Awesome to awful

Cricket

Awesome to awful

Back to the drawing board:  March of time has had an effect on the Australian team as well. AFP

Hands on hips, a permanent scowl on his face and resignation written all over him, Ricky Ponting looked on helplessly as a crown won in style and protected with panache was comprehensively snatched away.

For 12 years and three editions, Australia had been the team to beat in World Cups. They had ability and unmatched skill, great quality and nerveless control. They were the masters of putting the choke on teams, bearing down inexorably on the most accomplished of opponents and moving in for the kill at the first sign of uncertainty and vulnerability. A title won under Steve Waugh in 1999 was defended with rare aplomb by Ponting’s teams in 2003 and 2007, Australia stamping their dominance on the one-day cricketing world by going undefeated in both competitions.

Starting with their extraordinary league win over South Africa in Headingley in 1999, Australia strung together a whopping 34-match unbeaten streak, unlikely to be topped in the modern game when there is very little to choose between the teams and no one is head and shoulders above the rest.

In 2003, despite losing Shane Warne minutes before their first match, Australia resembled a behemoth, a juggernaut that would crush all before it. Four years on, they went in as overwhelming favourites despite having ceded the top ranking to South Africa, who simply know not how to win a knockout game in the World Cup. On both occasions, they lived up to their billing, winning all possible 22 matches and sweeping to title triumphs in one-sided finals with ridiculous ease.

Time, however, doesn’t stand still for anyone. As the fire started to subside, the limbs began to ache and complain, and the mind started to wander, several of Australia’s legends – Warne, McGrath, Gilchrist, Hayden – all quit between 2007 and 2011. Australia didn’t possess the same intimidating outfit, the aura that accompanied them as an influential 12th member having substantially diminished by the time they arrived in the sub-continent last month.

They would still be dangerous opposition because giving in without a fight goes against their grain. Just because they lost both practice matches didn’t mean they were ripe for the picking. Australia, as is their wont, believed they had what it took to win a fourth title on the trot; unlike in the past, the others didn’t share that theory, which is why we are where we are now.

For the first time since the 1996 final, Australia lost a knockout game in the World Cup.

Sadly, from their perspective, it came in the quarterfinals, making it their earliest exit in 19 years and since 1992, when they were crashed out at the league stage on their own turf. They had the names and the skills – despite the departure of several of their legends – but they just didn’t have the nous or the relentlessness that had been translated into a fine art by the likes of Warne and McGrath.

“It's a bit premature to say it is the end of an era for Australian cricket,” Ponting insisted, with a touch of bravado, after India sent them packing with a five-wicket victory last Thursday. “We’ve just fallen over when it really counted the most today.”

A candid admission that, and so typically Ponting. It’s unimaginable that the teams of 2003 and 2007 would have allowed Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina such easy passage from 187 for five, with 74 still needed, as Brett Lee, Shaun Tait and company did.

Australia of yore would have been all over the two left-handers, tightening the screws, applying the pressure, rifling throws in to the wicket-keeper even if there was no necessity, offering an unsolicited word or three of ill-meaning advice. They would have been in your face, snarling and growling and baring their fangs; this time, they sought out and hit the self-destruct button, crumbling under pressure as their nerves failed them at the most inopportune moment.

Pakistan had exploded the myth of invincibility in the last Group A match as Australia suffered their first World Cup defeat in 35 games. India made it two in two by playing a brand of cricket that, when Ponting looks back in time to come, will remind the Aussies of themselves in an era gone by.

The last time Australia lost two games on the bounce in a World Cup was in the early stages in 1999, when New Zealand and Pakistan stirred the sleeping giant within. This time, there is no coming back. Ponting’s legacy as captain, already under a cloud after the loss of three Ashes series and the number one Test ranking, has taken a further beating with the surrendering of the World Cup, even if he remains the only skipper apart from Clive Lloyd to successfully defend the title.

In Ahmedabad, Australia looked anything but a champion side. For the first time in recent history, they embraced circumspection and a certain defensiveness so alien to them.

They set their sights at modest heights, sacrificing inherent aggression for what they believed was a more prudent, common sense approach. It suited the Indians just fine, because India themselves have displayed a propensity to crack – and particularly against Australia – when teams come hard at them.

The roles were emphatically reversed by the end of the game. The Australian swagger had given way to a limp, Indian uncertainty replaced by an obvious sense of purpose and intent. One team lost its way totally, seized by stage-fright and suddenly alive to the very real possibility of imminent defeat; the other knew victory was within sight and could be achieved without resorting to the attempted heroics that have undermined Indian teams of the past.

Tait’s wayward offering wide outside off that screamed past a bemused Brad Haddin and produced five crucial runs with the match still in the balance was the final nail. It was the moment when the transfer of power was formalised. Ponting might say what he wants – what he must, indeed – but an era has definitely ended. And, most likely, Ponting’s captaincy, too.

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