IT TOOK Glenn McGrath just 20 balls to turn India's World Cup hopes on their head. Bowling with pace and immaculate direction, the tall fast bowler removed three of India's most revered flashing blades in quick succession after Mark Waugh's silky 83 had helped Australia to score 282 for 6.
Yet India does not have a reputation for fakirs and rope tricks for nothing and just when all looked lost, Robin Singh and Ajay Jadeja combined in a thrilling stand. The main battle was meant to be between Shane Warne and Sachin Tendulkar, but with the latter out for nought, it was left for others to do his bidding. They did not let him down and in Warne's sixth over, the pair smashed 21 runs, 18 of them coming in sixes.
A powerfully built left-hander, Singh, who hails from Trinidad, blasted a hugely entertaining 75 from 94 balls before falling to to a catch by Paul Reiffel at long leg. But if his 141-run stand did not seriously threaten Australia's grip on the match, it at least ruffled their cockatoo plumage, something that is becoming increasingly erect as this tournament progresses. Before yesterday, Australia had taken something of a pounding in recent times from India, especially on the sub-continent, where the Test and one-day series were both lost largely on the back of some extraordinary batting by Tendulkar. In the space of two months in all cricket, Tendulkar scored 1,130 runs against the Aussies, a total that included one double hundred and five centuries, three of them in one-day internationals.
Despite the stronger form, India, including Tendulkar, tend to travel badly and The Oval pitch, sporting some steep bounce was more Gabba than Gwalior, a factor McGrath exploited with lethal intent. Running in from the Pavilion End, he gave a uncompromised performance of the fast bowler's art that completely disarmed India and their chanting supporters.
A fast bowler whose temper is normally a match for the most sophisticated speedgun, McGrath is not afraid to risk no-balls in a bid to shake the batsmen up. In one-day cricket, anything above shoulder high is considered illegal, but McGrath knows that gifting the opposition the occasional run is nothing compared to the dithering and mental trauma that ensues after a ball has clanged off a collar bone or two.
For once Tendulkar showed extremely mortal tendencies by falling for a duck to the last ball of the first over. His dismissal, caught behind as McGrath drew him forward on off-stump, sent an already hyped Aussie attack into overdrive. In his next over, McGrath hissed one past Rahul Dravid's temple, before having him caught behind in what was essentially a photostat of the Tendulkar dismissal.
Whether it was the size of Australia's total, or an insistence from the man himself, Tendulkar's return to the top of the order was not a success. Mind you, with India having replaced their left-handed opener Sadagopan Ramesh with Singh, it is difficult to see what alternatives they had. Before yesterday, the limited Ramesh had done a fine job taking the shine off the ball. However, Singh, considering the ruination prevailing when he came to the wicket, also did well, his knock showing he is batman and Robin rolled into one.
Not to be outdone, Damien Fleming joined the party, his niggling line luring Saurav Ganguly into a loose off-side push. The off-side is an area that Ganguly favours, and one his team-mates claim he has no peers over, save God. This stroke suggested otherwise and the 8 runs he made was comfortably his lowest score of the tournament.
Going by their previous matches in the World Cup, it would have been something of a rude shock for India's captain Mohammad Azharuddin to come to the wicket with the scoreboard reading 12 for 3 and five close catchers. But if Azha has experienced most things during the 320 one-day games he'd played prior to yesterday's match, he can rarely have played a worse shot as he tamely parried a rising ball from McGrath to gully.
For his trouble, Azha also won the toss, a humble triumph that saw Australia invited to bat. Under murky skies and with a sprinkling of rain delaying the start, bowling was the English thing to do. Unhappily for India, Mark Waugh decided to go back to his Australian ways and play his shots.
At his best, Waugh has feet like a dancer and more cruel strokes than an enthusiastic Miss Whiplash. Using both to marvellous effect he stroked the ball around at will. None of his team mates timed the ball as well and when he was out, flicking Singh to Venkatesh Prasad at long leg, Australia had to revise their ambition of a huge total.
Richard Williams, page 29