Dhoni powers Asia home
A promising start by Africa's bowlers swiftly dissipated into another run-fest as Mahela Jayawardene and Mahendra Singh Dhoni provided direction and then aggression to set up Asia's third win of the Afro-Asia Cup at the MA Chidambaram Stadium. Dhoni and Jayawardene slammed centuries during their 218-run stand for the sixth wicket, a record in ODIs, and lifted Asia to 331 for 8, their third consecutive 300-plus score of the series.
Africa fought hard and crossed 300, like they had done in the first two matches. AB de Villiers was the pace-setter during a 117-run opening stand and Justin Kemp clobbered seven sixes and three fours on the final stretch but the African challenge fell short by 13 runs. Mohammad Rafique picked up wickets when it mattered most - de Villiers when he was smashing it like a golf-pro, and Kemp as he was running amok during his 86 -and finished with 4 for 65. Africa needed 23 off the last over but Pollock could manage only one six when he would have wished for four of them.
Chennai served up another sultry day where Mahela Jayawardene won his third toss of the series and unsurprisingly chose to bat on a featherbed. The Asian top order suffered from a lack of application and lost their wickets to loose strokes. The Africans held two magnificent catches: Justin Kemp leaped at full stretch to his right at second slip and caught Virender Sehwag with one hand inches from the ground, and de Villiers moved quickly to his left and dived with both hands to latch on to Upul Tharanga's airy cut. Mohammad Yousuf and Yuvraj Singh also perished trying to force the pace and at 72 for 5, Africa, for the first time in the series, were in control.
Dhoni and Jayawardene went about building a partnership, something that the innings sorely lacked until then, by milking the insipid bowling during the middle overs. Jayawardene was his usual deft self: cutting, nudging and pushing into the gaps with immaculate timing. Dhoni was cruder, but as effective in rotating the strike. They added their first 50 in 10.3 overs with minimum risk. Together they presented a stark contrast - Dhoni was the uncut stone, Jayawardene the polished jewel.
Asia brought up their 200 in the 39th over and it was then that Dhoni and Jayawardene turned it on. They raced to 250 in the just the 42nd over, feasting on toothless bowling from Johan Botha, Steve Tikolo and even de Villiers. Africa had rested Albie Morkel and Thomas Odoyo for this dead rubber and the support cast of Tikolo, Botha and Sibanda leaked 105 off eight overs. Jayawardene was the first to reach hundred off 102 balls but Dhoni was much faster, needing just 81 balls to score his third one-day hundred, his first since October 2005.
The duo began to find the boundary at will during the slog overs. Jayawardene played his trademark inside-out shots over cover and one nimble sweep over the long-leg fence. Dhoni kept drilling it down the ground and forcing the fans to run for cover at the long-on boundary. When Jayawardene was finally caught by Botha at point, Asia had already reached 290 for 6 in the 47th over. The last nine overs cost 96 and when Dhoni was done toying with a hapless attack, his 139 had broken the record for the highest score at No.7 that Shaun Pollock had set in Bangalore.
Pollock's maiden ODI century had nearly scripted a fairytale victory in Bangalore and today he remained undefeated on 58 as Africa ran out of steam just before the finish line. The chase was set up by de Villiers and Vusi Sibanda who knocked 117 off the target in 18.2 overs. Against the run of play, Rafique had de Villiers caught at short third man and Boeta Dippenaar snapped up at cover off successive deliveries and, when he deceived Sibanda in the flight and had him stumped on 138 for 3, the wheels seemed to have come off the chase.
Kemp and Pollock got together at 159 for 5 in the 32nd over with the asking-rate approaching ten runs per over. They started their partnership with caution and played the ball along the ground. Once Kemp got his eye in, after taking as many as 43 deliveries for his first 23, he unleashed a savage attack against the spinners - Jayasuriya in particular - and peppered the stands at long-on and midwicket. Kemp and Pollock rattled 122 in 87 balls and Africa needed only 51 off 25 balls when Rafique yorked Kemp. Pollock wasn't hitting it as cleanly as he did in Bangalore and could only take Africa to within 13 runs of the target.
George Binoy is an editorial assistant on Cricinfo