Dejection writ large

Doug Bollinger made the most of the early morning conditions.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Australia will go home with both its No. 1 ranking and 13-year unbeaten run in one-day series in India intact, after the abject surrender by the host in Guwahati. Over to K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

Minutes after M.S. Dhoni walked away after finishing the post-match press conference, the sun had begun its descent. Darkness soon shrouded the Nehru Stadium in Guwahati while the clock just inched past 4.30 p.m. The sombre backdrop was symbolic of the mood in the Indian dressing room.

Ricky Ponting’s men had just defeated India by six wickets in a low-scoring sixth One-Day International of the Hero Honda Cup to garner an invincible 4-2 lead, as Dhoni mulled over the reasons behind the defeat on November 8. “Our batting has not been consistent and at times only the tail-enders scored. We have to win matches to become the number one team and that is not happening at the moment,” the Indian captain said after an early morning collapse had left him staring at 27 for five.

India never recovered from the slump and in the final analysis it cost the team a fighting chance of drawing level with Australia and keeping the series alive till the final one-dayer in Mumbai. All-rounder Ravindra Jadeja’s 57 (103b, 6x4) and Praveen Kumar’s unbeaten 54 (51b, 7x4, 1x6) revived the innings as India scored 170 in 48 overs, a total that fell short of Dhoni’s expectations when he opted to bat on a damp morning. “At the toss, I knew that if we kept wickets during the first half an hour, we will do well. I was okay with losing a couple of wickets but 27 for five was a bit too much,” Dhoni said after Australia scored 172 for four in 41.5 overs to clinch the seven-match series.

The Sunday began with fans jostling for space to see the players as top-flight cricket returned to Guwahati after a two-year break. The advanced start at 8.30 a.m. that factored in the early sunset, granted an hour’s assistance to the seamers. And once Dhoni decided that his willow wielders could cope, Australia’s left-arm seam duo of Mitchell Johnson (three for 39) and Doug Bollinger (five for 35) decided to prove the Indian captain wrong.

Johnson watched Virender Sehwag slam a six off his second delivery but soon swung one in to get rid of the opener. Johnson wasn’t finished though as he castled Gautam Gambhir too and with two key batsmen back in the pavilion in the very first over, breakfast was an uneasy exercise inside the host dressing room. “I thought our seamers bowled exceptionally well and once we got some wickets and momentum, fortune also favoured us,” Ponting said.

The innings got complicated as Sachin Tendulkar succumbed to Bollinger with an intended drive that popped back to the bowler. “Getting Tendulkar out was simply great. Bowling in these conditions is all about keeping your chin up and trying to help your team win,” Bollinger said after winning the Man of the Match award for his five-wicket haul.

Dhoni walked in and watched Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina depart in a hurry and the skipper quickly opted for clumsy defence over fancy shots on a pitch that became a wee-bit slow after the moisture had dried. Dhoni’s 24 (77b, 1x4) and his 48-run sixth-wicket partnership with Jadeja, paused the free-fall for a while. However, Dhoni and Harbhajan fell in quick succession and Jadeja along with Praveen stabilised the innings through a 74-run eighth-wicket stand. Jadeja nibbled his runs before launching into expansive drives while Praveen, with the tail-enders’ proven ability to scatter bowlers, waded into the rival attack with glee.

The runs, in the end, proved to be a case of too little too late as Australia began its chase post-lunch without any hassle. Shane Watson (49, 49b, 10x4) drove Praveen with ease and often found the fence as India failed to enforce pressure. Munaf Patel did scalp Shaun Marsh cheaply but it was an afternoon when the Australians found small but timely contributions from its middle order and wickets never fell in a bunch as India threw in the towel. The duo of Michael Hussey and Adam Voges ensured that victory was gained with 49 deliveries to spare while the lone moment of cheer for India was when Harbhajan Singh drew an inner edge from Ponting that was gobbled at leg slip.

Once the handshakes and backslapping was over, Ponting emerged with a smile and said: “We will celebrate tonight. We have had World Cup and Champions Trophy triumphs but to come here and get through some adversity and win the series, makes it special. The pitch was okay. There was some assistance early on for the seamers but later it was more of a spinning track. Nathan Hauritz spun the ball and so too did Harbhajan Singh and Ravindra Jadeja.”

With the 2011 World Cup in India hovering on the horizon, Ponting believed that the latest series triumph would pep up Australia’s bench strength ahead of the prestigious championship. “India is the second best team in One-Day Internationals and they are tough to beat at home and the exposure here will help all the younger players in my team,” the Australian skipper said.

The Indian camp, meanwhile, will ponder over difficult queries about the inability to defeat a visiting team that almost resembled an ‘A’ squad after eight core players, ranging from Michael Clarke to Brett Lee, dropped out owing to injuries. “When you lose matches, things get analysed more,” Dhoni said with a touch of weariness.

THE SCORES

India: V. Sehwag b Johnson 6, S. Tendulkar c & b Bollinger 10, G. Gambhir b Johnson 0, Yuvraj Singh b Bollinger 6, M.S. Dhoni lbw b Bollinger 24, S. Raina c Hauritz b Johnson 0, R. Jadeja c White b Bollinger 57, Harbhajan Singh b Bollinger 0, Praveen Kumar (not out) 54, A. Nehra b Watson 4, Munaf Patel b Watson 0. Extras (b-1, lb-1, w-4, nb-3): 9. Total (all out in 48 overs): 170.

Fall of wickets: 1-7, 2-7, 3-23, 4-24, 5-27, 6-75, 7-75, 8-149, 9-170.

Australia bowling: Johnson 9-1-39-3, Bollinger 10-4-35-5, McKay 10-1-44-0, Hauritz 9-2-19-0, Watson 8-0-27-2, Voges 2-0-4-0.

Australia: S. Watson c Sehwag b Harbhajan 49, S. Marsh lbw b Munaf 6, R. Ponting c Raina b Harbhajan 25, C. White lbw b Raina 25, M. Hussey (not out) 35, A. Voges (not out) 23. Extras (b-6, lb-2, w-1) 9. Total (for four wickets in 41.5 overs): 172.

Fall of wickets: 1-24, 2-85, 3-90, 4-143.

India bowling: Praveen 2-0-10-0, Nehra 3-0-21-0, Munaf 4-1-13-1, Jadeja 10-1-36-0, Harbhajan 10-1-23-2, Yuvraj 7-1-29-0, Raina 3-0-13-1, Sehwag 2-0-8-0, Tendulkar 0.5-0-11-0.