Lessons from a shock-and-awe final

Print edition : April 11, 2003

World Champions, 2003. Australia became the first country to win three World Cup titles. The Aussies were way ahead of the competition from the start of the tournament. - DAVID GRAY/REUTERS

In a breathtaking display of cricket professionalism and firepower, an Australian team that is made of the stuff of legend turned the final into a one-horse race. But despite a big-time collapse, India can take home quite a few positives from this World Cup.

AUSTRALIAN forces are involved in George W. Bush's unjust `Shock and Awe' war on Iraq, but thousands of miles from Baghdad, Ricky Ponting's cricket team completed a `Shock and Awe' operation of a different kind. It was in the World Cup final at the Bull Ring, as the Wanderers ground in Johannesburg is locally known. The Australian captain, following Adam Gilchrist and in the company of Damien Martyn, launched on an off-colour Indian bowling, an assault of a ferocity not previously seen in the 28-year history of the World Cup. Ponting's thrilling 140 off 138 balls, which included eight sixes, and Martyn's flawless 88 off 84 balls propelled Australia to a total of 359 for 2. It set the stage for Australia's 125-run rout of India and a second successive World Cup triumph.

Ponting's men have already become part of the world's sporting folklore. Only Clive Lloyd's West Indians of the 1970s and 1980s can claim to have dominated cricket as much as the Australians have over the past decade. But Australia has now raised the bar even higher. It became the first team to win three World Cup titles. It has now won a record 17 consecutive one-day internationals (ODIs) on the trot. Its total of 359 is the highest in a World Cup final. Even more awesome is the fact that the gap between Australia and the rest is wider in the Test arena than it is in the shorter form of the game.

The World Cup triumph was the icing on the cake for Australia, which was way ahead of the competition from the start of the tournament. India was clearly its nearest rival, yet Gilchrist, Ponting, and Martyn treated the Indian bowlers with a sense of disdain more appropriate to a club game than to a World Cup final. With clinical efficiency, professionalism, and discipline, Australia won all the 11 games it played.

There are many reasons for Australia's success, but none more important than the attitude and professionalism demonstrated by Ponting's men. Australia may possess resources and bench strengths of the highest quality, but it is the determination, confidence, and discipline of the whole team that stands out. Few teams could have recovered from the blows of losing Shane Warne to a failed drug test and Jason Gillespie to injury. Yet Australia went about its business of winning.

Evidence of Australia's fighting qualities was on view throughout the tournament. Each time the team was tested, someone stood up and brought it out of the woods. Australia was in trouble in its very first match, against Pakistan. But Andrew Symonds, who was then on the fringes of the team and probably found himself more often fishing with Mathew Hayden than playing ODIs for Australia, played one of the best knocks in one-day cricket history, ensuring his team's success. Against England, it was the turn of Michael Bevan and Andy Bichel to manufacture a win from a seemingly hopeless position.

In the semi-final, it was once again Symonds who helped Australia post a decent total after the Sri Lankan spinners caused a serious flutter. The Australian bowlers then went about demolishing any misplaced hopes there might have been of a sensational upset. Martyn broke his finger fielding in Australia's last Super Six game and missed Australia's semi-final match-up against Sri Lanka. On the eve of the final, he was a doubtful starter, yet somehow managed to play the innings of his ODI career and helped Ponting take away the game from the Indians.

While the batting delivered when it mattered and was absolutely overpowering in the final, the bowling was the team's consistent strike weapon.

Disappointment for India, at The wanderers. The game was not lost by India's batsmen - the bowlers' performance gave the batsmen little chance.-WILLIAM WEST/AFP

Brett Lee was the pick of the Australian bowlers, indeed the pick of the bowlers in this World Cup. He bowled with tremendous pace, yet seemed to maintain accuracy and bowl to a plan. In most matches, he was particularly devastating in his second spell, where he, typically, picked up several wickets in quick succession. The tormentor-in-chief was ably complemented by Glenn McGrath and Bichel, who relied on impeccable control and swing to trouble batsmen.

Ponting used Brad Hogg and his part-time bowlers perfectly, shielding them by bringing them on when his seamers had made inroads into the opposition's batting line-up. The Australian bowling was so dominant that even in matches against New Zealand and Sri Lanka at Port Elizabeth, where the Australians batted first and achieved relatively low scores, they managed emphatic wins. Perhaps, it was the sheer potency of the Australian bowling that made Sourav Ganguly approach the final in a defensive mindset and choose to field after winning the toss.

Though the middle-order looked brittle at times, the Australian batting never really crumbled. Batting looked the weaker of the two departments but, as Australia proved in the final, it is capable of ruthless batting displays that few other teams can match. Ponting and Gilchrist were relatively consistent with the bat, and players such as Martyn, Symonds, and Bevan made crucial contributions.

