Australia’s backfiring strategy a good lesson for Ponting and the boys

2008-03-08 00:00

FROM the moment the Australians started playing the man and not the ball their campaign started to veer off track. It was a lesson Ricky Ponting and his players were loath to learn but by the end of the summer they had suffered grievous losses on and off the field. India went home with heads held high and talking boldly about claiming top spot in the rankings. Australia were left to lick their wounds. Apart from the results, the most telling events were Shaun Tait’s troubled retreat and the unexpected early retirement of Brad Hogg. It hardly told a tale of harmony at t’mill.

By the end of the campaign the Indians were the fresher, stronger and more united side. Mahendra Dhoni’s youthful outfit deserved to win the one-day finals. Apart from aberrant umpiring in Sydney, Anil Kumble and his more seasoned side might well have drawn the series and could have won it. Had the tourists been given time to prepare, they might have put up a better showing in the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne. Thereafter they were the better team. But mights and coulds and ifs and buts do not keep the children fed.

As might have been predicted, the attempt to isolate and intimidate Harbhajan Singh served merely to strengthen the resolve of a superbly-led visiting party.

Whatever the right and wrongs of the Sydney showdown, the fact remains that the Australians lost their equanimity and never recovered. Even now, months later, the events of that turbulent contest remain as stark as a mountain lit by a falling sun. Dreadful umpiring prevented the Indians taking a grip on the first day and thereafter the tension between the teams was palpable even as the match became ever more gripping.

At such times it only takes a small spark to start a blaze. Harbhajan’s exchange with Andrew Symonds was brief and as far as observers could tell of little account. The rest was madness. Australia’s attempt to invoke the forces of justice had little appeal. A schoolyard bully cannot run to the teacher complaining about a nosebleed. And the case was bound to collapse once a legal brain studied the evidence. Although the usual drum-bangers backed their man, the Australians had miscalculated. Symonds, the supposed victim, had started the exchange. Moreover he had already told a lifestyle magazine that he had not been upset about the monkey taunts in India and felt sorry for spectators ejected on that account. Yet the Australians let loose the dogs of war to protect him.

Far from breaking their spirit, the attacks on Harbhajan helped the Indians to form the singularity of purpose that has long been the hallmark of Australian teams. They had been determined to copy the Aussies in word and deed and the spinner’s refusal to take a backward step was part of that. Far from apologising, the Sikh sustained his attack and his comrades rallied around. The Australians allowed him to get under their skin. As much could be told from Ricky Ponting’s abject dismissals in that contest and poor subsequent form. No wonder his leadership was called into question. He has fallen under the spell of the raw Queenslanders in his supposed charge.

Harbhajan may irritate opponents but he is popular among colleagues. And the attack on him merely reinforced his importance. Far from falling apart as expected, the Indians regrouped, went to Perth, dominated the match and comfortably held their opponents in Adelaide. Bear in mind that they had been denied the services of their leading fast bowlers. Mind you, by the end of the tour the pace rankings had been upset. India’s most dangerous bowlers were Ishant Sharma, a beanpole whose dad sells air conditioners in Delhi, and Praveen Kumar, a young man from a family of wrestlers who swings the ball both ways.

Bound together by a sense of injustice, enraged by the coverage in the papers and egged on by their own equally strident media, the Indians became formidable. Also the Indian selectors were wise enough to send fresh legs and minds for the one-day matches. Suddenly a new generation of cricketers appeared, a bunch of forthright and skilful young men raised in an increasingly confident and successful country. India’s economic boom and improved transport and communications have released an entirely new sort of cricketer, boys raised in the back streets of unconsidered cities, tough, independent, materialistic and comfortable in their own skin.

In the past Indian teams lacked exposure and aggression. Players emerged from urban clubs steeped in the ethics and traditions of the game. Most of these newcomers know little of that. Mahendra Dhoni is an example. Born in an impoverished state, he fought his way through numerous a back street and gradually made his name as a fierce hitter of the ball. Abundant broken windows at his old school attest to the fact. Now he is vastly wealthy and hailed as a hero. Australian cricketers likewise come from blue collar backgrounds. What else has this summer seen than another fabled backward cricketing scrap?

Dhoni’s nerveless leadership was crucial to India’s victory. Towards the end he introduced a moon-faced 19-year-old leg-spinner called Pryish Chawla and promptly bowled him at vital stages. He also dared to include Kumar and persevered with Yuvraj Singh on the grounds that sooner or later he was bound to come good. Dhoni instilled confidence, ran hard between wickets, and inspired from his team an uncompromising display. Ignoring a bad injury, he played the last match one-handed and still took the hardest throws. He was as tough and forthright as the Australians. And he backed it up on the field. Ponting and his players were outmanoeuvred. By the end the Australian captain was a much reduced figure. Australia looked old and slow. Despite the controversies it was a compelling confrontation. And the great cricketers also contributed magnificently, namely Kumar Sangakarra, Brett Lee and a wonderful batsman going by the name of Sachin Tendulkar.

• Peter Roebuck is an international cricket correspondent who lives in the KZN midlands.

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