So remarkable is the ability of Australian teams these days that the task of successfully standing in the path between them and victory borders on the verge of impossibility. Or so it seems at least after the locals today completed another resounding triumph, this time over India by the margin of 180 runs at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
To win a Test match is an exacting exercise in itself; it is another thing again to win a series (as Australia has now done in this three match battle by virtue of its 2-0 lead); but to win six contests in a row at this level is a feat of rare accomplishment. Indeed, only one Australian team in the history of Test cricket has a more coveted record of consecutive triumphs - Warwick Armstrong's 1920/21 outfit and its eight consecutive successes the only combination this current side has still to equal. Yet the Australians achieved their win today with a minimum of fuss, a minimum of angst, and even a relative minimum of wickets from principal strike bowlers Glenn McGrath (0/22) and Shane Warne (1/63). While Sachin Tendulkar (52) again devoted himself admirably to the cause of reviving India's fortunes, and although he was offered more support today with the bat than he has been for much of this series, the result was rarely in doubt. Under the leadership of Steve Waugh, the purposeful Australians duly achieved this win with the same emphatic force that has accompanied most of the previous five.
Waugh's midas touch as a captain in fact continued to glitter in many ways today. Indeed, somehow he found a way to conjure two completely unexpected, yet spectacularly successful, bowling changes in the midst of the innings that went a long distance to securing the win.
The first came in the shadows of lunch (the penultimate ball of the morning session no less) when part time medium pacer Greg Blewett turned an uncertain Sourav Ganguly (17) drive at an innocuous, wide delivery into a fatal one by attracting an inside edge which directed the ball into the visibly shattered left hander's stumps.
In terms of productivity, the second (which came in the over following drinks in the middle session) was even better. This arrived in the form of the introduction into the attack of occasional off spinner Mark Waugh and resulted in two wickets in successive deliveries. At the time, it appeared a strange move given that both Hrishikesh Kanitkar (45) and Mannava Prasad (13) had been pinned on to the back foot by speedster Brett Lee (2/31) and by Warne until that point. But it was one that could hardly be questioned when a flighted off break three balls into the over had Prasad lunging forward defensively and edging a low, beautifully taken catch to Warne himself at slip.
More pyrotechnics then followed as Ajit Agarkar (0) exited for an almost inconceivable third successive first ball duck when he flashed hard at a short wide long hop and crashed the delivery straight into the waiting hands of Blewett at a deep-set position at point.
Although the third hat-trick ball of the series (this time a full toss wide outside off stump) was then crashed for four through the covers by Anil Kumble, the skipper suddenly assumed the mantle of a strategist of some sophistication as a result. That Damien Fleming was also able to claim the scalp of the cheekily defiant Kanitkar with the very first ball of a new spell of his own in the death throes of the innings only added to the extent of the Australian captain's gleam.
As his leadership was inspired, so his bowlers and fieldsmen were admirably purposeful. On a pitch that remained true in pace and bounce to provide some of the best batting conditions of the match, the pace bowlers to a man adhered to the disciplined principle of bowling in the narrow corridor outside off stump for most of the day. Warne also refused to be bowed when his time-honoured strategy of pitching into footmarks outside the leg stump of the Indian right handers did not gain him success initially and his ability to ultimately claim Tendulkar told its own story about the quality of his effort.
For the Indians, on the other hand, this was always likely to be an arduous day's cricket. But it took a cruel turn for the worse when opener Sadagoppan Ramesh (26*) was forced to retire hurt just five minutes into proceedings after playing out a maiden from Fleming. Wincing as a result of pain in the knuckle of his right thumb (the legacy of being struck a debilitating blow to it yesterday evening by Lee), Ramesh left the field never to return and he will not be back for the Sydney Test either. Unfortunately for the tourists, the situation could never really be rescued - not even by the masterful Tendulkar.
Nevertheless, the full story of the day's play could not be recounted without at least some reference to another excellent exhibition from the deservedly named man of the match. Indeed, through a little under three hours at the crease, his was another sumptuous hand. He strode gracefully to the wicket against the backdrop of a reception which told of due reverence and maybe even of a sense of supplication (from a large Indian contingent here at least) too. A superb off drive off the back foot formally announced his presence at the crease, before several delectable cuts, cover drives and pull strokes were unleashed in an innings in which almost every ball was played perfectly on its merits. He was caused two moments of early anxiety (with his score at 16 and then at 20) when he twice offered no stroke to Warne but they were the only signs of mortality that emerged in the lead up to lunch.
It was in the 22 minutes following the adjournment that the result of the Test was essentially settled. For it was not only during that phase of that day that a series of mackerel-coloured clouds rolling in from the south-east chose to bypass the stadium, but also that even Tendulkar's defences and reserves of concentration began to weaken.
Ultimate crisis for the Indians came when he unwisely chose to pad away a Warne delivery which pitched on middle and off and spun only fractionally before striking him and giving umpire David Shepherd no choice but to adjudge him lbw. This capped the end of a short burst of play during which the masterful right hander had been troubled a number of times by Warne's habit of pitching in and around footmarks outside the line of leg stump and ripping prodigious leg breaks across him from the Southern Stand End. To the jeering of the mass of patriotic Indian fans pocketed at the bottom of the Southern Stand itself, the champion leg spinner had beaten a defending Tendulkar's bat at least twice and also launched a number of lbw enquiries in the middle of the teasing, probing spell.
After Tendulkar had fallen, the match then progressed steadily to its conclusion before a crowd growing in size on account of the near inevitability of the Australian success. And it certainly became difficult to ignore the symbolism inherent in the fact that the sun (so rarely seen in Melbourne's skies this week) made its most lengthy appearance of the match as Javagal Srinath (1) fended Lee straight to first slip and Kumble (13) was then run out at 4:18 pm in the final act of this battle of attrition.