Australian cricketers are consummate team players and are rarely satisfied if individual glory does not coincide with victories for the teams. After the final, Ponting had this to say about his century: "It is my most satisfying innings because to do it today when it really mattered and really counted is really special." As for his team taking a special place in cricket history, Ponting said: "If we had thought about or spoken about that we wouldn't have got too far but the pleasing thing about this World Cup is that we have done it all fairly quietly. We have just gone about our business, our preparation has been great, and the whole squad and the support staff have been sensational." He explained Australia's philosophy about the records it has set thus: "The 17 straight wins doesn't mean a lot either but what it does mean a lot is the standards we set for our side, which are very high. We have reached and almost set new, higher standards today and that is the most pleasing thing to come from today." Australia will no doubt try and raise the bar and set its own standards for some time to come.

India was clearly the best team on show after Australia. It recovered wonderfully after a slow start to the World Cup and fashioned some convincing wins. Sachin Tendulkar performed superlatively, confirming his reputation as the world's best batsman in both forms of cricket, and walking away with the Player of the Tournament award. Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, Yuvraj Singh, Mohammad Kaif, and Virender Sehwag showed that India has formidable batting depth and firepower in both forms of cricket. Sehwag, in the company first of Ganguly and then of Dravid, looked threatening in the final. His clean hitting against both pace and spin must have caused some anxieties in Australian minds, especially when rain-clouds gathered and the Duckworth-Lewis table seemed, momentarily, to come into the picture.

There are plenty of positives that the Indian team can take away from its World Cup performance, including the fact that it registered eight mostly emphatic wins in a row before the final. But it must first reflect on its poor performance, and the key factors behind the crushing loss, in the final.

It has taken 20 long years for the team to reach the final of a World Cup since the stunning 1983 victory. So it was especially disappointing that the team, chiefly its bowlers, let the enormity of the occasion get the better of them. What separates Australia from the other teams is that it rarely has off-days when it matters and, in general, it has fewer off-days than other sides.

The Indian bowlers were not able to extract help from the moisture that was present in the wicket at the start. However, towards the end of the Australian innings, they seem to have given up and this was reflected in their body language. There seemed to be no concerted effort of any kind to mitigate the damage. It seemed that Ponting was picking his spot in the crowd and hitting sixes to those spots at will. Many of these strikes were against full tosses that were, presumably, attempted yorkers or slower deliveries. Over 100 runs were taken off the last nine overs.

The poor performance of the bowlers aside, it is hard to understand the Indian think-tank's decision to field first in a World Cup final, even in the knowledge that there would be some early help for the seam bowlers. The decision was eerily reminiscent of Mohammad Azharuddin's choice to field first in the 1996 semi-final against Sri Lanka on an Eden Gardens track that progressively disintegrated as the game went on. The Wanderers pitch for the final was a very good batting track and cannot in any way be compared to that minefield at Eden Gardens. But a World Cup final provides enough pressure on its own and most teams would not like to handle the additional burden of chasing a target. The game, however, was not lost by India's batsmen the bowlers' performance gave the batsmen little chance.

Australia's strength in this World Cup was clearly its bowling and the widely held belief was that the only way to defeat the Australians was to take the game to them. India would surely have been better served by taking the initiative and putting runs on the board. Perhaps, the biggest reason to bat first was the hitherto sharp Indian bowling. However, as was seen several times in this World Cup, India's bowling and fielding are much more disciplined and sharp when they have a target to defend.

But, then, Ganguly and the Indians cannot be criticised too heavily for their performance in the 2003 final. They ran into one of the greatest teams in limited-overs cricket history, playing what Darren Lehmann would later describe in his BBC column as the "perfect game." India must now adopt a purely forward-looking policy and think of the 2007 World Cup. Tendulkar, Dravid and Ganguly will be in their mid-thirties when the next World Cup is staged. But in Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, Kaif, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra, India have a highly talented core of dedicated and exciting young cricketers who will be at the prime of their careers. The team will need to iron out a few chinks by then notably, it needs to find a couple of outstanding all-rounders, including a good wicket keeper-batsman.

Perhaps the Indians can take a leaf out of Australia's book and start planning immediately. In his post-match comments after the final, Martyn revealed that Australia's preparation for the 2003 World Cup started in 1999: "I was a spare batsman in 1999 and the last four years have seen a lot of hard work... The last four years there has been a lot of hard work done by a lot of people." India has demonstrated its talent and determination creditably in this World Cup. In four years time, that talent should look to reach the next level.

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