March 01, 2007

The Best of Australia vs the Best of India

By H Natarajan

Cricket Australia, on Tuesday, named their all-time great Australian One-Day International (ODI) side from players who have played for the country since the inception of the game’s abridged version in 1971.

What would an all-time great India ODI side look like? The question set me hurriedly going through the long history. More interestingly, I wanted to explore how the Indian Dream Team would compare against the Australian Dream Team.

There was no doubt in my mind about the choice of openers: Sourav Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar. A left-right combination is irksome and can disconcert the best of bowlers when the combo is as classy as Ganguly and Tendulkar. At his best, Tendulkar was the most feared batsman in the world. And Australians have not got greater regard for any other player in contemporary cricket than Tendulkar, who has produced knocks of magical proportions against the Kangaroos. Watching Ganguly at his pomp is like getting lost in a surreal world hearing Beethoven. The 5621 runs (average 48.88) the Ganguly-Tendulkar tandem scored as openers is the highest in all ODI history.

The Aussies, too, have a left-right opening combination in Adam Gilchrist and Mark Waugh. They opened together in 93 ODIs – 24 fewer than the Ganguly-Tendulkar pair - and scored 3853 runs (avge 41.43) to be fourth in the all-time list of top ODI run-getters for the first wicket.

I pondered long over Navjot Singh Sidhu and Mohammad Azharuddin for the No 3 slot before opting for the latter. In a line-up that boast of big-hitters, Azhar made more sense as someone who can keep the board moving with his wristy elegance than the more risky aerial essays. Moreover, Azhar was eminently capable of scoring at a very fast clip. There was another huge compelling reason: his brilliance as a fielder, in the outfield or close-in.

Coming one-drop for Australia is Ricky Ponting. Like Azhar, Ponting is a brilliant fielder, a successful captain and a batsman who keeps the scorers busy by finding vacant spaces at will.

Dean Jones at No 4, captain Steve Waugh at No 5, Michael Bevan at No 6 and Andrew Symonds at No 7 make up for the rest of the Australian batsman. Australia have been great believers in horses for courses theory. And the best examples of that have been Jones and Bevan, two men who carved a niche for themselves with their fitness and foot speed in the shorter version of cricket. Jones was, arguably, the finest runner between wickets – in fact, he flew! And despite scoring 11 hundreds – including two double hundreds – and an average of 46.55, Jones played just 52 Tests. Bevan would be a front-runner for an all-time great World ODI XI. But though he played 232 ODIs spread over a decade and finished his ODI career with a batting average of 53.58, he played just 18 Tests.

Bevan was the ultimate finisher in ODI history. He came in late in the order and was a master at changing the course of the game with his ability to take the onus on himself with deft placing and brilliant sprinting between wickets. Steve Waugh, the Iceman, was unpretentious and not exactly a sight for sore eyes. But he was an expert in crisis management. It’s no surprise that he got the captaincy ahead of two World Cup winning captain - the volatile Ponting and Allan Border, who could not even find a place in the twelve.

Indian cricket has been blessed with truly brilliant batsmen. Like the players named above, the men that I would have in my all-time great Indian dream ODI team are also match-winners. The No 4, 5, 6 and 7 in my line-up would be Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Manoj Prabhakar, who opened the innings for the major part of his career. The one big difference between the Australian and the Indian middle-order is the approach. While Jones, Steve Waugh and Bevan would cut, slice, slash and bleed their opponents to death, the Indians would resort to being bludgeoners.

It’s in the bowling department that the Aussies are clearly superior to the Indians – which is not really surprising. The Aussies firepower is in the hands of the crafty Dennis Lillee, the pacy Brett Lee and the robotic Glenn McGrath with Shane Warne as the spin wizard. To fill up as the fifth bowler, there is utility of Symonds as a medium-pacer cum spinner, the slow-medium of Steve Waugh, the off-spin of Mark Waugh and the left-arm of Bevan.

