The World in Australia's pocket

S. DINAKAR

"WORLD SIDE? Disappointing," said Pete as he stamped the passport. The Australians have an opinion on all things cricket. The immigration officer at the Melbourne Airport was no exception.

Cricket rouses passions down under. The disastrous Ashes campaign had dented the Aussie pride. Now, Pete could barely conceal a hint of mockery in his smile.

A star-studded side stood humiliated. If the Super Series was a colossal let down, then the marquee names in the World XI allowed this to happen. The surrenders were meek, completely bereft of character.

The concept has possibilities. But then, the World XI's capitulation in the three-match ODI series and the lone Test put cricket's ruling body on the defensive. Its chief executive was now in the damage control mode.

Malcolm Speed was forced to retract from ICC's earlier statement that the competition would be a regular four-year affair. The Super Series had fizzled out.

What went wrong?

In fact, little went right for the clash of the Titans. The disheartened bunch of World XI supporters could hardly rein in their anger at the Telstra Dome in Melbourne. Their superstars had melted like crates of ice under a noon sun. They felt cheated.

"We paid 60 dollars (Aus) for a day's ticket. And we hardly saw any fight from the world team. It's good to see Australia win but they were not tested," fumed Rodney, who works in a local restaurant.

If their intensity in the arena had transformed some of the visiting stars into contemporary giants, then this essential ingredient was missing from their cricket in Australia. One of the banners said, "World XI — Show us some passion?"

The scenario was no different in Sydney. The Aussies leaped as if they would touch the skies. The World XI celebrities hung their heads. One side had the hunger, the desire. The other went through the motions. The contests reaffirmed the belief that cricket was a team game. The Aussies jelled as one. The World side was a collection of famous individuals lacking drive. The Australians were not complaining. Beleaguered after tripping in the Old Blighty, the Super Series was perfectly timed for Australia. The side was able to shift the momentum back in its favour ahead of a busy home season. Ricky Ponting's smile could not have been broader.

The Australians would have wished for a bigger crowd to appreciate their feats. The spectators at the Telstra Dome stretched their vocal chords. But their numbers were much below what the ICC expected. The turnout at Sydney was on the lower side as well.

The stadium was not surcharged with the tension that accompanies an international duel. The Melbourne crowd made noise all right, but the atmosphere was that of an exhibition tie, a happy testimonial.

World cricket is fuel-driven by rivalries between countries. Ordinary sides can whip up extraordinary deeds. The sheer pride of donning the National cap can be a great motivator. It's also a feeling that surfaces from within.

The abysmal fielding of the World XI reflected on a lack of commitment. For the country, they would throw themselves at the speeding ball. For an assorted side, they appeared unwilling, mentally, to put in a similar effort.

From the World side's perspective, the duels were also ill-timed. Somebody like Brian Lara entered the series with hardly any cricket in the last three months. Many others played against soft sides leading up to the Super Series. For most part, the World XI came across as a sloppy, rusty bunch seeking form and cohesion. Probably, the cricketers required more practice together, more games ahead of the Series. Given cricket's hectic schedule, finding more space in a crowded calendar might be impossible for the ICC.

There were glimpses of brilliance — the odd blitzkrieg from a Chris Gayle or a Virender Sehwag, Kumara Sangakkara's bravado, Muttiah Muralitharan's delightful spell or the incisiveness of Andrew Flintoff. But Team World XI was conspicuous by its absence.

The Australians made massive gains. And Shane Watson finally fulfilling some of his promise was a huge plus for the host. The Queenslander batted robustly and bowled with zest.

Although Adam Gilchrist is the world's most fascinating and valuable mutli-dimensional cricketer, Australia requires a quality all-rounder of the traditional kind. The chances are that Watson could be that cricketer.

Watson has been through a rocky road. His career has been ravaged by injuries and he did stare down a long, unlit path. Now he bowls with a remodelled action, is sharp on occasions. What the 24-year-old wants is more consistency in his bowling.

He does provide the side with options. If Watson can fill the third paceman's slot adequately, then given his batting credentials, Australia can regularly pick Stuart MacGill as Shane Warne's spin partner.

MacGill has lived under Warne's shadow but he can sting. At the SCG, he got his deliveries to hiss and spin. He can turn the ball past the face of the bat but MacGill has this habit of sending down a couple of loose deliveries every over; an area where Warne scores over him.

Warne and MacGill can be a lethal combination as the World XI discovered. As another distinguished member of the leg-spin tribe Anil Kumble pointed out, Warne and MacGill, attacking customers both, should have bowled in tandem during the Ashes. Australia blundered and England prospered. MacGill was destructive in the Test sending back nine batsmen. The SCG bears his stamp — he has now consumed 49 batsmen in seven Tests at this venue.

The Aussies fielded a wonderfully balanced attack in the Test. Glenn McGrath probed the batsmen relentlessly outside the off stump. And when he trapped Lara in front on the second day, he crossed Courtney Walsh's tally of 519 scalps; the previous highest tally by a paceman in Tests. McGrath exulted, the team celebrated.

His pace partner Brett Lee sizzled. He came up with a searing exhibition of pace and hostility in the third ODI. Accomplished batsmen were forced to fend away awkwardly climbing deliveries. And Lee's yorkers were coated with venom. He bowled with rhythm and velocity on the fourth day in Sydney.

Matthew Hayden's first innings hundred marked a welcome journey back to form for this Man Mountain. The southpaw cleverly sacrificed flair for solidity. Down the order, Gilchrist carried on with his merry hitting.

The spring was back in Ponting's steps. He led the side with panache and confidence. It's astonishing what victories can do to a man's morale. The `Punter's' body language was positive.

