Since Sachin Tendulkar's remarkable 1998 year, Australia-India contests have tended to be billed, at least Down Under, as Australia vs Tendulkar. Media focus has naturally been drawn to Tendulkar's extraordinary talents; sometimes, one has felt, to the exclusion of others.
Obviously, Tendulkar is the wicket India's opponents prize above all others, the key to overcoming India's sometimes-formidable, sometimes-precarious batting. Get him out cheaply, and a significant part of the job, many feel, has been done. We know this.
Actually, however, there are two ways to curb Tendulkar's influence, which was demonstrated on Saturday: either get him out, the simplest route, or get the rest of the side out around him so that he is reduced to virtually a non-factor. In the pivotal Group A clash at Centurion, Australia found themselves doing the latter in an outstanding display of intense one-day cricket that emphatically stated their 2003 credentials.
Australia's two most difficult group games were their initial contests against Pakistan and India. There was a possibility they might not be in perfect shape for these immediate challenges; indeed they were not with a couple of experienced batsmen sidelined and Warne's shock departure. With a fringe batsman claiming centre stage with an epic against Pakistan and the form bowling group over-running India, they have now come through both with full marks to set up the rest of their campaign, including what should be an unbeaten run through the group stage.
India, on the other hand, would have looked to the early match with Australia as a momentous test, not must-win, perhaps, but a serious barometer of their chances. They failed it, conclusively. While the Australians played with rhythm, focus and confidence, the Indians at turns appeared erratic, diffident and tense.
From Australia's perspective, giving too much emphasis to overcoming Tendulkar loses sight of the state of the rest of India's batsmen. The aberrant India-New Zealand one-day series preceding the Cup seems not to have served either team's interests, with New Zealand's bowlers temporarily forgetting how to contain on a good pitch and India's batsmen losing confidence, unable to see out 50 overs against the might of Holland.
Such a state left them ill-prepared for the overwhelming force that is McGrath, Gillespie and Lee in full flow. The pressure generated was immense, the momentum once established inexorable, the execution suffocating, the sheer quality of the bowling irrepressible. And the wicket of Tendulkar was only the crowning glory, not the catalyst.
Concerns over McGrath and Gillespie's fitness have been unequivocally allayed. More than that, Brett Lee is in such form now that Ponting gave him the new ball ahead of Gillespie, in the hope of rattling India as he did England, with aggression from the outset.
If you were watching a replay exclusively of India's first three wickets, you would say the batsmen all got themselves out to poor shots. To those deliveries in isolation, you would be right. Despite the batsmen's mantra of focusing only on the next ball, however, preceding deliveries had much to do with those early wickets.
Ganguly's dismissal was in the context of his innings, as he appeared likely to succumb to any given ball. When the Australians did not bowl too straight at him, he was steering McGrath just short of gully, edging through vacant third slip, or charging and missing. In this form, a rank bad delivery is sometimes what is needed to account for a batsman, which is what happened when Ganguly slashed at and nicked what would have been a Lee wide.
Virender Sehwag is a better example. Lee's first ball to him was a bouncer that had him playing uncomfortably, the next an attempted yorker that was despatched for four. After the next bouncer, Lee followed up with a wide delivery and, flat footed, Sehwag slashed for the nick. Lee's best deliveries were actually to Dravid, but they either failed to find the edge or, as was the case in one memorable over, were dropped at slip.
Tendulkar was in contrast to this, ominous as advertised, picking 14 off McGrath's fourth over. That was the high point of the game for India, as at seven overs they were 41/1. At 18 overs, it was 50/5. The game was won in between, as McGrath found his rhythm (0/22 off 4 overs to 1/23 off 8), Lee sedated Dravid, Gillespie finished him off, and Tendulkar was denied an influence, kept off strike and then becalmed when facing.
It was not so much a fightback by Australia as a steadying of the ship, an aligning of focus and rhythm. From the time he had Dravid -- not batting like the assured technician with which we're familiar -- playing on with his first ball, Gillespie was sublime. There would be no recovery while he was operating. Kaif, seemingly frustrated, lost the battle of patience, hooking an accurate bouncer to Symonds at deep square. All that remained was the game-clinching wicket of the resolute Tendulkar, undone by the perfect slower ball. Ponting was inspired to lift his champion paceman from his feet. He almost deserved to be carried on his shoulders. The Aussies knew they had it won.
From there, the game followed a more or less irrevocable pattern. Gilchrist and Hayden could barely restrain themselves; Srinath and Zaheer sometimes accurate, never menacing. Harbhajan and Kumble did enough to suggest they would have been dangerous with a total behind them, but that was academic. We were in no position to find out.
India's batting needs an injection of confidence to be thinking like realistic contenders again. Firing in all departments, the Australians can enjoy the view from the top of Group A, their next test likely awaiting in the Super Six.