The emotion and drama of the first two matches of this Carlton and United Series had provided spectators and commentators alike with plenty about which to eulogise. Through the course of today's third game - between Australia and India at the Melbourne Cricket Ground - some more terrific cricket was conceived, particularly in the form of the batting of two players. For intensity and excitement, however, this encounter clearly suffered significantly by comparison. Unfortunately, it was also blighted by an act of brazen stupidity from a contingent of fans seated in the lower reaches of the Southern Stand at this magnificent stadium.
Before a huge crowd (which, on a very hot day in the Victorian capital, may ultimately have been too big for its own good), the game started in entertaining enough fashion after Australia had won the toss and elected to bat on a hard, bouncy pitch and in the middle of a lightning fast field. Openers Adam Gilchrist (3) and the still completely out of sorts Mark Waugh (7) were gone inside the first four overs and aspirations of a first Indian success over the Australians this summer were imminent. But it was in between those dismissals that Ricky Ponting (115) walked to the crease and it was essentially over the course of the next three hours that he spent at the crease that the fate of the game was decided.
Relishing an appointment to the Australian vice captaincy in the wake of the absence (through injury) of Shane Warne, the Tasmanian played a superb innings. Initially, he favoured horizontal bat strokes - several pulls, hooks and cuts evident early when bounce and pace in the pitch was rife. But, as the variability of bounce diminished and the pace in the track slowed, so he transformed his game, driving with delicious authority forward of the wicket. Until he cramped late in his stay and then bunted a slow Javagal Srinath full toss to mid wicket, he scored at virtually a run a ball throughout a hand that occupied just under three hours.
So effective was his effort that he made life substantially easier for those around him too. Indeed, he forced the constant rotation of the Indian attack, prompted considerable revisions to the field, and unnerved the bowlers into losing their line and length. Consequently, the likes of Michael Bevan (41), Damien Martyn (30) and even, at the end, Shane Lee (22*) and Damien Fleming (14*) all cashed in on a handsome opportunity to make runs and to ensure that their team continued to score in excess of five runs an over on its way to a total of 7/269.
As for the Indians, they fought determinedly, but their inability to build upon their two early wickets told on them. They had an excellent opportunity to run Bevan out when he had only one run on the board, and captain Sachin Tendulkar also grassed a relatively straight forward opportunity to catch Ponting (then on 109) at mid wicket in the course of a generally sloppy overall exhibition with the ball and in the field.
When it came time for India's response, Sourav Ganguly (100) replied with a choice hand of his own. After the Indian upper order had suffered similar problems against the new ball to those encountered by their opponents, the lithe left hander constructed a beautiful innings and, hard on the heels of his 61 in his only other game in this series, continued to resemble the very essence of the player who came to Australia with such a glowing reputation. Characteristically, his driving through the off side was the feature of his batting and the sheer placement and timing in his execution was a joy to behold.
Freed of the constraints and mores of Test cricket, Rahul Dravid (60) also played extremely well, and his 109 run partnership for the fourth wicket with Ganguly had looked to be providing India with an unexpected lifeline before calamity - both on and off the field - struck. The first instalment of such tragedy came when, conceivably out of tiredness, the latter committed the cardinal sin of failing to ground his bat when attempting a quick single to Andrew Symonds at cover in the fortieth over. Duly, he found himself over the line of the crease with his bat but the fact that it was in the air when the throw from Symonds hit his stumps meant that his blushes were not spared.
Worse (for everybody at the ground and those millions following the game around the world) was then to come when a replay on one of the stadium's giant electronic scoreboards seemed to suggest that he had made the crease safely. This prompted a mass protest from the large contingent of fans seated in the lower reaches of the Southern Stand, hundreds of bottles and considerable invective hurled in the general direction of long on. Security and ground staff, as well as a large cordon of police, were called into the area to maintain order but peace was not immediately restored. Indeed, it was only after Dravid and Robin Singh (34*) headed toward the offending spectators, and pleaded for sanity to prevail, that play was eventually able to resume.
From there, neither the stain of Ganguly's dismissal nor the blot on the whole day created by such unacceptable public disorder could be removed. In an innings in which consistently poor running between the wickets was evident, the Indians consistently gifted further wickets away at inopportune moments and they finished twenty-eight runs short of their rivals at a tally of 6/241. That more crowd trouble ensued (several members of the 73,219 strong audience foolishly invading the ground at different times in the concluding stages) rendered it a night to forget for many reasons, notwithstanding the impressiveness and general efficiency of Australia's performance in securing its first win of the tournament.