2003 World Cup: Ricky Ponting’s pot of gold

Ricky Ponting’s Australians are a class apart. Twice in the World Cup they proved that, as competitors on the big stage, they are way ahead of the Indians.

Ricky Ponting and his men were expected to win every single time they walked in. And they did exactly that in 11 matches.   -  V. V. Krishnan

A flight into the realms of fantasy is almost always a flight into danger. So long as it lasts, the feeling is magical, but when landing hour arrives, you can never be sure it would be a safe descent.

For millions of Indian cricket fans, who set out on a marvellous journey with Sourav Ganguly’s men in southern Africa, it turned out to be a soul-shattering crash-landing. When the summit is near, there is only one thing worse than not getting to be No. 1. That is settling for distant No. 2.

Not that Ganguly and his boys had any choice in the matter. For Ricky Ponting’s Australians were simply a class apart. Twice in the World Cup they showed that, as competitors on the big stage, they are way ahead of the Indians.

Ganguly won the toss and batted first when the teams first met in the Group league. The Aussies bowled India out for 125 and then lost a solitary wicket in getting to the target. And in the final, Ganguly, the trauma of that experience still fresh in memory, chose to bowl first. The result was just as disastrous. For this was a final that was over after one team had played its 50 overs.

The moment Ponting’s magnificent assault on the Indian bowling carried Australia to a record 359 for two, the only question that remained was by how many runs the defending champions would win. A lot has been said about Ganguly’s decision to put Australia in. It was obvious that there was something in the wicket early in the day for the fast bowlers, both bounce and movement. It was equally obvious that Zaheer Khan and Co. failed miserably to exploit the conditions.

But, truth to tell, Australia had already won the game of psychological oneupmanship the moment Ganguly asked them to bat. For, essentially, it was a defensive move. Aware of the massacre at the Centurion, the Indian skipper did not want to yet again expose his top order to Brett Lee and Glenn McGrath first thing in the morning. It was a sure giveaway; it betrayed the skipper’s lack of confidence in his batsmen’s ability to take on the Aussie quicks on a bouncy surface.

In the event, not surprisingly, from that very moment Ganguly made his decision, India was on the defensive. It was never in the match, no matter all the hype that went on in the television commentary box when Virender Sehwag went after Brad Hogg and Andy Bichel.

It would have taken an astounding innings, perhaps a double hundred from Sachin Tendulkar, for India to have got anywhere near the target. As it turned out, the little master did not get to double figures, the great Glenn McGrath once again proving a point when it really mattered.

That’s the key to Australia’s success, really. When the big day comes around, when the hour of reckoning arrives, every single man in the team is geared up for the occasion. Adam Gilchrist made sure that his team was off to a dream start. And from there Ponting and Damien Martyn took over. The bowlers, of course, did not have much to do on this day.

In stark contrast, from the moment Zaheer Khan gave away 15 runs in the first over, it was obvious that the Indians were nervous and would never be able to rise to the occasion.

Ah, rising to the occasion... what a favourite cliche in sports journalism! It is something that is easier said than done, to be sure. But time after time after time these Aussies have managed to scale heights when the occasion has demanded it of them. And we almost take their success for granted.

But, then, how often do we ponder the phenomenon and ask ourselves this question: What does it take to become the best and to remain the best, match after match, week after week, tournament after tournament?

How many teams in this World Cup could have made light of the departure of a bowler like Shane Warne before the start and the loss of someone like Jason Gillespie halfway through?

It is truly astonishing indeed. Ricky Ponting and his men were expected to win every single time they walked in. And they did exactly that in 11 matches. Simple on paper; but not quite as simple on the ground.

And for a good part of four years and more, under Steve Waugh and Ponting, the Aussies have been consistently living up to the expectations on the big stage. It is really awe-inspiring; you wonder what it takes to maintain such stratospheric levels of achievement, what it takes to hold on to the enviable status that comes with occupying the ultimate pedestal.

There have been greater teams than the one Ponting has piloted to the pinnacle in South Africa. Man to man, Clive Lloyd’s West Indians of 1979 were superior and so, perhaps, was the Australian side under Waugh in 1999. But Ponting has led by example and the emergence of Brett Lee as a match-winner and the resilience and team spirit displayed by this side would surely make the 2003 champions rank alongside the very best, although not as the best ever.

In this tournament itself, Lee’s pace and McGrath’s accuracy apart, Ponting has been distinctly lucky that men like Andrew Symonds and Michael Bevan and Andy Bichel have put their hands up courageously when the chips were down.

That’s the hallmark of a champion side, really. When everything seems lost, someone comes up with something special.

Then again, nothing was lost when Ponting stepped in first wicket down on that Sunday. And the Tasmanian came up with the innings of his life. Came the hour, came the man. The ‘Punter’ had found his pot of gold.

It is awesome stuff, this Aussie stuff.