In comparison, the Indians have Kapil Dev, Javagal Srinath, Manoj Prabhakar, Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh – five specialist and quality bowlers who bring in variety to the attack. Kapil, in his first spells, was always difficult to score and Kumble, as his six for 12 against the West Indies in the Hero Cup final indicate, can be as devastating as the best in the game.

While the Aussies have a great attack, no batting line-up in the world has consistently treated Shane Warne – one of their aces in the bowling pack – with as much disdain as the Indian batsmen. That is nullifying one big weapon in an attack that has just four specialist bowlers. From 18 ODIs against India, Warne has taken just 15 wickets at an exorbitant 56.27. He does not even have a four-wicket haul and his strike-rate is a high 64.93 compared to a career strike-rate of 36.32.

The Indian batting line-up runs long. At No 8 is Kapil Dev, whose 175* in the 1983 World Cup was for a while the highest score in ODI history. And following Kapil are the likes of Kumble, Srinath and Harbhajan, all of whom can be relied upon to chip in usefully with the bat, more often than the Aussies can expect of Lillee and McGrath.

The Indian team has another huge advantage. Besides having five specialist bowlers, they have a number of players who have been more than useful as back-up bowling support: Tendulkar, (147 wickets, best of 5-32 against Australia) Ganguly (94 ODI wickets, best of 5-16 against Pakistan), Yuvraj (42 wickets, best of 4-6) and Sehwag (71 wickets, best of 3-25). The only non-bowler in the side is wicket-keeper Dhoni as even Azhar was a useful bowler in his earlier days and has ODI best figures of 3 for 19.

While the Aussies may have pacier bowlers, the Indian team makes up for that with greater variety: fast-medium and seam in the form of Kapil and Srinath, swing from Prabhakar, unorthodox leg-spin, etc from Kumble, off-spin and doosra from Harbhajan, left-arm spin from Yuvraj, back-up off-breaks from Sehwag and the deceptively deadly cocktail of Tendulkar.

If the Aussies have the dangerous Gilchrist as a batsman-wicketkeeper, the Indians have an equally potent force in Dhoni, whose rise has been meteoric. The only difference is that Gilchrist’s destruction comes at the start of the innings while Dhoni’s blasts come later in the innings. But unquestionably, both are feared match winners.

The Indian line-up is also packed with frightening firepower which is reflected in the strike-rates: Dhoni 98.49, Kapil 97.07 Sehwag 96.16, Yuvraj 85.98 and Tendulkar 85.65. In comparison, there are only two Australian players who have a strike rate of 85 plus: Gilchrist 96.29 and Symonds 92.04. But the other Indian batsmen can be equally dangerous. The 176 sixes that Ganguly has smacked is the third highest in ODI history while Azhar’s hundred off 62 balls against New Zealand in 1988 was the fastest ODI hundred for a while and still remains the fastest by an Indian in overs-limit internationals.

Five of the ten records for each wicket in ODIs – including four of the top five – are held by India. And one or both the partners in all the five world records figure in the Indian Dream Team, which reiterates the batting capabilities of the players. It’s also a measure of the quality that followed India’s epic triumph in the World Cup that only one of the heroes of that team finds a place in this Dream XI.

The Teams:

1. Adam Gilchrist
2. Mark Waugh
3. Ricky Ponting
4. Dean Jones
5. Steve Waugh (Capt)
6. Michael Bevan
7. Andrew Symonds
8. Shane Warne
9. Brett Lee
10. Dennis Lillee
11. Glenn McGrath
12th man:Greg Chappell

1. Sachin Tendulkar
2. Sourav Ganguly (Capt)
3. Md Azharuddin
4. Virender Sehwag
5. Yuvraj Singh
6. Mahendra Singh Dhoni
7. Manoj Prabhakar
8. Kapil Dev
9. Anil Kumble
10. Javagal Srinath
11. Harbhajan Singh
12th man: Rahul Dravid