Another one-day rubber for the World Cup champion

IF ever there was to be a series in which the newly-crowned world champions were ripe for a fall, the seven-match limited-overs tournament which succeeded Australia's triumphant Caribbean Test tour loomed as it.

ANDREW RAMSEY

The triumphant Australian team. — Pic. HAMISH BLAIR/GETTY IMAGES-

IF ever there was to be a series in which the newly-crowned world champions were ripe for a fall, the seven-match limited-overs tournament which succeeded Australia's triumphant Caribbean Test tour loomed as it.

After all, it came less than two months after Ricky Ponting's team's epic World Cup campaign in which they remained undefeated. Most of the players involved in that win had left for the West Indies just days after that Cup final in Johannesburg.

Throw in the fact that a core of the Australian touring party was beyond fatigue having been on the touring treadmill non-stop since they took part in a one-day tournament in Kenya last August, and the knowledge that the West Indies had built up momentum in the wake of their record-breaking Test win in Antigua and the one-dayers carried all the hallmarks of a potential boil-over.

That was until Australia flexed their considerable muscle and cleaned up the series by winning the first four games.

In doing so, they stretched their run of consecutive one-day victories to an extraordinary 21, surpassing the existing record (13 set by Steve Waugh's Australian team in 1999-2000) by so far it seems unthinkable it could be surpassed in the foreseeable future.

Certainly, West Indies captain Brian Lara believes there is only one contemporary team with the ability to challenge that record, and identified that as Ricky Ponting's current Australian line-up.

``I think Australia is in a position to do it again,'' Lara said after his team had ended Australia's golden streak on his home ground in Trinidad. "(That record) shows the quality of their team and it shows that we've got to try and emulate a thing such as that. Maybe not in stats, but definitely in trophies and the results they've got over the years.

``My boys are really in awe of their squad. They've got great guys, friendly guys but they've also got great professionals and they're trying to win each and every step of the way.''

In the wake of his team's 39-run loss in game five in Trinidad — Australia's first one-day defeat since they were thumped by Sri Lanka in Sydney four months earlier — Ponting admitted he felt a tinge of disappointment that the streak had been stopped.

But he added he was immensely proud of what his team had achieved, particularly in light of the fact their remarkable run had included an undefeated run through cricket's toughest tournament, the quadrennial World Cup.

``I'd like to think that record would stand for a long time,'' Ponting said. ``We have stretched it by a fair margin, and with one day cricket being the game it is, it brings teams closer together and back to back games and conditions sometimes come into it as well.

``For a long time we've been able to get over all those obstacles.

``The more you think about it the more unbelievable it is that we've been able to achieve it.

``I'm really happy and proud of what all the players have done over the last five or six months, it's an outstanding effort.''

The arrival of several specialist one-day players — Michael Bevan, all-rounders Andrew Symonds and Ian Harvey and promising off-spinner Nathan Hauritz — helped reinvigorate Australia's squad for the series, particularly the bowlers who had laboured on flat, slow pitches during the four Tests.

But it was the Australians' batting which showed a distinct freshness in the opening match of the series at Sabina Park in Jamaica.

Sent into bat, the Australians slipped back into world champion mode from the outset courtesy of half centuries from captain Ricky Ponting and Darren Lehmann.

And an unbeaten 87-run sixth-wicket between Bevan (43 not out) and Harvey (48 not out) lifted Australia to a daunting 5-270 from their 50 overs.

The elevation of big-hitting Jamaican Ricardo Powell to opener gave the West Indies' run chase an instant kick-start, and they were on track at 2-114 in the 24th over when an hour was lost to rain. The target was then reduced to 208 off 37 overs.

But local hopes of an upset win vanished immediately after the break when key batsmen Lara and Devon Smith were both dismissed by Harvey who — despite following his quick-fire innings with bowling figures of 3-37 — was overlooked in favour of Ponting as Man of the Match.

The next match, played the following day at the same venue despite the International Cricket Council's recommendation that back-to-back one-dayers be avoided — was as one-sided as the opener was intriguing.

It was effectively decided in the opening 90 minutes when the Australian pace attack levelled the West Indian top order and left them 5-75 in the 22nd over. From that point, 163 all out was an admirable effort by the home team but one which which was always going to prove inadequate.

Small targets have long stopped being an issue of concern for Australia's well-drilled batsmen as underlined by their opening stand of 50 from just 11.3 overs. Again it was Ponting, still not enjoying the peak of health after the virus he suffered prior to the fourth Test, who guided them comfortably home with an unbeaten 57. If the Australians were impressed by their first look at the new Beausejour Stadium in St. Lucia, then the St. Lucians themselves must have been equally enamoured with what they saw of Australia's 22-year-old batting prodigy Michael Clarke in the third match.

In his first full international outing of the Caribbean tour, the former Australian under-19 captain stroked a mature 75 not out from 100 balls to lift his team to a daunting total of 258. Then — each time the West Indies looked like seriously challenging that mark — Clarke hung on to crucial outfield catches, the third and last of which was offered by the disappointingly lacklustre Marlon Samuels and signalled the end of any serious run chase.

Despite Clarke's Man of the Match honour in Australia's 25-run win, his captain Ricky Ponting claimed the budding star remained a long way off a permanent place in the strong Australian one-day line-up.

Ponting stuck by his assessment even after Clarke produced another unbeaten half-century to anchor Australia's fourth successive win of the tournament in Trinidad, one which ensured they would make a clean sweep of the trophies on offer in the Caribbean.

