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Tossed out at start

Johannesburg, March 23: When an instinctively aggressive captain takes a seemingly defensive step, no matter what the considerations, trouble isn’t far away. The script didn’t unfold any differently at The Wanderers, in the final of World Cup 2003.

Among other things, Mohammed Azharuddin has to live with inviting Sri Lanka to bat in the 1996 World Cup semifinals. Seven years on, Sourav Ganguly is in much the same boat.

Given the traditions, the buck stops with him, not Zaheer Khan (who went for 15 runs in the first over) or Jawagal Srinath. They were tonked for 154.

As it turned out, Australia retained the World Cup, winning by 125 runs. It’s also a personal triumph for captain Ricky ‘Punter’ Ponting: Thirteen months after getting the one-day captaincy, from Steve Waugh, he led from the front to facilitate an unprecedented third title.

“This victory says much about our team.... Right through, we were tested — first by the Shane Warne affair and, then, injuries — but came out on top. In any case, lifting our game comes easy on the big occasions,” a palpably thrilled Ponting, popular choice for Man of the Match, remarked.

Sourav defended his decision and, rightly, was critical of the bowlers’ length. “We were pegged back from the opening over itself.... Then, we conceded too many in the last 15.... Even 300 would have been manageable, not 360.... You can’t plan a 360 chase,” he said, dejected at the lopsided finish.

Unbeaten throughout — despite missing Warne and, later, Jason Gillespie — Australia emerged deserving winners. There’s little consolation for the Indians. However, except the 50 overs this morning, they did have a terrific five weeks beginning with the win over Zimbabwe. Incidentally, Sachin Tendulkar got the Man of the Tournament award.

Swayed by the lead-up form of his new ball bowlers, Sourav inserted Australia on a wicket with some moisture and in conditions conducive to exponents of swing. Yet, neither Zaheer nor Srinath could land in the right areas and the top-order made the most of the width and poor length.

India’s best chance rested on breakthroughs quicker than Brett Lee’s fastest delivery. When that didn’t happen, giving Australia first strike had to boomerang. To make it worse, a specialist fifth bowler was finally missed — at quite the wrong time.

With Adam Gilchrist typically into overdrive straightaway, Australia would have set sights on around 300. In the event, with Ponting authoring a great innings (“my best”) and Damien Martyn the perfect comrade-in-arms, a fractured finger notwithstanding, the champions smashed 359 for two.

In fact, Ponting’s unbeaten 140 (121 balls, 4x4, 8x6) is the highest individual score in a World Cup final, bettering Sir Viv Richards’ 138 not out in 1979. Moreover, nobody has ever hit as many sixes in a single innings in cricket’s showpiece event. Ponting and Martyn (unbeaten on 88) added 234 for the (unseparated) third wicket. It was mayhem.

Effectively, the final was over at the break. The Indians have chased 300-plus, but attempting that against an attack spearheaded by Glenn McGrath and Lee was an infinitely more daunting task.

That Sachin departed in over No. 1, without getting to face Lee, made the already stiff ask impossible to achieve. Sourav and Virender Sehwag (82 off 81 deliveries) took to counter-attacking and that made the impassioned fans’ afternoon. But, then, it was too good to last.

Sehwag did remain till the 24th over, when he was run out — tragically, as such dismissals are — but, as a contest, the final was over much earlier. The Indian challenge, or the lack of it, ended at 234 (40th over).

Briefly, in a rain-induced stoppage before the Indians had faced 25 overs, was there that slim chance of Sourav and Co. probably living to fight another day. The final, after all, would have been replayed. Only, the elements relented rather quickly and Australia’s steamrolling run continued.

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