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I’m not at all surprised by India beating Australia in the quarter-final. This match, as Ricky Ponting later said, was probably his last at the World Cup and marks the end of an era of domination by Australia. I had closely watched the seven-match series between England and Australia that no one really cared about after the Ashes. As Australia won 6-1, I got a very good look at its team and realised that it wasn’t as good as the scoreline suggested. One of the most glaring things for me was their batting. Michael Clarke was out of form, Ricky Ponting was not playing, and Cameron White was at No. 4 or 5 and David Hussey at No. 6. It was clear that their line-up just did not have the depth of old.
For somebody like me who’s grown up watching Australia as such a dominant force in world cricket, it took a while to come to terms with the fact that this was not the same Australia. For until now, in every world tournament, Australia would be my firm favourites, even when going through a slump, because I thought they had mastered most aspects of the game. But the kind of ability with which they wanted to replace certain players who have retired hasn’t quite come in. That is why I thought this Australian team was going to be a very weak defender of their title, and it turned out just like that.
On a dry, turning pitch, Australia just did not have spinners of class. Pakistan at Mohali may be a tad tougher, but India has the discipline to go with the skills.
One of the key factors in Australia’s campaign has been the fact that Ponting was out of form till the last match. Nothing is worse than having an uncertain captain. We had one against Pakistan in 1989, when I played under K. Srikkanth, who was struggling as a batsman, and it had an effect on the rest of the team. So I think Ponting’s being out of form for most of the tournament has been one of the main reasons that their World Cup campaign looked so weak.
India and Pakistan have had great talent coming through in spite of the infrastructure they have. Sometimes there are inexplicable factors for talent coming through, and that’s where I think India has been blessed with some quality players, like Virat Kohli and R. Ashwin. Going into the quarter-final, India’s biggest strength was that their self-belief was greater than that of Australia’s. A lot of credit for that must go to Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
In their effort to prepare a dry, turning wicket to aid India, the curator made it tougher for India, because they lost the toss and the situation became pretty tough for India. So it had to be a hard-earned win for India. What benefited them was the fact that Australia did not have spinners of class or who were accurate. There was not much in the wicket for the seamers because it was hard in the middle only and scuffed up at the ends. So for the lengths they were bowling at, the Australians weren’t able to get any help from the wicket.
In spite of some blunders they made in the chase—like the run-out of Gambhir and the fall of Kohli—India was helped by the fact that Yuvraj Singh was in such good form and confidence. He had scored a century in the last match and was in top gear, and his extraordinary ability came to the fore. I must mention Zaheer Khan too, who I think is the best seamer to play for India after Kapil Dev. He’s been very good in this tournament and has got his team wickets, especially in his later spells.
India will now play Pakistan at Mohali in the semi-final. Historically, the Mohali wicket has always had something in it for the seamers. But, like what we found in Ahmedabad, the curators and everybody would gang up and make sure that India has conducive conditions and environment. I look at India as the firm favourites. Sure, Pakistan have got some skills. But India has skills as well as greater discipline. India, in many ways, has been a lot more consistent. Bowling is definitely a weakness, but it’s a weakness that they know they have. And I think Dhoni is one man who knows how to minimise the effects of that weakness.
(Sanjay Manjrekar is a former India player)