``I still think he is a fair way from our best XI,'' Ponting said.

``We have got injured middle-order batsman Damien Martyn to come back fairly soon hopefully, and his last innings was 88 not out in the World Cup final where he played magnificently.

``He (Clarke) is a very exciting player, but (reserve wicketkeeper) Jimmy Maher also hasn't done anything wrong in any game he has played so (Clarke) is still probably a bit down the order.

``It's a bit of a shame given the way he's playing. He is playing beautifully, but I think he's probably going to have to wait a little while yet before he is in the first XI.''

Clarke's 55 not out coupled with Adam Gilchrist's 84 carried the world champions to a formidable 5-286 in the fourth match, leaving the home side to mount the biggest-ever successful one-day run chase ever seen at Queen's Park Oval.

That likelihood vanished when batting hopes Lara and Chris Gayle lost their wickets in the space of four overs, and the Australian one-day juggernaut rolled on with another series triumph under its belt.

But the following day, after 21 matches spanning four months and six nations, Australia finally tasted defeat in the one-day arena. The West Indies' 39-run win was also their first over Australia in a limited-overs international in more than four years.

Brian Lara — who was in his previous reign as skipper when the West Indies last triumphed over the yellow-clad Australians — later admitted that, in spite of the regular drubbings his team had copped during the series, he had enjoyed the challenge captaining against world cricket's toughest opposition.

It was a 178-run second-wicket stand between Lara and Wavell Hinds which set up the ground-breaking win in that it allowed the West Indies to post a daunting total of 290 from their 50 overs.

For once there was no top-order assault or middle-order rescue job from the Australians, and the fact only Symonds passed 50 provided sufficient evidence as to the great job performed by an under-rated West Indian bowling attack.

To crown the moment, Lara brought himself on to bowl the final over.

Then, as if to prove Trinidad was no fluke, the West Indies backed up in Grenada five days later to grab an exciting win as Ricky Ponting's team exhibited all the signs of a group which was already homeward bound, in mind if not body.

Despite having benefited from an extended spell of rest and relaxation on `the spice island' prior to game six, the Australians still appeared jaded as they entered the final days of a gruelling nine-month playing schedule.

But while that may have accounted for some of their reckless batting, nothing could detract from the brilliantly-crafted 125 not out from West Indian opener Hinds which carried his team to a rousing win. Hinds, a late inclusion in the one-day squad to replace the injured Shivnarine Chanderpaul, was unflappable despite taking 13 overs to reach double figures and eventually blossomed into an array of punishing strokes which proved the difference between the teams. Hinds was a central figure with another unbeaten ton in the final match which the West Indies won convincingly by nine wickets to add some artificial respectability to the series scoreline.

After Chris Gayle's career-best bowling netted him 5-46 and restricted Australia to 8-247 — largely due to Darren Lehmann's second one-day century in three appearances in Grenada — he and Hinds put together the West Indies' first ever century opening partnership against Australia in limited-overs internationals.

But both captains later agreed that a seven-match tournament between two opponents was simply too tedious and repetitious, and called for future one-day series to be limited to a maximum of five games unless they involve at least one other team.

The scores: Kingston, May 17

Australia 270 for five in 50 overs (Ricky Ponting 59, Darren Lehmann 55, Michael Bevan 43 not out, Ian Harvey 48 not out) beat West Indies 205 for eight in 37 overs (Chris Gayle 37, Ricardo Powell 37, Devon Smith 26, Ramnaresh Sarwan 47 not out, Harvey three for 37). Owing to rain the target was revised to 208 off 37 overs.

Kingston, May 18

West Indies 163 in 49 overs (Gayle 28, Powell 32, Omari Banks 29, Carlton Baugh 29, Glenn McGrath four for 31) lost to Australia 166 for two in 35.1 overs (Adam Gilchrist 27, Matthew Hayden 51, Ponting 57 not out).

Gros Islet, St. Lucia, May 21

Australia 258 for four in 50 overs (Ponting 32, Andrew Symonds 75, Michael Clarke 75 not out, Bevan 32 not out) beat West Indies 233 for nine in 50 overs (Gayle 43, Wavell Hinds 42, Marlon Samuels 37, Powell 26).

Port Of Spain, May 24

Australia 286 for five in 50 overs (Gilchrist 84, Hayden 44, Ponting 38, Clarke 55 not out) beat West Indies 219 in 45.3 overs (Gayle 84, Brian Lara 40, Samuels 27).

Port Of Spain, May 25

West Indies 290 for five in 50 overs (Hinds 79, Lara 80, Sarwan 32, Samuels 42, Brett Lee three for 56) beat Australia 251 for nine in 50 overs (Symonds 77, Clarke 39, Bevan 31, Corey Collymore three for 40).

St. George's, May 30

Australia 252 in 50 overs (Gilchrist 64, Hayden 29, Lehmann 43, Andy Bichel 41, Gayle three for 37) lost to West Indies 254 for seven in 48.4 overs (Hinds 125 not out, Sarwan 50, Lee three for 50).

St. George's, June 1

Australia 247 for eight in 50 overs (Lehmann 107, Symonds 48, Brad Hogg 53, Gayle five for 46) lost to West Indies 249 for one in 43.3 overs (Gayle 60, Hinds 103 not out, Lara 75 not out).