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The story of the Prince and the Punter

The World Cup final was a story of the Prince and the Punter, men as different as masala and meat pie, going head to head for the greatest prize in the game. One an aristocratic Indian, whose subjects were below par in the weeks leading up to the tournament but had recovered themselves; the other a blue-collared Australian, whose mates had been busy carrying all before them.

Sourav Ganguly, or the Prince of Calcutta as he has become known, won the toss beneath sunshine at half past nine Sunday morning and elected to bowl. Ricky Ponting, who follows the horses and sups with the lads, would have batted anyway. There was a hint of juice in the pitch, thought the Prince; we’d have taken the punt, said the Punter.

For the same reason that Nasser Hussain should have batted first when the Ashes series began in Brisbane nearly five months ago, Ganguly should have done as much on Sunday. Give the Australians a sniff and it is blood they smell. These are men at their best when making the play, and only when they must respond to it do they suggest vulnerability. This is not a suspicion, it is a fact of modern cricket, but still Ganguly could not quite bring himself to exploit it. Was he running scared or did he not quite believe'

We thought that his darker, haughtier, steelier side had evoked an in-your-face attitude that brought his team up to modern speed.

But apparently the old doubts, brought on by subservience, still nagged within them. There was indeed some juice in the pitch but they felt it was as much of a threat as an opportunity. If the most overused word in sports commentary is “disappointed”, we were disappointed all right — and frustrated and infuriated and livid, actually. A moment had been missed.

To compound the “disappointment”, India bowled dreadfully with the new ball, which was hardly Ganguly’s fault though he set some shoddy fields in support. Riddled with nerves, nerves and more nerves, Zaheer Khan sprayed it all over the shop. At the other end, the vastly experienced Jawagal Srinath bowled too short, like a novice.

In just six overs Australia had 46 on the board, 12 of which were extras. It was hardly half past 10, chunks of spectators had not yet settled into their seats. During this one ghastly, unscripted, panic-stricken hour India handed the initiative and then the momentum to their opponents, deadly opponents who need no second invitation. The worst fear, the fear of failure, had gripped India and the hold was not to be released.

Least of all by Ponting, a man who has impressed with the way he has taken charge of himself and then his teammates. He has had low points, which have included drinking and brawling, and had seemed too raw for leadership. Now he found the highest possible point, a hundred conceived with contemporary skill — eight sixes were hit and each one of them over the leg-side — and the moment when he raised the World Cup above his mighty shoulders. Insisting he was lost for words, an affliction he has previously avoided at presentation ceremonies, there was much this fine man and marvellous cricketer might have said.

The Waugh brothers are a part of the past. The loss of two of Australia’s three best bowlers prior to the event, Shane Warne and Jason Gillespie, caused barely a stir. This fantastic team simply rolled up their sleeves and got on with the job. Probably they are the best one-day team in history, taking the limited-overs game to new horizons of attack and be damned.

They are marauders rather than magicians, relentless in their concentration and fearless in their desire to win. As if to prove the point, India were unquestionably the next best team in the tournament, winning nine of their 11 games. The two they lost were against Australia, by the haunting margins of eight wickets and 125 runs.

Ponting and Ganguly have led their teams with equal distinction, but Ponting’s men have a mental strength and supreme self-belief that allows them over the edge, an ability the Indians still lack.

There are brilliant talents in Ganguly’s team and good times are close by. For the moment, though, Australia have it all and appear unbeatable, especially on an occasion when everything is at stake.

That, of course, is the measure of champions.

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