Vantage point

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Battleground London

London was the battleground for two absorbing duels on Saturday. In both duels, there was drama, there were twists, there were superlative performances, and there was pure unbridled nail biting excitement.

One duel took place in SW19 while the other in St. John's Woods, and I wish the spectators at both venues were wishing they could have been in two places at the same time.

Let us first start with the ladies final at Wimbledon. Venus Williams met Lindsay Davenport in a match that even before it started was too close to call. Both players had played some hard matches coming in to the finals, both were trying their best, but neither of them looked in supreme Federer-esque touch, so there really were no favourites.

It started off well for Davenport. She wrapped up the first set in half an hour. On the second set, she faced resistence from Venus Williams, who fought hard, and levelled the game by winning in the tie breaker. In the third set, it looked like Davenport had regained her bite. She broke Williams and raced to a 4-2 lead. But the ink on the script wasn't dry yet. Venus broke back, and levelled scores. A short break where Davenport went to have a bit of medical assistance seemed ominous. She returned, but did not look too affected. She still kept holding her service easily, and taking Venus' service games to deuce. Multiple vintage rallies later, the score was 7 games apiece. That is when Venus reached deep within her spirit and dug out that something extra that separates champions from mere mortals. She broke Davenport, and then helf her own serve taking the third set 9-7. The match lasting close to three hours, has to count as one of the greatest Wimbledon finals ever played. For me it brought back memories of the 2001 men's final between Ivanisevic and Rafter which also ended 9-7 in the last set.

Venus was jumping all over the court after the match, and understandably so. She has won the title twice before this, but I am sure 2005 is the one that will mean the most to her. Her game just kept improving with every round, she played some tough matches, demolished the defending champion in the semis and survived a battle of attrition in the final. A deserving champion.

On the other side of London, in St. John's Woods, England were meeting Australia in the finals of the Natwest Trophy. While many Aussie supporters shrugged off the 4-successive-defeat week as "just a phase", keen observers will note that there is a definite change in the way this Australian team is playing. A wisp of self-doubt has crept in, and they have been confused about what to do when the opposition fights back. Not only did they lose a match to Bangladesh, but they also had to work very hard to win the last one.

Whether batting or bowling, the Australians come at you strongly from the first ball. Within 10-15 overs they knock the fight out of the opposition, and then just complete the formalities. Where Ponting's (or Steve Waugh's) team differs vastly from Mark taylor's team is, it does not seem as adept at handling difficult situations. If the attempted KO does not work, then Ponting seems at a loss. His self-doubt often affects his men too, who otherwise are more intimidating than starving man-eaters.

The same thing happened yesterday. Batting first, Gilchrist and Hayden attacked the bowling. They raced to 50 in 8 overs, on a lively pitch where clearly even 250 would be a tough ask. However 'England on the ascendant' (much like Venus on the ascendant) did not bend over, and prepare for a huge chase. They fought back with some tight bowling from Flintoff, Harmison and Jones. There were absolutely no loose balls given for the Aussies to feast on. The pressure showed as the Australians kept losing wickets, were not able to take as many singles as they usually do, and the run rate from over 6, dropped to under 4, where it stayed till the end. Mike Hussey ensured that they inched closer to 200, and finally ended up on 196.

First Australia had batted well, and thrown away the advantage. England grabbed it, and restricted them to a low score. Now in another twist, the England top order decided to take a day off, and owing more to poor batsmanship than superior bowling, were reduced to 33 for 5, with all big names, including Flintoff, back in the balcony. It looked all over, because though Paul Collingwood is a fine player, and Geraint Jones has shown gumption in the past, the target was just too far away, and this was the world's best team bowling to them.

Except that it didn't play like the world's best team. They almost looked bored with the match and just expected England to perish on their own. The bowlers were, as the cliche goes, going through the motions. There was back-slapping for the tight overs bowled by Symonds and Gillespie, unmindful of the fact that run rate is not the issue. Wickets are. Both men went wicketless as Collingwood and G Jones put up a memorable partnership. A nudge here, a stolen single there, and an occasional inspired fence hit later, England were back in contention.

Plus Ponting was faced with a problem that he and other captains won't have to deal with next month onwards. The fifth bowler's overs. He chose Mike Hussey who was nowhere as accurate or intelligent as the Wugh twins used to be while bowling part-time. England accepted his gifts graciously and the equation looked easier still.

Then just when it looked like England would sail through, the twosome departed. Collingwood ran himself out, and Jones displayed bad footwork against Hogg.

With the specialists back in the pavilion, Ponting should have tightened the screws. Yet he continued with Hussey, who despite picking up Simon Jones' wicket, was giving away too many easy runs. So even though Bret Lee bowled a tight line and gave away only a few runs, the equation stayed in the real of the doable, even for tail-enders.

England needed 28 off three overs, and Lee and Mcgrath had only one left each. Here Ponting again displayed bad captaincy. He should have brought in Mcgrath to deliver the knock-out punch, especially since tail enders would not be as cavalier in the 48th over as in the 50th. If Mcgrath picked up a wicket, or even went for just 3-4 runs, it would still be tough.

However bizarrely, Ponting threw the ball to the genial Mike Hussey. Gough and Giles accepted the gift and took 9 off his over. 19 off two overs was still tough, but easier than a potential 24 off 2, which might have been the case had Mcgrath bowled.

G & G kept the scoreboard ticking, with some slice of luck in form of a top-edged four over the keeper's head. Lee didn't look very purposeful, and Ponting looked confused, with no definite game plan in terms field placements. 9 off the over again, and 10 required off 6 balls.

Now Mcgrath was brought back. he too looked very disinterested in the proceedings and started off with a no ball off which a single was taken, making the equation a very achievable 8 off 6. From there it was a question of nudges and pushes. Giles and Gough took a single here and a double there and the equation stood at 3 off 2.

Now it was the turn of the English team to muck up. A length ball from Mcgrath, Gough played it to silly mid-off and ran for an impossible run. Mcgrath showed presence of mind, took time, took aim and hit the stumps, running Gough out. Knowing that the equation would be 3 off 1, and being the better striker of the ball, Gough should have kept strike. Instead he mucked it up.

Giles however made the most of the situation, and took two runs off the last ball which went to third man.

Match tied, trophy shared.

Usually when matches are tied, people say it was a fitting result because both sides deserved to win.

In this case it was a fitting result because neither side deserved to win.