March 1, 2003

Tendulkar lifts India to inspired triumph

There was a spontaneous eruption of firecrackers, cheers, chanting and joy across the length and breadth of a large country as India pulled off a stunning win against the old enemy Pakistan for the fourth time in as many World Cup clashes.

India had never successfully chased more than 222 in a World Cup match before Saturday. But gritting his teeth through a shooting pain in his left leg, the world's best batsman scored a scintillating 98, as India chased down a victory target of 274 with majestic ease in 45.4 overs. Sachin Tendulkar was the match-winner once more as India sailed through to the Super Sixes.

It was always going to be a day of heated arguments, passionate following and a tense battle out in the middle. Several cities in India had declared a public holiday to watch their team take on Pakistan in a one-dayer for the first time in three years. Cities that did not were paralysed as children stayed away from schools, offices emptied out by the start of the game and the streets wore a deserted look. Time stood still, life was put on hold as India delivered the game that a billion people wanted.

Chasing 274 needed something special, especially against a Pakistan attack that included Wasim Akram, Shoaib Akhtar and Waqar Younis. There was something unusual in the air as Tendulkar took first strike, allowing Virender Sehwag to stay at the non-striker's end. Sehwag can hardly complain - he was at the best place in the world, watching a breathtaking innings unfold from 22 yards away.

There was an exaggerated shuffle across the stumps as Tendulkar flicked Akram to the on-side fence for his first sweetly-timed boundary. Then came Akhtar, steaming down to deliver his thunderbolts. Seeing a short one early, Tendulkar played an unfettered cut shot, inside out and over the top, sending the ball into the stands several rows back at point. The little master had thrown down the gauntlet.

A bouquet of the finest strokes greeted the 22,000 strong crowd at the SuperSport Park, Centurion. Anything on the toes saw Tendulkar shuffle across and time the ball impeccably to the midwicket fence. A copybook on-drive signalled that the maestro was in perfect touch.

Not one to stay out of the limelight for long, Sehwag came to the party, clattering a six over point and a few fearsome drives. In just 5.4 overs, India had blasted their way to 53 when Pakistan struck their first blow. Driving on the up, Sehwag hit a full-swinging delivery from Waqar Younis straight to cover. Afridi held the sharp chance and Sehwag (21, 13 balls, three fours, one six) was on his way.

After making an elaborate show of setting his three slip fielders in the right place, Waqar sent down one of his trademark full, straight deliveries next up and Sourav Ganguly fell into the trap. Not moving his feet, he was rapped on the pads and Rudi Koertzen's slow finger adjudged him lbw. The Indian skipper was back in the hut for a first-ball duck and the pumped-up Pakistan side had India at 53/2.

Waqar ran from player to player, back slapping, hugging, celebrating what might have been the most vital breakthrough of the day.

Promoted up the order, Mohammad Kaif began watchfully and proved to be an able foil for Tendulkar. Not taking any risks, Kaif was able to rotate the strike and pick up the boundaries whenever the loose ball was on offer.

Tendulkar, meanwhile, continued to score boundaries with regularity even after the fielding restrictions were lifted. When he knocked his way to 83, Tendulkar brought up 12,000 ODI runs. When the giant screen flashed this message, the large Indian contingent rose and applauded.

But the same fans had to concede a point to their Pakistani counterparts as Kaif (35, 60 balls, five fours) dragged an Afridi delivery back onto his stumps.

Rahul Dravid walked out to an atmosphere that would have made the most feisty bullring appear pedestrian. Taking his time to get set, Dravid had one eye on the scoreboard at all times, making sure that the required run-rate never ran away from the Indians.

Well, that really never was in doubt - thanks to Tendulkar's masterly knock. It was only a brute of a delivery from Shoaib Akhtar, rearing from a length that got the better of Tendulkar. Having just called for a runner, Tendulkar in considerable pain, fell just two runs short of what would have probably been his finest one-day ton. Fending the ball to gully for Afridi to catch, Tendulkar departed on 98 (75 balls, 12 fours, 1 six) in the 28th over. Remarkably, India were already 177 at this stage, needing only a further 97 runs for victory in more than 20 overs.

Yuvraj Singh then underlined his utility in the side, scoring a priceless unbeaten 50 and taking India to victory. Belting the ball through the covers with the honest enthusiasm of a flaming young talent, Yuvraj kept the runs coming at a healthy pace, blunting the Pakistan bowling and making sure there were no mishaps as India overhauled the target. Ever reliable, ever trustworthy, Dravid was unconquered on 44.

Earlier in the day, things looked so much better for Pakistan as they won the toss and elected to bat.

On the back of a Saeed Anwar century that was more dogged than spectacular, Pakistan posted a daunting 273/7 from their 50 overs. After a bright start, a clutch of wickets slowed Pakistan down and it is to Anwar's credit that he managed to bat on, regardless of the fall of wickets at the other end.

Despite being tired, and certainly wishing for a pair of younger legs, Anwar stuck to his task admirably. Realising that the side was short on inspiration, the elegant left-hander pieced together his third World Cup century, in the process drawing level with Sourav Ganguly on 20 ODI tons. What will give Pakistan supporters more comfort, though, is the fact that Anwar has now scored 2,000 runs against the old enemy - India.

When he was finally dismissed, it was a result of a lapse in concentration. Soon after reaching the three-figure mark Anwar (101, 126 balls, 7 fours) was cleaned up by a yorker from Ashish Nehra.

The rest of the Pakistan batting was patchy, with the next highest score being 32 from Younis Khan. Yet Pakistan had made 273, surely a total that they would have been confident of defending with the bowling attack at their disposal.

But nothing's a surety when you're up against Tendulkar. Walking away with yet another Man of the Match award, he went on to why he is lauded as the greatest batsman in world cricket today.

There will be mourning in the streets of Lahore and Karachi. There will be heartburn in Pakistan's provinces. There will be calls for a change of captain and coach. There will be anger, there will be disappointment and there will be a sense of shock. But somewhere in the hearts of cricket fans there will also be a small place for joy. For yet again, one man had played the game as well as it could be with admirable support, and a team that was better on the day came out on top.

What more can a game of cricket possibly do?