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Best series of modern era, maybe best of all

There are bright new stars on the horizon and most of them can be seen with the naked eye ? in the Indian middle order.

india Updated: Jan 08, 2004 00:38 IST

There are bright new stars on the horizon and most of them can be seen with the naked eye — in the Indian middle order.

A match that had long since slipped the surly bonds of earth finished in Sydney on Tuesday with everyone still absolutely flying. A record fifth-day crowd of more than 27,000 roared their appreciation all the way to the end of the amazing contest between Australia and India and for nearly an hour beyond as Steve Waugh was chaired round the ground by team-mates at the end of his 168th and positively last Test.

Yet the game itself, the fourth and final Test, was drawn. Indeed it had been almost certain for hours beforehand that it was going to be drawn. The series itself was drawn, 1-1. But everyone was enthralled for five days solid. (Explain that to your nearest American.)

This was partly because many Australians, with the faith that comes from living in a young country that wins a lot of matches, believed they were going to score the unprecedented 443 needed for victory even when it was moving towards the mathematically impossible.They believed that in part because Waugh himself was at the crease and apparently on his way to a century, one last coup de thétre. Waugh was infected himself.

But if anyone had a sniff of victory at the end, it was India. They retained the Border-Gavaskar Trophy (a bauble that has a new importance within the game) and, though they failed in their major objective, to win a series in Australia for the first time, the Indians emerged with their reputation dramatically enhanced. Their home series against Australia nine months hence now becomes unquestionably the cricketing event of the year.

It will be fraught with perils for new captain Ricky Ponting, who first has to face nasty series, both home and away, against Sri Lanka, Muttiah Muralitharan and all. Ponting's ability to respond will depend largely on whether Glenn McGrath (after injury) and Shane Warne (after his drugs ban) can roar back into action with their skills intact. In the case of McGrath in particular that seems an open question.

India, meanwhile, now believe that, if they can put together the renewed confidence of Kumble, who finished with 12 wickets in this match, with the Harbhajan Singh, when he is fit again, they will have the basis of an attack to match their outstanding top six. Australia are not dethroned as world champions yet but for the first time since the mid-1990s, there is at least a contender who can look them in the eye.

And Waugh will not be there to glare back. As his beautiful batting on Tuesday showed clearly enough, he is still plenty good enough for Test cricket (England would have him for starters).

But he has stage-managed his retirement more like an auteur than a sportsman, so much so that Farewell Waugh - The Remake would be a bummer at the box office.

No one has ever gone from cricket like this. Mike Atherton waved his bat once at The Oval crowd and slipped into the commentary box; the late Hansie Cronje was one step ahead of the constabulary; Waugh went on a triumphal journey around Australia that was enhanced rather than diminished by the sudden hints of vulnerability in the team he created.

Most of the Australian batsmen chose to wear black armbands in memory, it transpired, of Brett Lee's grandmother. Waugh was not going to let this indulgence (an absurd one, quite frankly, with due respect to Lee's gran) intrude on the pictures of his big day.

He emerged with the score on 170 for three, without armbands but with his helmet on rather than his famous baggy green, even though the spinners were on. The helmet was his way of indicating there was business to be transacted. But the brain beneath it was starting to relax.

Waugh batted with more grace and fluency than one normally associates with him. He had, he said later, "a feeling of tranquillity", adding: "It's only a game after all and perhaps it took me until the last innings to realise it."

By then he was safely off the field and into cricketing history, with 10,927 runs and a final average of 51.06, reflecting gracefully and stylishly on a job well done over 18 years. Not merely did he not put a foot wrong on the field — that last shot excepted; there was not a word out of place either. Even the press applauded his exit.

Perhaps the Australians did get diverted by the tidal wave of sentiment. But this would have been one of the most brilliant series of the modern era, perhaps of all time, even if Waugh had opted out exactly a year ago after his century on this ground against England.

There are bright new stars twinkling in cricket. And a remarkable constellation of them can be seen with the naked eye in the Indian middle order —Rahul Dravid, the man of the series, Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly. It seems now they might be lighting Test cricket for years to come.

The Guardian