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March 15, 2001

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Aussies stumble at the Final Frontier

Prem Panicker

If they make a movie out of this match, it will flop -- as being too fantastical, too improbable, to stomach.

On one side, the world champions, with 16 straight Test wins under their belt, four of those against this very side. And facing them, a team that has taken fearsome batterings from the Australians and which, on day two of this very Test, had plumbed the depths of disgrace, and despair.

And when the dust clears, it is the champions who are on the mat -- defeated by the convincing margin of 171 runs. Who would believe that script?

India opted to bat on this morning. Had the game ended in a draw -- especially with just a wicket or two left standing -- that decision would have been hotly debated, the captain as hotly condemned. As it turns out, the focus will now shift to an earlier decision -- Steve Waugh opting to enforce the follow on, rather than forcing India to bat last.

VVS Laxman -- who, courtesy Ian Chappell, now has a new handle, 'Very Very Special Laxman' -- and Rahul Dravid resumed, both clearly intent on throwing their bats around. For Australia, Kasprowicz and Glenn McGrath opened the bowling. With the score on 608/5 and his personal score on 281, Laxman chased a wide ball from McGrath to be taken at point by Ponting. Significantly, as he walked off, he kept shaking his head in disgust, seemingly oblivious of the packed Gardens erupting in salute of a monumental effort -- the hunger for runs, it appeared, was unappeased.

Rahul Dravid hit a few blistering shots -- and those watching must have itched to make a tape of the way he played this innings, present it to him with a ribbon tied around it, and beg him to please please please play it just before he walks out to bat, here on in. The cobwebs, for once, were gone, the mind was clear, and the way he batted underlined the truth of what Graeme Pollock said once, that "Cricket is essentially a simple game, see-ball, hit-ball; there is no point complicating it with too much thinking."

Dravid got run out, Mongia got bowled through the gate by McGrath, Zahir and Harbhajan for once had fun throwing their bats around knowing it was the bowlers who were under the gun, and India finally wound up its second innings on 657/7 -- its highest ever against Australia beating 633/4 at this same venue the last time Australia toured here.

Australia had 75 overs to face. Significantly, the Australian bowling card showed all four lead bowlers with 100+ runs to their name -- a fact that will go a long way towards demystifying this hitherto invincible attack.

The pre-lunch session, which saw the Aussies face 12 overs and go in with 24/0 on the board, contained one moment of significance. Harbhajan Singh, the destroyer of the first innings, was introduced almost on the stroke of lunch. And immediately, he got one to hold back a bit, teasing Hayden into the drive -- a comfortable waist high catch to Venkatesh Prasad's right at mid off, which the fielder grassed.

Slater began the post-lunch session with three fours on the trot, off Zahir Khan -- but in the very next over, Harbhajan made one rear at him off a length, and it was immediately apparent that survival, not counter-attack, would be the Australian focus. Slater stuck it out for a bit, then opted to try and hit the offie out of the attack, going down the track and smacking him over midwicket for a huge six. Harbhajan responded with a ball that had a bit more overspin than usual, bringing Slater forward and getting the extra bounce and turn to take the thick inside edge through to Ganguly at leg slip.

Justin Langer, too, opted to attack the off-spinner, whacking him for two huge sixes on the on side. By then, however, Harbhajan was bowling on form, using loop, flight, turn, bounce and whatever help the pitch afforded -- Langer was forced into the prod, and this time it was Ramesh at short square taking the catch.

As in the first innings, Venkatapathy Raju had settled down to bottle one end up. It is this ability of his, to keep it tight, that has Kumble rating him as his favourite spinning partner. Mark Waugh was quickly forced onto the back foot, and Raju took him out with a delivery pitching on a lovely off and middle line and straightening to beat the bat and hit the back pad, trapping the batsman in front for a duck.

Prior to the tour, expert rating had Ponting and Mark Waugh pegged as the best players of the turning ball in the Australian camp. Both, though, have been struggling -- and that this was a worrying factor was underlined when Steve Waugh promoted himself above Ponting in the order.

With the score on 129/3, Harbhajan again produced one of those prodigious off breaks of his, pushing Steve Waugh, batting 5, onto the back foot and finding the glove only for Ganguly to let it down at leg slip. Australia went in to tea on 161/3, with 32 overs remaining in the final session.

At that point, a draw seemed the most likely option. But for some inexplicable reason, post-tea collapses had been the feature on the first two days -- and day five continued that trend.

Harbhajan always seemed the one most likely to break through, and the unassuming offie obliged within minutes of resumption when he forced Steve Waugh once more onto the back foot, again beating him for turn and bounce. This time, the edge off the thick inside edge was held well by Badani at leg slip.

