The Big Boys Come Out to Play

Those unable to accept India's steep fall from grace as a one-day outfit will not doubt hunt for scapegoats in the aftermath of this latest demoralising defeat, but to categorise this match as one India threw away would be to pay scant respect to a New Zealand team that has improved beyond recognition. In particular, it would do no justice at all to three individuals who might be marquee names if they played for a more glamorous outfit.

Nathan Astle became only the tenth man to score 15 ODI centuries, and even those who get nostalgic about sepia-tinted images of Glenn Turner and Martin Crowe will be hard-pressed to deny him his due as New Zealand's greatest limited-overs batsman. Injuries have restricted him to just 21 matches since the last World Cup, and but for an unbeaten 145 against the United States at the ICC Knockout, he hadn't crossed three figures once.

At 33, his bat-out-of-hell days - best exemplified by a remarkable Test double-century against England - are clearly behind him, and today, he played the role of senior pro to perfection. Initially content to sprint along in Stephen Fleming's slipstream, Astle took charge at the denouement as his experience, and a few smidgens of luck, allowed him to negate the considerable threat posed by India's spin-bowling troika.

That he could pace his innings so - spells of powerful boundary-hitting interspersed with periods of watchful calm and steady accumulation - was down to a stunning opening gambit from Fleming. Where his counterpart, Sourav Ganguly, had been mouse to Shane Bond's tiger, Fleming roared with intent - thumping Irfan Pathan, India's spearhead, for 24 runs in 14 balls faced. By the time the first Powerplay was complete, New Zealand were 82 closer to victory and the required run-rate down to a negligible 4.87. Though he failed yet again to convert a start into a century, Fleming's 61 was just the fire-starter needed to ensure that India's dreams of an elusive final victory were incinerated.

Fleming, though, would be among the first to point out the day's true hero. Daniel Vettori came on to bowl with New Zealand being subjected to a real leather hunt. Virender Sehwag had survived the initial probing burst from Shane Bond, and commenced flaying his less speedy colleagues. At 155 for 1 in the 25th over, 300 seemed the lower limit of India aspirations, but an almost-casual drive from Sehwag triggered a period of torpor and indecision.

Rahul Dravid was deceived by the arm-ball, and Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif struggled to do anything more than push singles in the face of guile, subtle variations and a beautiful trajectory. His display also raised uncomfortable questions about the performance of Harbhajan Singh, who though economical, finished the tournament with two wickets at a Bradmanesque average.

In sharp contrast to New Zealand, whose big boys came out to play, India's display was another catalogue of what-might-have-beens. What if Sehwag hadn't played a daft stroke? What if Kaif had done more than eke out 12 runs in 24 balls after reaching his 50? What if the pace bowlers had performed as they had done earlier in the tournament instead of doing impersonations of cannon fodder?

None of those what-ifs will console Greg Chappell after yet another capitulation in a winner-takes-all clash. And though numbers don't always tell the full story, a simple statistic is emblematic of the opposite directions in which these two teams are travelling. Since the World Cup, Sourav Ganguly (career average of 40.69) averages 30.68 from 48 matches, while Fleming (career average of 32.28) averages 37.29 from 41 games.

One man is an all-time great leading a team that has gone from near the top turret to below-basement, while the other - with few pretensions to legendary status - has taken a stagnating side and made it upwardly mobile. The effect of that reversal of fortune on their psyches was in clear evidence at the Harare Sports Club, and Ganguly must now surely wonder how much longer he has before even the nearly-man tag is snatched away.