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Stirring effort by the Aussies

By Peter Roebuck
March 18, 2003 21:34 IST
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Scoreboards do not always tell the tale. Winning margins can mislead. Australia had to fight with every power at its disposal to secure a place in the World Cup final for a third successive time. A scrappy match was won by the team prepared to scrap the hardest. Ricky Ponting's side had to overcome nerves, collapses and a pitch hostile to its intentions before the spoils could be claimed. Enormous credit must be given to the players for a stirring effort produced on a chilly, blustery and eventually damp day upon which they could easily have slipped quietly from the competition. Instead, this eighth World Cup awaits the final it needs; a confrontation between the most spirited and gifted sides in the tournament, a showdown between Sachin Tendulkar and Glenn McGrath, Virender Sehwag and Brett Lee. It is a prospect to savour.

Between innings the semi-final at St. George's Park seemed evenly poised. Despite a responsible, superbly judged contribution from Andrew Symonds, the Australians had reached a total that was, like Canberra, neither here nor there. Symonds had hit powerfully off the back foot as he rebuilt a faltering innings. Because he is tall and could lift a cow without much trouble, the Queenslander is presumed to be a fierce hitter off the front foot. Not wanting to be despatched into the roads outside the ground, bowlers pitch short, a strategy that plays into the hands of a man whose hooks and cuts are played with the short swings often seen in movies featuring Bruce Lee. When it has most mattered Symonds has been a tower of strength.

Otherwise, the Australians had been tentative after a bright opening had been cut short as Adam Gilchrist walked after a ball had brushed his glove, a reaction that has not won widespread appeal in Australia or anywhere else these last few decades. Despite misgivings amongst some observers, the game did rise with the sight of a man willing to surrender his wicket to honesty at such a time. Ricky Ponting pushed at a slower ball, checked his stroke and departed. Darren Lehmann played a measured innings but left after the groundwork had been done and Michael Bevan tickled his first offering. These fellows do not enjoy batting on slow pitches.

Even the grafters and placers of the ball could not keep the score moving at a rate calculated to unsettle their opponents. The pitch could not be blamed, for it had become firmer and kinder to batsmen. Hardly a ball turned sharply and there was not much movement for the mediums. Rather the problem lay in the heads of batsmen, uncertain how to proceed in these circumstances, and unable to construct a strong partnership. Every time an attack began it was cut short by the fall of a wicket. Sri Lanka used the conditions well, though their opponents were grateful for the impetus provided by Gunaratne's erratic bursts.

Accordingly, the Australians must have been nervous as they took the field accompanied by a sun that had obligingly appeared, much to the surprise of local doomsayers who had been predicting rain for the rest of the week. Alas, Lee's opening over was carted. Hereabouts the holder's total looked as small as a nurse's bank balance. After three overs Sri Lanka stood at 0/21 and there was not much between the teams. Defeat appeared eminently possible.

Now came the telling moments of the match. Undaunted by the pounding he was taking, Lee steamed in, dropped short to Marvan Atapattu and saw Brad Hogg grass a stinger at cover. Heads might have dropped as the ball fell to earth. Not a bit of it. Symonds encouraged his disconsolate colleague; Lee marched back to his mark, turned and produced ball so fast that the batsman's stumps had been scattered before his shot had been completed. It was the most exciting moment of a gruelling match, and amongst the most spectacular of the competition. Hogg must have been mightily relieved. Losing in a semi-final is not much fun.

From this ball onwards Australia looked confident of reaching their day of destiny. Suddenly fieldsmen were swarming around, with Ponting directing his troops and Symonds hustling and bustling like a man who knows he has earned his stripes. Lee maintained his pace and struck again as his captain hung on to a blinder at second slip. Andrew Bichel was thrown the ball and immediately made a crucial contribution by throwing the stumps down with Aravinda de Silva a yard short of safety. Hogg bowled another impressive spell, sometimes even fooling his State and national colleague behind the stumps. As is his wont, Ponting kept pressing, reasoning that the later overs could take care of themselves so long as wickets kept falling. More than previously, captains have been attacking in this World Cup, with only the Lankans holding back their top man as a precautionary measure.

Sri Lanka did not give up, and Chaminda Vaas and Kumara Sangakarra confirmed their reputations as fighters. Realising there was not much left in the hutch, the eighth wicket pair batted judiciously. When the rains came the Lankans were down but not quite out. They cannot complain about the result. Australia and India have been the strongest teams in the competition. Sri Lanka played some fine cricket but did not entirely deserve a place in the final. They met Australia on a pitch that suited them and still could not dictate terms. In the end, the Australians were too strong in their minds and hearts, had too much strength in depth for their game opponents. Reaching a Cup final is not the end of the ambitions of this Australian team. Finishing second will not satisfy them.

Now Ponting and his men must hope that rain and Kenya do not defeat the Indians. More glory lies in overcoming a mighty opponent on the greatest of cricketing days than in securing a trophy by force of circumstance. Not for the first time in this tournament Australia could look back with thanks to the performances of lesser lights like Symonds and Bichel. At last the team can also look forward to a wonderful day that lies ahead, a day upon which Australia and an unknown opponent play before the eyes of the cricketing world and for the honour of being called champions of the world for the next four years.

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Peter Roebuck