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S'Africa in awesome form in Titan Cup triumph over Australia

Prem Panicker

For me, the most illuminating aspect of the Titan Cup clash between Australia and South Africa came after the lattercrossed 100 without loss off the first ball of the 21st over, chasing the Australian score of 219 for seven in 50 overs.

At that stage, had it been any team other than the South Africans, the commentators on television would have trotted out all the tired cliches with which one keeps interest alive at an artificial level. "No game is over till the last ball is bowled..."... "Cricket is a game of glorious uncertainities..."... "A wicket or two at this stage, and Australia will be right back in this game..."

Time honoured cliches, so beloved of commentators everywhere. And yet on the day, not a single one of them was trotted out by the commentary team.

If that isn't an acknowledgement of, and tribute to, the fact that South Africa, alone among international sides today, are in a position to claim that they never, ever throw away a won game, then I'd like to know what is.

The game, for me, held one other point of interest - to wit, the Australian performance in the field.

Here's this side that, a fortnight ago, explained away a Test defeat by saying that they had been playing too much of one day cricket lately. A side that boasts one of the world's best batsmen in Mark Waugh, one of the most consistent batsmen in Steve Waugh, and one of the most dynamic in Michael Bevan. A brilliant fielding side. And more than all of this, a side that prides itself on hard headed professionalism, an ability to turn the screws on the opposition and keep them turned.

If recent evidence is any indication, that assessment needs a rethink. The Aussies, here against South Africa as earlier, in Delhi against India in the one-off Test, indicate that while they are great at applying pressure when the game is going their way, they just don't have the stomach to take it.

When the Aussie bowlers failed to strike early on, thus, the team seemed to just give up. Lackadaisical in the field, unimaginative in their bowling, and seemingly unconcerned about what was going on out there in the middle - if this is hard-headed professionalism, then tell me the other one!

If the above sounds a savage indictment, then I have reason for it... and will come to them in due time, and place. But to take things in their natural order...

The pitch, and suchlike

It's interesting to speculate whether the ground staff at the Nehru Stadium, Indore, would have left the covering of grass that we saw on the day on if India happened to be playing - but the speculation is immaterial, merely interesting.

In the event, the pitch was true, firm and well grassed, the outfield fast. Everything pointed to a high scoring game - a fact Taylor himself argued during the pre-game interviews, when he said that he was looking at 260 as a good total to make batting first on this pitch.

One other factor deserves mention, and censure - the scoreboard. The one in Indore was as primitive as they come, and almost throughout the match never in sync with the actual game. Given the houseful crowds Indore draws, given too that any company worth its logo would in today's conditions be only too glad to sponsor a scoreboard, I don't see why that atrocity was perpetrated on us.

Though the dangers of having an inefficient scoreboard are all too obvious, I'll make mention of one incident here to underline my point.

Gary Kirsten, anchoring the South African reply, reaches 94. The official scoreboard announces that he is on a hundred. Kirsten gets a standing ovation from the public, and the Australian players, and acknowledges.

Now remember that a batsman who passes that landmark, especially when - as in this game - it happens with his side needing just under 20 for a win, with seven wickets still in hand, tends to relax a shade. Suppose that relaxation had led to error, and Kirsten had got out. Imagine his shock when he gets back to the pavilion and finds he has missed out on a hundred because the scoreboard deceived him into letting down his guard. Might sound like a silly personal thing in context of a team game, but batsmen do like to keep their averages up, Kirsten is averaging 51-plus, and would have been rightly aggrieved in such a situation.

And all because a cricket association didn't make some effort to acquire a modern scoreboard?

The Australian innings

Michael Slater's recent form having done nothing to inspire confidence in his temperament, Taylor opted to open with himself and Mark Waugh - reverting, thus, to the World Cup pairing. Stuart Law came in for Slater, and Peter McIntyre was replaced in the lineup by Jason Gillespie - a surprise choice, given that the spinner would have been more effective than the medium pacer against the South Africans.

In the event, Mark Waugh fired from ball one, looking in ominous touch while Taylor, not timing as well, simply gritted his teeth and ground them out, to give Australia a sound start with 85 up on the board for just over 20 overs.

With their batting lineup and all wickets intact, Australia would have at that stage been confident of putting up 260-plus by the end of the innings. And if they didn't do so, part of the reason is that they sold themselves on their own hype.

The Aussies make a big thing of quick running between wickets and putting pressure on the fielding side - which is a good thing per se, but then you also need to keep in mind which fielding side, more particularly which fielder, you are taking on.

