In the World Cup final, it seemed that virtually everything went right for Australia and everything wrong for India. These days, every contest at limited-overs level merely leads up to the World Cup and, logically for the teams that make it, the final itself. This must create enormous pressure, and whereas Zaheer Khan and Javagal Srinath were consumed by it, Adam Gilchrist, Ricky Ponting and Damien Martyn revelled in it.
Perhaps this shouldn't have been overly surprising. The Australians are masters at lifting themselves on the big occasion, producing their best when it counts most, while the Indians knew this was probably the biggest day of their careers and lacked experience at these rarefied heights. Ponting had already played in two World Cup finals; Gilchrist one. The psyche of the Australians made it likely they would embrace the occasion, expecting to produce their best; the danger for them lay not in nerves but over-confidence -- attempting to over-attack against good bowling, perhaps, or too keen to greet India's batsmen with aggression. India's mentality was more open to speculation. It was impossible to say with confidence how they would emerge.
Of course, the final margin was not an accurate reflection of difference in ability, but then again it was not a comparison of ability but a measure of performance on the day when it was demanded. Still, margins cannot be taken too seriously. More often than not, one-day games are not close. It is the contest itself that is revealing.
Once upon a time, choosing to bowl would have been interpreted as defensive, avoiding Australia's quicks, but in the final it seemed more a case of India unleashing their seamers. Unfortunately, Zaheer Khan could have done with a leash. Eight extras and fifteen runs in the first over irrevocably set the pattern of the innings. Srinath seemed the danger with his natural movement across the left-hander but Gilchrist was quick to neutralize him too.
Gilchrist's innings may have finished looking like a mere cameo in comparison with Ponting's but it should not be under-rated. At his best, Gilchrist appears to play a different game to other batsmen. Instead of having weaknesses worked out, over time he has improved at international level. Almost unfailingly, he imposes his style of play on the game irrespective of the situation, a rare ability. In the final, he was blindingly quick to seize on short length and marginal width from Srinath, until the bowler disintegrated going around the wicket in the eighth over and was flayed.
Gilchrist was later quoted by News Ltd as saying, "We didn't think we'd score at six or seven an over, we just wanted to have good, positive body language." He did, Hayden also, despite a personally moderate overall campaign. When Sourav Ganguly claimed a slips catch off Gilchrist that had patently bounced, Gilchrist's relaxed frame of mind was evident. "It's an easy game with a replay, isn't it?" he light-heartedly quipped.
The disturbing thing for India was that when the ball was pitched in the right place, it seamed, bounced and beat the bat. Zaheer and Srinath undoubtedly had complicity in the frenetic start, and there was nothing Nehra and Harbhajan could do to rectify it. India's bowling success in the tournament has been due to their performance as a unit; when half of the main line of attack misfired, they were prevented from coming back, in fact decimated further by the extraordinary later assault.
It's amazing to think that before Ponting began his six-hitting spree, he had struck just one boundary, Martyn comfortably the more accomplished of the two. A total between 300-320 would have been within India's reach, but Ponting seemed conscious of personally putting it out of range with his awesome assault, in so doing silencing his remaining doubters who felt Australia could not (or were less likely to) win the Cup without Steve Waugh, that they would stumble in a crucial situation without his experience. Ponting had learned too well for that, surrounded by a team too spirited to let it happen, remarkably not feeling the loss of Warne and Gillespie. Andrew Symonds was the last batsman picked in the squad and delivered on his potential in two critical games. The evolution continues, Waugh's legacy evident, as the coach claims every part of Australia's game can improve. It is eminently believable.
It's hard to know how it's possible to chase 360 to win, the obvious one-word answer -- "Tendulkar" -- falling victim to McGrath in just the first over. Not his fault, a personally brilliant tournament for Tendulkar had to end in disappointment. Though Sehwag found some belated form, Ganguly and Kaif inevitably failed to sustain the charge against McGrath and Lee, the result long known. Though playing with the freedom frequently associated with a doomed chase, there was still enough to suggest an intriguing game under different circumstances.
Fortunately, the tournament was saved a final, humiliating scandal when the Johannesburg rain proved only momentary. It is galling to think that India could have been 50/9 after 24.5 overs and the match would still have been replayed in full if washed out. Rain rules, which unfairly doomed West Indies through lack of group stage reserve days, is the only aspect of the format in need of revision -- Kenya's superb run was a reflection of their form, and New Zealand's elitism.
Australia, then, have hit a new peak, their domination of the era showing no signs of slowing. With South Africa in turmoil, Pakistan at the purging stage of their unvarying cycle of inconsistency and West Indies yet to convince, it is to be hoped India develop into the powerhouse to rival Australia that seems their destiny. When Sri Lanka won the World Cup in 1996, their stated ambition was to be the best Test side by 2000, but Muralitharan apart are not markedly improved. Hopefully, Cup success for India would have been seen as the commencement, not the final achievement or validation.
Despite the loss, the gains made or at least revealed by India in striding into the World Cup final do not suddenly evaporate in one performance. It may be true that no-one remembers second place, but they will recall future success achieved partly because of the foundations laid -- three seam bowlers of note, batting beyond Tendulkar -- at this tournament. Appropriately managed, the future is bright, Cup or no Cup.