September 27, 2002

One last steep step to scale

Believe me - this Indian cricket team can walk on water. Believe me - they can stride across a pit full of burning coal and come out unscathed. Believe me - if India could win the match against South Africa on Wednesday, they can win anything.

Virender Sehwag
© CricInfo
It is true that the maxim "No match is lost until it is won" is especially appropriate to limited-overs cricket. But surely few teams could have won a match from so lost a cause. Conversely, few teams could have lost a match from such a winning position. In fact, it was not just a winning position, it was a veritable stranglehold that the South Africans held. How the Indians managed to wriggle out and then manage to tighten the noose on the South Africans will be debated for years. Well may Sourav Ganguly ask, "I don't know how we won." He is in plentiful company, for all of us are still unable to comprehend how the incredible turnaround was scripted. Indeed, the Indian captain has also hinted that perhaps destiny had something to do with the victory. He may not be far from the truth.

Just think of the scenario as it was, with South Africa at 192 for one after 37 overs. They needed only 70 runs from 13 overs with nine wickets intact, which translates into a run-rate fractionally over five per over. The batsmen did not have to do anything silly or go for the big hits. Singles and twos would have sufficed for South Africa to wrap things up.

Surely a comfortable victory was only a matter of time. The bookies had closed their books, the TV commentators were already looking ahead to South Africa's opponents in Sunday's final, and who could blame them? On the field of play, the Indians seemed to have virtually given up. The body language said it all - the drooping shoulders, the mournful look, the sad eyes, the slow walk, they were all tell-tale signs that the Indians had almost thrown in the towel.

And then came the metamorphosis. Not, for a change, through the fall of a wicket but with a batsman retiring hurt. As Herschelle Gibbs wended his way back to the pavilion, Jonty Rhodes came out to join Jacques Kallis. In the dressing room, awaiting their chance to bat if required, were Boeta Dippennaar, Lance Klusener, Mark Boucher and Shaun Pollock.

Yuvraj Singh
© CricInfo
Even after Harbhajan Singh took the wickets of Rhodes and Dippennaar in one over, the odds still heavily favoured South Africa. But now there was a palpable change in the Indian mind-set. There was an extra spring in the step, the fielders strode to their places briskly, and there were frequent consultations between the members of the team's brains-trust.

And then there was Virender Sehwag. The man with the golden bat now became the man with the golden arm. Sehwag can do nothing wrong at the moment, and much the same can be said about the team too. Giving Sehwag the task of bowling the 48th and 50th overs, allotting Zaheer Khan the 49th, was obviously going to be a gamble. But Ganguly and his think-tank were willing to take the risk. Such a bold outlook in a tense situation is to be appreciated.

Astonishingly the South Africans, faced with a similar situation, played it safe. It might have helped if Pollock had promoted himself in the batting order, ahead of a Klusener now a pale shadow of the hero who almost won the 1999 World Cup for South Africa. The supreme irony was that Pollock finally came to the crease in the last over but had not yet faced a ball when the match ended.

From the Indian viewpoint, the most encouraging aspect was the ability to rise from the dead, as it were. Indian cricketers traditionally are not known to be fighters with the never-say-die attitudes of the Australians. But Wednesday's performance was something else. It will not only further raise their confidence ­ already high after the smooth annihilation of England ­ but will also will help earn much greater respect from any future opposition.

The same cannot be said about the South Africans, who have lived up to their dubious reputation of being champion chokers. Remember the Hero Cup semi-final against India in 1993, the World Cup quarter-final against the West Indies in 1996, the World Cup Super Six encounter and the semi-final against Australia in 1999? One has almost lost count of the number of times South Africa have not been able to convert a winning position into victory.

But the focus is now on India. They are one steep step from the summit, and with the way things are shaping up, the team with a muchmaligned bowling line-up and with fielding standards not yet up to highest international levels - though the youngsters have certainly helped lift that aspect of the game - could end up winning the ICC Champions Trophy. First the mini-World Cup and then the World Cup early next year? It's a heady thought, but first let us emerge triumphant on Sunday. One last thought. India were semi-finalists in 1998 and finalists in 2000. Will the upward graph now have the perfect finish?