Melbourne, the new Perth

The title might suggest a cliched celebration of a landmark ODI victory for a young, brave Indian cricket team….after all, Perth was just a month ago, right?? However, my proposition in this piece is quite the opposite. The ghost of Perth, the unconquerable Aussie hell-on-earth for visitors, has been exorcised in as dramatic a fashion as cricket could have conceived. The truth is out: notwithstanding their defeat to India yesterday, Melbourne is indeed the one ground where it is hardest to beat the Aussies.

Traditionally, visitors have run for cover at the thought of battling it out at Perth. It has a monstrous reputation as a bowlers’ paradise, generating pace and bounce not seen anywhere else in the world, with only Durban and Australia’s own Brisbane – though friendlier in comparison – coming close. In that lies the closely guarded secret of Perth: it also plays true all five days and therefore presents no demons to the set batsman. Besides, the sheer bounce generated on this pitch makes the short pitched delivery a liability and forces bowlers to bowl length or pitched up to make a contest. Ergo, Perth definitely assists the bowlers, but only if they bowl accurately and incisively. And a bowler of that calibre would probably do well on any pitch that ain’t dead as a Canberra dodo, oops, sorry!!!

Even if one takes India’s victory out of the equation, there are other pointers to the real Perth: South Africa and New Zealand both drew their last-played match at this ground…both teams comfortable with pace, seam and bounce. So too, a positive approach by India from the outset undid the Aussies and their failure, except Brett Lee, to penetrate the corridor of uncertainty on the first day cost them dearly. By contrast, the extra bounce made the Indian seamers – who tend to pitch it up as they don’t hit the deck as hard as the Aussies – lethal and unplayable. This could be the analysis of a match played at windy Wellington or Edgbaston …so that is what Perth is indeed, a harder, zippier and hotter version of those venues, with the sea breeze, more than anything else, aiding the seamers.

Sections of Australian followers have said Perth simply wasn’t what it used to be this match. That is not really true if you listen to Chris Rogers’s pre-match statements. He said his highest score for Western Australia at Perth in the season of 06-07 was 60, despite having played there all his life. He did indicate it would be a brute of a pitch and hoped to roll over India in 3 days. Going by that, the pitch seems to have been true to type; the Australian approach was what was wrong.

Right, over to Melbourne. The reason it is tough to beat Australia in Melbourne is that the ground is just very difficult to play in. It is the largest cricket ground in the world, has a lush outfield and in recent history has a slow pitch with occasionally uneven bounce. A ground of comparable dimensions would be India’s Eden Gardens; however, it is significantly smaller, has a quick outfield and shorter boundaries and generally plays true though that ground too has produced its share of quagmires, notably the 96 World Cup semifinal. Ergo, at the G, the ball doesn’t quite rush onto the bat, the boundary is a distant object in the horizon and even after a good strike, the thick grass stops the ball in its tracks. Hello, this also makes life tough for the bowlers; they have to maintain a tight line and length relentlessly and neither half volleys nor long hops will do. And the fielders have to run long miles all day long. The sheer Herculean labours of performing on this ground daunt most opposition players…except, for a strange reason, they never seem to expect it. The ground’s deceptively benign reputation and the apparent absence of demons in the pitch lulls opposition into near-complacency and by the time a long, hard day of chasing leather has undeceived them, the initiative is lost. And you know what they say: give Australia an inch, they will take a mile.

On the other hand, Australia know MCG for exactly what it is and always approach it cautiously and watchfully, quite unlike their normal tendency to dominate the opposition from the start. Matthew Hayden said a zillion times during the Melbourne Test of last year against India that it was the toughest Melbourne pitch he had batted on; India came to realize this…with a huge deficit staring them in the face at the start of Day 3. This is why, on precisely the ground the opposition give themselves a good chance, Australia have a formidable record. Sure, Australia being who they are have done well in all their grounds, but make no mistake, Melbourne has played host to some ‘benign’ innings or two hundred run/ten wicket defeats over the years. TV Channel Star Cricket even has a series ‘Boxing Day Knock Outs’ to satiate the appetites of hungry Aussie fans!!! 😛

So how did Australia come to lose an admittedly tight-fought contest to India yesterday in their grand fortress?? Well, they did what you can call an Adelaide 2003….the pitch was tough but not tough enough to support a defence of a sub-200 total and even Ponting admitted this. A flurry of early wickets did not instill the instinctive caution that it should have in the Australian batsmen. They lost only two of their specialist batsmen – Michael Clarke and Brad Haddin – to pure indiscretion; the rest, barring the unlucky Gilchrist, fell to good bowling efforts. But that was enough to nip in the bud a famous Australian recovery; they could only manage phlegmatic resistance with the tail, or to be precise one of the tailenders Brett Lee. Australia fought lion-heartedly with the ball, but 160 was never going to be enough, especially after a quick start that whittled down half of the target with barely 2/3 of the overs completed.

The Twenty-20 match played at the same ground was a characteristic display of the Melbourne nemesis; the boundaries were farther and harder to scale than Durban or Wanderers, but by the time the Indian batsmen realized this, they had lost more than half their side and were in no position to recover. Perhaps this early nightmare made the Indian batsmen more circumspect in their approach, simultaneously inducing rare complacency in their Australian counterparts.

Finally, I had planned this piece even prior to the ODI fixture of yesterday…..I had a feeling deep down though that against the run of play, India would clinch this one. I waited to know the result, but my opinion is only reinforced, not changed by it. Kudos to India and God bless Ishant Sharma, the first real Indian tearaway!!!

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