, efficient left-arm pace and outstanding wicketkeeping is often a recipe for a lop-sided contest. It resulted in India's lowest home total against Australia. In fact the game was up much earlier; spectators leaving the ground after 25 overs of the game realised as much.
Adam Gilchrist imposed himself on the series with his allround brilliance. He equalled his record for the most dismissals in an ODI, including two sensational one-handed takes, before rattling off a 77-ball 79 as Australia cantered to a nine-wicket win. Chasing 149 was always going to be a doddle, even though India tried their bit by opening the bowling with Harbhajan Singh's offspin, and Australia faced little trouble in reaching the target just after the halfway mark. Gilchrist's four towering sixes rubbed salt into India's wounds and one hopes youngsters watching his brutal assault on Murali Kartik did so with parental supervision.
He was invaluable behind the stumps too, making amends for his poor showing in Chandigarh with a wicketkeeping display straight out of the Ian Healy manual. He was alert to an inside edge from Yuvraj Singh, stooping to his right and pouching a single-handed take, before snapping up a leg glance from Dhoni, this time throwing himself headlong to the left and clasping on to a chance. Both instances demanded quicksilver reflexes and his reaction underscored the extent to which Australia raise their game when it really matters.
India's innings resembled an automobile ignition on a wintry morning. On a ground where the average total hovers around 280, it soon emerged that the pitch wasn't the subcontinental shirtfront that everyone expected. Brett Lee's first over saw a couple of deliveries that died on the batsmen, short-length deliveries often came with a spongy bounce and it was clear the strip wasn't conducive for hitting through the line.
Johnson, ending with five wicket for the first time in an international, prospered by keeping things simple and had Gilchrist to thank for four of his dismissals (another arrived through a poor umpiring decision). Unlike in Chandigarh, where he came on first-change, he was asked to share the new ball and thrived in Lee's company. Johnson didn't rattle with pace or swing, instead he nagged away outside off and troubled with minimal movement off the pitch. He appeared to have assessed the pitch early, unlike some of India's batsmen, and deserved his best international figures.
India paid for some indiscreet strokeplay after failing to read the surface. Sourav Ganguly's early run out, when Sachin Tendulkar didn't respond to a risky single, started the slide and there was hardly any time to recover. Rahul Dravid's struggles continued with a first-ball duck, rooted to the crease and beaten by a Lee inswinger, while Robin Uthappa, confidently punching during his brief stay, was unlucky to be adjudged leg before to a ball striking him outside off and heading past the off stump.
Tendulkar, honoured before the game for reaching 400 ODIs, briefly promised a classic but he didn't have much of an answer to a ferocious away-cutter from Lee, a candidate for the ball of the series, that breached his defences. Lee produced the killer blow when he returned for his second spell in the 26th over. The good-length ball swung in, gripped the pitch, and moved away just enough to beat Tendulkar and had him edge a simple catch to Gilchrist behind the stumps.
The hopeless situation didn't deter RP Singh and Zaheer Khan. They handled the lack of pace sensibly and their 41-run stand proved that runs could be scored if one waited for the right ball. Eventually it was a case of too little too late; India's story in the next two games might just follow a similar theme.