Australia's triumph for all the old virtues

The history men: Perfect planning - and McGrath and Warne - keep baggy green machine rolling on
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The Independent Online

Just after Australia's momentous victory on Friday, their acting captain, Adam Gilchrist, said he had given no thought to the final Test of the series in India. Since he was being questioned with the sweat still on his baggy green cap, and since seconds earlier his team had completed a stunning win by 352 runs to clinch their first series in the country for 35 years and after six attempts, he could have been forgiven for removing that cap and lashing it round his inquisitor's chops.

What, he might have wondered (along with everybody else), had a dead match starting in Bombay on Wednesday got to do with anything just then? In any case, many observers were already looking much further ahead than that, to 21 July 2005 at Lord's, the start of the Ashes.

Australia's wins in Bangalore and Nagpur, giving them an unassailable 2-0 lead in a four-match series, have already forced the revision of several opinions. Australia's tour of India was rightly billed as the series of the year by a distance, and the odd Olympic Games and European Foot- ball Championship notwithstanding, among the biggest sporting events.

It was meant to pitch the world champions against rapidly rising pretenders, who had given them a hell of a jolt in their own backyard earlier this year. As if that was not enough, Australia had made winning in India a desperate quest, almost to rank alongside the crusade by the Boston Red Sox for baseball's World Series.

The margins of victory suggest it has proved to be a walk in the park (like Boston's triumph). India, by and large impregnable at home, capitulated. On both a characteristic subcontinent pitch in Bangalore and an atypical grassy one at Nagpur, Australia ground the opposition into dust. Now India know what England have felt like.

It seems that we have witnessed a masterpiece of plotting as well as the talent to carry it through. Australia planned their campaign meticulously. Confronted by the best batting middle order in the world, they worked out precisely where to bowl and how to stem all scoring options. Some of their precise fielding positions and the manner in which their bowlers, especially Glenn McGrath, have bowled to them have lent Test cricket yet another dimension.

Much was made of the fact that Australia are an ageing side, most of them older than 30. McGrath is well into his 35th year and barely into a comeback after a year out with an ankle injury. His pace is now in the low eighties, but his relentless accuracy is undimmed. One of the most frequently spouted banalities of captains is the need to put the ball in the right areas. McGrath and, to a slightly lesser extent, Jason Gillespie take this to a new level. Of recent exponents, only Curtly Ambrose compares, ball after ball after ball on or just outside off stump, no length to drive, no width to cut. It is slow torture of which the only sure outcome is death.

McGrath has taken 11 of India's 50 wickets in the series at under 25 runs each. As importantly, he has yielded only 2.4 runs an over, which includes the bizarre interlude on Friday when India's tail gave it a lash and McGrath went for 79 in 16 overs.

Shane Warne, Australia's other bowler who came back after a year out, took 14 wickets at 30 runs each, easily his best time in India.

Make of Australia's impeccable tactics what you will, laud their coach, John Buchanan, to the high heavens as a cricketing visionary and observer of detail nonpareil. Perhaps, however, it is not entirely coincidental that when India were running Australia so close Down Under last winter, neither McGrath nor Warne was around. Plain, unfettered talent still counts.

Gilchrist was also adamant that the batsmen had set up this crushing series triumph by giving the bowlers decent totals to defend. Crucially, they also managed in the first innings of both wins to score at their usual high rate: 3.6 runs an over in Bangalore, virtually four in Nagpur. They batted as a unit, always looking to rotate the strike, and this was probably Damien Martyn's finest hour.

The new kid on the block, Michael Clarke, under-standably received many plaudits for his fearless range of strokeplay, but Martyn's unfussy, compact style was engrossingly effective. India, in contrast, were too often ragged and rudderless in both departments.

So, Australia are far from finished and we were fools for thinking so. But the fact remains that McGrath and Warne will both be going on 36 next summer and have a lot of cricket to play before then.

Australia will arrive in England still as unquestioned champions. Far better to regain the Ashes against a team like that than one who are already washed up.