Australia, invincible?

As the Indian team watched Australia play New Zealand, spirits may have run high and stomachs churned in nervousness; confidence may have been bolstered and mouths run dry in disbelief.

ROHIT BRIJNATH

As the Indian team watched Australia play New Zealand, spirits may have run high and stomachs churned in nervousness; confidence may have been bolstered and mouths run dry in disbelief. Some might say: the Aussies' form is ragged, their play inconsistent, chinks apparent in their armour. But others might quietly ask: what in God's name will it take to stop the Australians? Miracle is the word that slips easiest off the tongue.

Andy Bichel (second from right) is lifted off his feet by teammate Brett Lee, even as Brad Hogg (left) and Adam Gilchrist join in the celebration after Lee took a catch off Bichel's bowling in the Super Six match against New Zealand at St George's Park, Port Elizabeth. After the New Zealand game, Australia stretched its world record to 14 unbeaten one-day games. — Pic. AP-

Shane Warne was withdrawn leaving his team to grapple with disgrace. Jason Gillespie, as quick and mean as a disturbed rattlesnake, went home injured and tearful. Michael Bevan sat on the sidelines the first few games. Andrew Symonds hasn't been playing lately. Australia's team has had been culled and quartered, but still they're unbeatable! After the New Zealand game, they'd stretched their world record to 14 unbeaten one-day games.

This is like Michael Schumacher last year; everyone else might as well go home.

Not since the West Indies strutted across the globe has a team left such a residue of fear every time it walks off a cricket ground. The weary clich� "glorious uncertainties" has been evicted from the one-day game's vocabulary; when a team can turn an imprecise sport into some fairly predictable surely that is true greatness.

If all goes well, India will play Australia in the final. No one will grudge their place for they have been the Cup's most consistent teams and bravest performers. No one will want India to win the Cup without playing Australia either, else the tag `world champions' will ring hollow.

If the Indians have listened well to Sandy Gordon, ironically an Australia-based sports psychologist, they will have embraced the virtue of `positive thinking.' What happened in Game 2 of the Cup, when thrashed by the Aussies, is the past; the Indians are a better team now towards the end of the Cup than they were at the beginning. Their batting more assured, bowling carrying an unlikely bite, spirit soaring and Tendulkar swirling his blade as it were Excalibur.

Is it enough?

Those faithful to the cause suggested India's best chance lay in Australia having a bad day; that for all the latter's professionalism and planning, grit and gumption, they are, in fact, human. Imagine that! One day their game will slip, their confidence erode, their bowling arrive too short and their batting pay for its sin of arrogance.

Thing is, Australia has already had two such days; problem is, they still didn't lose.

All hope a team might have derived from Australia's initial frailty against England, and New Zealand, would have been countered by the commitment the Aussies showed when it mattered. Against England, chasing 204, Australia slipped to 7-114, and then 8-135. Verus New Zealand, batting first, they slumped to 7-84. It seems, however, that you can out-think them, out-smart them, knock them to the ground and start the count but then, like some boxer who has learnt to swallow the pain, they get up. This team's spirit is almost beyond amputation.

Against England, they eventually knocked up the runs, courtesy Michael Bevan and Andy Bichel. Against New Zealand, Bevan-Bichel continued their tango. After finishing with 208, they then finished off the Kiwis.

Don't these guys know when to quit, say sayonara, give up, head for the showers and an early cold beer, think we're-already-in-the-final-so-what's-the-big-deal. Apparently not. They are so well-tutored, so disciplined, that they almost relish such examinations of skill and character.

Two aspects hit you in the face like a Tyson combination. The first is this: BICHEL? The Queenslander isn't supposed to be playing, he's been on the periphery of the team so long that his waxwork at Madame Tussuad's might have "12th Man" printed on its shirt. He's not even considered a front-line bowler, but then he comes in and saves Australia with his purposeful batting? Teams must ask: is there anything they cannot do?

It gets worse. To use a glib logic, if everyone believes Australia was due a bad day, then we must extend the argument to say that many of their top-line batsmen are now due a good one. After all, by their exalted standards, Matthew Hayden, Adam Gilchrist and Darren Lehmann are yet to play a blinder. Dear God, could there be something in reserve?

Post the New Zealand match, Ponting said: "We have got a lot of very good players in a very good team and we back ourselves to win from any situation.'' Evidently, Australia has more `good players' than any other team; a casual conversation among sports writers here some days ago ended with the conclusion that only Sachin Tendulkar, of all players from all nations, would walk into this team.

To reverse the process, how many Australians would walk into the Indian team on pure ability? Even the most ardent patriot might admit more than one.

A lot of "very good players" also don't always make for a "very good" team. Still, dissension is hard to find or provoke among the Australians. They arrive from different States, with varying ambitions, and have as much of a mix of the quirky, the irritable, the selfish as the next team. Yet they are quicker to find harmony and better at keeping it going. Sure, each player is keen to retain his place, to further his career, but there is something genuine and worthy in Gillespie, when he was initially out for a match, generously praising the performance of Bichel, his replacement, when he took 7-20 against England.

Great teams find a way to win. Ponting's team fits that description; now it is India's turn. Early criticism from crowds and commentators has given them a cause, tightened them more fiercely into one unit. They gather in emotional huddles, have embraced each other's performances, and are playing with a cool mix of commitment and flair. Bowlers will consistently have to drop the ball on a dime, fielders be as alert as new fathers, and batsmen play with a blend of cautious aggression when McGrath comes rolling in.

Can Australia be beaten? Most certainly. After all, as Michael Schumacher demonstrated some weeks ago, even the brilliant are fallible.