Of an outstanding Protean fielding side, Jonty Rhodes and Derryck Crookes are easily the best - which puts them in the sensational class. So it is rather hard to understand why Taylor, having done all the hard work, then threw it away in a bid to steal a single when the ball was going straight to Crookes (Australia 85/1) or why, just 14 runs later, Mark Waugh elected to run for a slight misfield by Rhodes (99/2). Needless to say, both throws were bang on target and the openers, after looking to have played themselves into a position to launch a real onslaught, had yielded place to two newcomers to the crease.

A bad situation, and Steve Waugh compounded it when he danced down the wicket like a an over-eager debutante at her coming out ball. In the event, Waugh was beaten for line, length and flight by Symcox, and stumped by three feet or more. (103/3). And three runs later, Stuart Law demonstrated the unwisdom of predetermined strokeplay when he drove at Crookes without even waiting to determine the sort of ball it was. He'd been doing that on an earlier occasion, and it was child's play for Crookes to hold the ball back and pockedt the inevitable return catch.

After this, Australia were never in the game, really. Bevan and Ponting are good, but not even the best can mount a winning total when they are the last recognised batsmen left, the South African fielding is on song and the bowlers are bowling well within themselves, realising that all they had to do was keep length and line and let the batsmen choke on the pressure their predecessors had created for them.

Which is what happened. After using the singles and the occasional lofted drives to mount a recovery of sorts, Ponting realised that well as he and Bevan had played, Australia were well short of a winning total, and drove at Donald without getting anywhere near the line. A shot of desperation, and the resulting edge was a dilly for Richardson to take (167/5).

And after that, it was all mathematical - Bevan soldiered on and got to 56 before driving too soon at a slower one from Donald to lose his off stump, and before that Healy cut uppishly at Donald and watched as Rhodes, at point, ran three steps to his left, launched himself like a space ship and came down from orbit with the ball in his hands.

In the event, the Aussies got to 219 for seven off their fifty, and that score was pathetically inadequate.

On the field, the South Africans bowled with calm assurance, and fielded out of their skin. A very conservative estimate would put the runs saved by the fielding side around the 35, 40 mark and if you consider that there were three run outs in there too, the 'man of the match' award must, by rights, have gone to the team for a superb performance.

The South African innings

What does one say about the South African chase? Very simply put, Kirsten and Hudson came out, went for their strokes from ball one, Taylor helped matters along by dropping Hudson off a straight, simple edge when the right handed opener was still in single figures, the batting side put together 100 without loss off the first ball of the 21st over, and it was all over, really.

Only two points are worth real mention here

One was the display of Gary Kirsten. In 51 matches, a record of 10 50s and 7 hundreds and an average of 50-plus is awesome. And Kirsten on the day showed why - not only did he play his strokes, on both off and on, but apparently determined to bat the Aussies out of the game totally, curbed his usual penchant for scoring at over a run a ball, preferring to rotate the strike, take the singles and anchor the side as it chased a modest total.

It showed an increasing maturity, and an awareness that the batting side is always at its most vulnerable chasing a smaller total. The larger target forces players to concentrate and raise the game, the smaller one induces relaxation and takes away just that little edge off their keeness. It was important for the man in form to ensure that the deed got done, and Kirsten did just that with an impeccable display.

The other point relates to the Aussie bowling and fielding. This might be harsh, but Taylor's game plan seems to be, let's see if the quicks get a breakthrough early on. No? Then toss the ball to Shane Warne and let him get on with it.

In the event, the quicks didn't get the breakthrough, Warne isn't in the touring party, and Taylor apparently just gave up. No attempt to attack - how in the dickens can anyone defend 219 on a batsman's wicket but through aggression anyway? - no attempt to rotate bowlers and unsettle batsmen, no rationale behind his decision to bowl Stuart Law and Brad Hogg in a long, unchanged spell when all the batsmen needed was two, three runs per over, and total amnesia regarding the presence, in the bowler's ranks, of Steve Waugh and Michael Bevan.

Not suggesting that those two would have done the job - but when you are fighting to defend a small total, you try throw everything and the kitchen sink at the opposing batsmen. What you don't do is drift - which is what the Aussies did on the field, to the extent that their normally good fielding also crumbled and became distinctly patchy.

Little wonder then that South Africa won handily, without ever looking hurried.

And Gary Kirsten - who else? - walked off with another Man of the Match award, his second in two outings here.

As if you needed telling...

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