The selection of the World side captains came under scrutiny. There was a feeling that Shaun Pollock and Graeme Smith were not the best qualified to lead the side. Pollock could not prevent the ODI games from drifting away, and Smith, for all his bold talk, lacked real authority in the Test.

Either New Zealand's canny Stephen Fleming or England's Michael Vaughan, who successfully plotted against Australia not too long ago, should have been the skipper.

The World side also needed more firepower in its bowling. The slump in Pollock's speed has meant that this fine bowler is now eminently playable unless the surface and the conditions offer additional assistance.

Shane Bond should have been there. He has the velocity and the accuracy. And he relishes thundering in against the Australians and forcing batsmen on to the back-foot.

Behind the stumps, Mark Boucher was often clueless when Muralitharan spun them. The decision not to continue with the competent and in-form Kumara Sangakkara was a folly. And why was the formidable Kumble overlooked? He had troubled the Aussies no end down under in 2003-04 with his bounce and just the right measure of spin.

The experiment to use technology for all decisions met with a mixed response. There was a view that the frequent hold-ups in play when the on-field umpire sought the third umpire led to a loss of momentum in the game, took the human element away. Some felt that the umpires now had to grapple with another thought process — to call for the third umpire or not. Others like Ponting embraced the idea. The Super Series was not error free vis a vis umpring decisions; Inzamam was desperately unlucky to be adjudged leg-before in the second innings at the SCG.

Finally, to the tale of the two coaches. John Buchanan admitted he communicated better with the players during the Super Series. The results were loud and clear. John Wright saw India surge from nowhere in 2001, and then almost snatch a series triumph in Australia, 2003-04. Now, he was the World XI coach as this much-trumpeted side was swept aside. Under the circumstances, Wright was helpless.

The scores

ICC Super Series Test Match, Sydney, October 14 to17. Australia won by 210 runs.

Australia — 1st innings: J. L. Langer b Harmison 0; M. L. Hayden c Kallis b Muralitharan 111; R. T. Ponting c Kallis b Flintoff 46; M. J. Clarke c Sehwag b Vettori 39; S. M. Katich (run out) 0; A. C. Gilchrist lbw b Flintoff 94; S. R. Watson lbw b Muralitharan 24; S. K. Warne c Kallis b Flintoff 5; B. Lee c Smith b Flintoff 1; G. D. McGrath (run out) 0; S. C. G. MacGill (not out) 0; Extras (b-5, lb-11, w-3, nb-6) 25; Total 345.

Fall of wickets: 1-0, 2-73, 3-154, 4-163, 5-260, 6-323, 7-331, 8-339, 9-344.

ICC World XI bowling: Harmison 18-3-60-1; Flintoff 18-3-59-4; Kallis 7-1-35-0; Muralitharan 30-3-102-2; Vettori 17-3-73-1.

ICC World XI — 1st innings: G. C. Smith c Gilchrist b Lee 12; V. Sehwag c Katich b Warne 76; R. Dravid c Gilchrist b McGrath 0; B. C. Lara lbw b McGrath 5; J. H. Kallis c Hayden b Warne 44; Inzamam-ul-Haq st. Gilchrist b MacGill 1; A. Flintoff c Lee b MacGill 35; M. V. Boucher c Gilchrist b Warne 0; D. L. Vettori (not out) 8; S. J. Harmison c Clarke b MacGill 1; M. Muralitharan c Langer b MacGill 2; Extras (b-1, lb-1, w-1, nb-3) 6; Total 190.

Fall of wickets: 1-27, 2-31, 3-43, 4-134, 5-135, 6-147, 7-151, 8-183, 9-184.

Australia bowling: McGrath 12-4-34-2; Lee 8-1-54-1; Watson 6-0-38-0; Warne 12-3-23-3; MacGill 9.1-0-39-4.

Australia — 2nd innings: J. L. Langer c Smith b Kallis 22; M. L. Hayden b Harmison 77; R. T. Ponting c Boucher b Flintoff 54; M. J. Clarke b Harmison 5; S. M. Katich c & b Muralitharan 2; A. C. Gilchrist c Kallis b Muralitharan 1; S. R. Watson c Boucher b Flintoff 10; S. K. Warne c Dravid b Flintoff 7; B. Lee c Muralitharan b Harmison 3; G. D. McGrath c Smith b Muralitharan 2; S. C. G. MacGill (not out) 0; Extras (b-7, lb-7, nb-2) 16; Total 199.

Fall of wickets: 1-30, 2-152, 3-160, 4-167, 5-167, 6-170, 7-177, 8-192, 9-195.

ICC World XI bowling: Harmison 12.3-2-41-3; Flintoff 16-2-48-3; Kallis 3- 1-3-1; Muralitharan 24-4-55-3; Vettori 10-0-38-0.

ICC World XI — 2nd innings: G. C. Smith b McGrath 0; V. Sehwag c Gilchrist b MacGill 7; R. Dravid c Hayden b Warne 23; B. C. Lara c Gilchrist b Warne 36; J. H. Kallis (not out) 39; Inzamam-ul-Haq lbw b Lee 0; A. Flintoff c sub b MacGill 15; M. V. Boucher c Hayden b Warne 17; D. L. Vettori c Ponting b MacGill 0; S. J. Harmison lbw b MacGill 0; M. Muralitharan st. Gilchrist b MacGill 0; Extras (b-1, lb-2, nb-4) 7; Total 144.

Fall of wickets: 1-0, 2-18, 3-56, 4-69, 5-70, 6-122, 7-143, 8-144, 9-144.

Australia bowling: McGrath 6-3-8-1; Lee 10-2-42-1; Warne 19-4-48-3; MacGill 15-4-43-5.