By this point, one thing was apparent -- the Aussies were panicking, and the glorious attacking play of the first Test was completely forgotten. Ponting, under pressure from successive failures, came in to find himself surrounded by a packed field. Facing him was his nemesis, Harbhajan. And that Ponting had lost the mental battle was clear when, after three tentative pushes, he played a vague horizontal bat shot at the offie to get the edge, Das at short square doing the rest.

Next up was Gilchrist, the destroyer of Mumbai. Sachin Tendulkar, who had bowled one over before tea and settled down to play Harabajan's foil after the interval, produced a top spinner first up. Gilchrist's preferred weapon is the sweep, he swung into one off the first ball he faced, the ball was too full, the batsman played all over it, and was trapped bang in front. The Aussie vice captain walked back with first ball ducks against his name in both innings, and you realised anew what Babe Ruth meant when he said, 'Sport is funny, one day you are a hero the next day you are a bum'.

At the other end, Mathew Hayden -- who has this ability to make fielding sides pay for any let offs -- was batting with sublime ease all along, unmindful of the procession at the other end. Gilchrist's dismissal however seemed to put panic in his mind -- he had been sweeping all afternoon, he went for the sweep again, but this time, the shot was tentative, the bat-speed not as assured -- the result, another LBW for Tendulkar, the last of the recognised batsmen walking back for 67, with Australia on 173/7.

From then on, it was clinical. Shane Warne was the next to go, and there was a bit of irony in his dismissal. The champion leg-spinner had been handled with ease by the Indians a day earlier. Now he found himself confronted -- and beaten repeatedly by -- the big-turning leg breaks of part-timer Sachin Tendulkar. The bowler then produced the googly, the leg-spinner's best weapon, and Warne of all people failed to spot it. He rocked back to pull against the turn, the ball turned in, beat the bat, and thudded into the pad. 174/8.

Jason Gillespie was batting with calm good sense, looking very assured against spin -- but Harbhajan by then seemed unstoppable. Unable to find the edge with his regular length, the offie tossed one further up, Gillespie shaped to swat it out on the on, and SS Das at short square stayed down to pull off a superb take.

Sachin Tendulkar, in the next over, found the outer edge of Kasprowicz, only for Mongia to drop a simple chance -- but the fall of the final wicket was merely a matter of time. Harbhajan, with five under his belt already to add to his seven in the first innings, got McGrath on th pad, got the verdict (the one debatable, dodgy one today), and the Indians on the field, joined by their mates who came streaming out from the dressing room, celebrated in a fashion they had almost forgotten.

For the Indians, relief, vindication, and finally, a reason to begin believing in themselves again. For the Aussies, occasion to sit back and ask themselves this -- why, when it really mattered, did they forget that famed aggression, and play with such a defensive demeanour? Could it be that watching their bowling attack tamed took the heart out of a side that hasn't seen that happen over the course of 16 previous Tests?

The win by India has a significance that extends beyond this series. Despite today's result, Australia remain the best Test team today -- but sans the mystique. It is like a Mike Tyson -- as long as opponents went into the ring believing in his invincibility, he was lethal. Once he was stopped, for the first time, the mystique vanished -- and subsequent opponents climbed into the ring knowing that they, too, had a chance.

The same with this Australian team -- till date, teams facing them were intent on saving their blushes. Here on in, they will be looking for blood -- and how the Aussies go from here will tell much about the collective character of this team.

VVS Laxman was given the man of the match, and accepted with characteristic humility. One felt, though, that justice would have been better served had Cammie Smith awarded it jointly to Harbhajan Singh too -- after all, it was the offie who started it all on the first day, and who then came back to spin his team to an improbable win, in the process scalping 13 Aussie wickets.

And finally, this -- if it had to happen, the Eden Gardens was the fitting venue. Twice before, the crowd there had tarnished its image. This time, though, they were at their very best -- lively, appreciative, and irrepressible. Despite the shellacking at the Wankhede, they filled the seats on the first two days -- a sign, right there, that they are never prepared to give up on this team. Then came the disaster of day two -- and they vanished, but only momentarily. All it took was Laxman's defiance on the morning of day three, to bring them streaming back -- and today, the crowd was an unseen, but vital, 12th member of the fielding side.

The Gardens finally rose to applaud the incredible Indian win -- it seems fitting that the Gardens reserves a measure of that applause for itself.

One final thought in passing -- the 'Final Frontier' is proving a bit more stoutly defended than anyone imagined, right?


You can also read:
Bahutule, Nilesh Kulkarni in team for final Test
A sad feeling: Glenn McGrath
Ganguly defends delayed declaration
Not the end of the world: Steve Waugh
Images from Day 5

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