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June 4, 1999

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Prem Panicker

A brilliant spell of fast bowling by a performer at the peak of his powers knocked the stuffing out of the Indian challenge before it had begun.

And Australia, back from the brink, outplayed India to post a fluent win in the first of the Super Six encounters. With this, Australia gets two points to its name, and India finds itself alone, at the bottom of the table, with no points to its name.

In the middle of it all, a cricketing irony to savour -- Ajay Jadeja, scoring an unbeaten 100 off 138 deliveries, kept up the trend that the only centuries in the World Cup so far, all five of them, have been scored by Indians.

The big point of debate is going to be Azharuddin's decision to insert after winning the toss. This column has been critical -- some readers believe needlessly so -- of Azhar's captaincy over the years but this time, I believe he got it right.

Everything else being equal, the Oval is a good track to bat on and the ideal move would have been to bat first and put up enough runs on the board to put the opposition under pressure. But there are times when the conditions demand a different approach, and this was one of them.

It rained in the region last evening, it was drizzling off and on through the morning. In fact, even after the toss, a drizzle brought the covers back out for a bit. Given this -- coupled with the fact that there was a bit of grass on the track -- the conditions called for the insertion, with the idea of going for quick wickets and putting the opposition on the back foot right upfront.

If India, as it left the field, found itself facing an enormous 283 to win, the fault was not Azharuddin's for inserting, but that of the bowlers for bowling a pathetic line.

Consider this: Srinath produces a first spell of 6-1-17-0, in course of which he time and again beat the bat and had both Mark Waugh and Adam Gilchrist in all kinds of trouble. Meanwhile, at the other end, Debashish Mohanty lost the plot completely, producing a first spell of 5-0-32-0 which effectively eased the pressure Srinath was building up. And when Prasad replaced him, he appeared to have left his experience behind in the dressing room, producing a poor length and line to go for 20 in his first four.

Where the Indian bowlers erred is in giving away too many gimme balls. Consider this stat: after 34 overs (204 balls), the Australians had as many as 123 dot balls. Normally, that kind of performance would mean the run rate was way down -- but here, the Indian bowlers tended to bowl three, four good balls, then give it all away with deliveries off length and line which the Australian batsmen took full toll of.

Not quite what a captain, inserting, would have expected of his bowlers -- and for once, it was not lack of support in the field, because all three bowlers were backed by two slips and a gully for the most part of the first 15 overs. It was -- as McGrath was to underline later in the day -- poor use of the conditions, the Indians regularly bowling either too full or too short, and adding to their problems by straying wide of the stumps, thus giving the batsmen the twin advantages of length and width.

Mark Waugh's innings on the day cannot be over-praised. It was not quite the silken Waugh fans of his batting delight in -- but it was a determined knock, and it gave the Australian innings precisely the momentum it needed. Waugh gritted out the early overs, and once he realised that Srinath's support act was not up to scratch, he suddenly changed gears, and started going after the bowling. Some of his shots were very un-Waugh-like, as he came charging down the wicket, flaying the ball around and getting some shots off the edge and just out of reach of fielders. But against that, Mark Waugh ensured that the momentum never flagged, and really set the base Australia launched itself off.

Adam Gilchrist at the other end remained chancy, but he like his partner kept his mind focussed on what he was out there to do, and had more than served his side when he helped put on 97 for the first wicket in 20 overs. A needless rush of blood saw him waltz down to waft Ganguly down the throat of mid off.

Ricky Ponting wasn't in the best of nick, but like Gilchrist, he focussed on what he needed to do and that was help Mark Waugh move the scoring along. The pair added 60 runs in ten overs before Waugh, who was looking good to be the first non-Indian to score a century in this competition, lazily flicked one from Robin Singh into backward square leg's lap -- a nothing end to a superb knock.

From that point on, what was noticeable about the Australian innings was that pretty much every batsman contributed. Not all of them seemed on song -- Lehmann and Bevan certainly didn't play at their best -- but their professionalism saw them hang in there, putting runs on the board at a brisk rate. Through the Australian innings the most noticeable feature was the running between wickets -- on the large Oval ground, they pushed the envelope in this aspect, picking off ones with ease, running twos and threes seemingly at will and ensuring that the scoring rate never really fell below the norm. Australia went about the 4 an over mark for the first time in the 13th over -- and never let it slip back. They crossed 5 in the 26, and ensured that it never came below that mark for the rest of the innings. And that underlines the side's ability to play to a larger gameplan.

To his credit, Azharuddin didn't give up trying -- this is perhaps the first one day game I've seen where, despite runs being taken at a brisk pace, Azhar attacked right through, keeping four, five fielders in the ring, making the singles as hard to get as possible -- a ploy that might have had greater success had not the ground fielding, on the day, oscillated from the ordinary to the downright mediocre.

The one bet I thought Azhar missed was in not bowling Tendulkar more than the one over he gave him. Brought on in the 29th over, Tendulkar produced an over that was incredibly amusing -- to all but the batsmen, that is. Gripping the ball across the seam, all but walking in to bowl, he concentrated on sending the ball down to the other end so slowly that Ponting, the man on strike, was visibly fuming.

