Sunday, March 25, 2007

The aura of invincibility is back

Finally with the hype and hoopla behind us, we got to the game everyone was waiting for – the veritable dress rehearsal for the World Cup finals. The recent hiccups at the hands of England and New Zealand leading to this tournament had raised question marks over Australia’s invincibility. Mind you, it was not the end of a legacy. But a few bumps on the road they were. On the other hand, South Africa had enjoyed a smooth and confidence-boosting run up to the Cup. So when they met at St. Kitts today for a match to decide who topped Group A, the result was important as an indicator of early form – or who would take the psychological edge to the next round.

And as you would expect from two top drawer teams, the game was thrilling to watch for about the first 70 of the 100 overs. And here is why.

Hayden's assault
First, Hayden’s brutal attack on the South African bowlers was a sight to behold. Hayden bats much like a school bully plying his hobby. He has a bunch of short arm jabs, cuts and pulls that he employs to great effect. And then he has these huge shot down the wicket that he plays with an immense bottom hand. His creaming of the South African attack made me cringe for the bowlers. At the other end Gilchrist, who I am convinced is a destructive force of nature, played a more entertaining innings but was just as devastating. Together they put on display the best batting we’ve seen in this series. Sure the South African bowlers sprayed it around. But the Australian openers were so severe that the bowlers couldn’t possibly have stuck to a line and length. They would have gotten killed. They had to mix it up – really well. And that created room for error. Width was given, balls were sprayed around. The Australian openers lapped it all up.

South Africa hangs in there
When Gilchrist left, over a hundred runs had been put on the board and the 15th over hadn’t even been completed yet. And in walked the world’s most prolific batsman – Ricky Ponting. This would have been enough for me to throw the ball back to the captain and plead to be hidden somewhere at fine leg. “Call me when it’s lunch” I would have said. Fortunately, the South Africans are made of sterner stuff. Not only did they stick to the task with enthusiasm but the fielders even stepped it up a notch. Their shoulders didn’t flag - they still flung themselves at every delivery as if it would make the final difference in the game. You had to be made of stone to not be awed by their work.

This continued even as Ponting moved into fifth gear and then the hugely talented Michael Clarke used the crease marvelously to deliver some big hits.

A blistering response
Responding to a highly intimidating total of 377, the South Africans provided the final bit of entertainment via their openers. Graeme Smith and Abraham De Villiers produced a ferocious opening stand of 160, matching Australia blow for blow and even marginally leaving the asking run rate behind. De Villiers in particular played a rousing innings – pulling balls delivered on a good length. The Australian fielding didn’t flag even once – they kept the pressure on the batsmen. It was positively terrific to watch.

But there was a brilliant fluke throw from Shane Watson that ran him out. Then Smith started cramping badly and had to leave the field. And the Australian bowlers took that glimmer of hope and converted it into a winning beacon. Bowling a very full length, they dried up the fence hits that South Africa desperately needed.

The win won’t change the landscape much in the World Cup, but the aura of invincibility is circling the Australians again.

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