That over produced immediate dividends at the other end. Mark Waugh, looking to up the tempo, fell to Robin Singh and in the same over, Ponting, finding a ball wide of off, overhit a cut, his eagerness to get some runs forcing the bottom-handed slash that ended up dragging the ball back on to the stumps.

A few more of those irritating Tendulkar overs seemed the way to go, but Azhar switched back to his regular bowlers. And on the day, none of them, with the exception of Srinath, did what was needed of them. The worst part of the bowling display though was the 35 extras (including 10 wides and 11 no balls) they sent down -- over four overs extra, and 22 free runs to boot. 44 runs came off the last four overs, an indication of how well Australia used that advantage.

In an earlier game, Sri Lanka had inserted India -- and Ranatunga to his disgust found bad bowling literally handing the game to the batting side. This time, it was India's turn to err with the ball and in the field (the spectacle of balls being pushed straight to fielders who stood in place waiting for the ball while batsmen ambled singles was remarkably unedifying).

India's hopes depended on a great start. What it got was one of the most incisive spells of quick bowling seen in this competition to date.

From his first over, Glenn McGrath hit that immaculate three quarter length that can have even the best batsmen in trouble. And Sachin was the first to go, as McGrath, off the last ball of his first over, swung close to the stumps, sent one in on line of off drawing the batsman forward pushing, only for the ball to seam away and take the edge through to Gilchrist. A dream ball, and the Tendulkar-McGrath contest turned out to be a first round kayo to the latter.

An over later, he better that delivery, this time going wide of the crease, sending one through at top pace, angling in to off, again drawing Dravid forward, pushing helplessly as the ball, after homing in on off, seamed away late for Gilchrist to take very well lunging towards first slip.

In between times, Fleming produced a good ball slanting across Ganguly. The left hander appeared rattled by the wickets falling at the other end, moved into the push through the covers without his usual fluency of timing, and inner edged onto off.

McGrath then finished things off with another dream ball, this time swinging in late, pitching just short on off, squaring Azhar up and lifting off a length to take the splice of that bat and lob to point for the simplest of catches.

During this period, Steve Waugh produced some attacking captaincy, stringing out an umbrella field rarely used these days in ODIs. He has three slips, a gully, and even point was a shade backward, more like a second gully -- a daunting field, with McGrath all fired up and steaming in.

17 for four inside of seven overs meant that the game was effectively over. And yet Ajay Jadeja and Robin Singh, in a display of gutsy cricket, fought back with a partnership of 141 that had two distinct phases. Initially, the two blunted the bowling by playing right off the back foot -- in contrast to the others who kept coming forward and finding themselves trapped by swing and seam -- and working the ball around, taking some superbly judged singles to keep the score ticking over.

The second phase came after the 25 over mark, when Robin in particular suddenly opened out his shoulders. Shane Warne, held back as long as possible, found that the absence of his old friend Tendulkar made no difference -- Robin Singh spoilt his figures with some clean big-hitting. One over was particularly memorable, as Singh first clubbed him for a straight six, then fetched him from outside off to wide long on for another six. A ball later, Jadeja took his turn, lifting inside out over extra cover and into the stands, 21 runs coming off that one over alone.

It appeared that the Indians were preparing to make a charge after all, but Robin's innings -- characterised as much by intelligence (barring a couple of occasions, he never tried that dangerous dab down to third man) as sheer grit -- came to an end when he tried to swing Moody out of the ground and only managed to find deep backward square. The 75 off 94 that Robin scored today was, in context of the situation, priceless.

With that, the bottom fell -- again -- out of the Indian innings. Jadeja showed some signs that he was prepared to soldier on, but Mongia's lackadaisical running (the wicket keeper managed to get himself run out two balls after Jadeja had rather angrily remonstrated with him for not pushing for an easy two), Srinath's misplaced flick at one down the leg side, and Kumble's clinical guiding of a ball outside off into the gloves of Gilchrist were blows that put the Indian team so far behind, even Jadeja was forced to give up.

His knock today was cultured, thoughtful and marked by superb judging of the bowling, calculated pushes into the gaps and some electric running between wickets. The ease with which he and Robin handled the bowling indicated that had the top order weathered the McGrath storm, the target wasn't as out of reach as it looked.

For Australia, McGrath was outstanding -- a quick bowler revelling in his skill, running in with all his old rhythm and, in his first spell of 7 overs where he picked up three for 20, all but unplayable. The others didn't look incisive, but they supported McGrath brilliantly with tight line and length -- the discipline in their performance underlined by the fact that just four wides and 3 no balls, were given away.

It was a professional all round performance by a team that seemed down and damn near out. Suddenly, this Australian side is beginning to look good again and that could be bad news for their opponents.

And India? Back where we started, really -- no points to its name, two games left, both have to be won and even then, there is no guarantee that its run in this tournament won't end at this stage. So what else is new?

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