Sri Lanka v India, Compaq Cup final, Colombo September 14, 2009

Harbhajan ensures India's cup overflows

Two rapturous celebrations by Harbhajan Singh told the story this evening. The first was when he bowled Thilina Kandamby, the second when he sealed India's first finals win in Sri Lanka this decade.

Even with seven wickets down, and the required rate touching 10 an over, India were not taking victory for granted until Sri Lanka's latest version of the Ice Man was dismissed. Sri Lanka were under the gun when Kandamby walked in and once he got going in that beguiling manner - composed yet adventurous - and India's fielding fell to pieces, a home victory seemed a distinct possibility.

In the 44th over, India were put out of their frustration when Harbhajan struck in the first over of the batting Powerplay. Thirteen deliveries later, he took out Ajantha Mendis, cueing hysterical scenes from the Indian team as fireworks lit up the night sky. It was his first five-wicket haul since March 2006, and his best performance in a tournament final.

In the end, India's victory over Sri Lanka was a surprisingly tense one, considering that they would have rated their chances very highly after Sachin Tendulkar's 44th one-day century carried them to 319. A sloppy fielding performance in which two sitters were dropped, a slew of run-out opportunities went begging and another excellent innings from Kandamby, combined to give India a mighty scare.

The fielding was utterly disappointing. Virat Kohli put down Sanath Jayasuriya at point, and the muffed chance against Kandamby - a dolly that Yusuf Pathan made a meal of when the batsman was on 36 - followed. MS Dhoni had a poor time behind the stumps, twice returning stray throws when Kandamby was struggling. Sides aspiring to be No. 1 can ill-afford such appalling displays, as Dhoni reminded.

"You've got to learn from your mistakes. We made quite a few today and as a team we didn't field well," he said. "Thanks to characters in the side, we ended up on the winning side. It's very special to us. We are winning here after a long time. If you are the second best team, you can't make these kind of mistakes."

This match nearly slipped out of India's hands, but Harbhajan struck at crucial junctures. Sri Lanka began their innings needing to score at 6.40 runs per over to win. Tillakaratne Dilshan and Jayasuriya responded strongly and scored at a fast clip. The two kept the foot firmly down on the accelerator and the runs came in a torrent. The bowling change brought a wicket, and it was Harbhajan who benefited when Dilshan went after one that skidded on and took the inside edge. A red-faced Harbhajan let loose a war cry, pumped that he had come on and immediately limited Dilshan's demolition to a 29-ball 42. From 64 for no loss in 7.4 overs, Sri Lanka slumped to 85 for 3 in 11.

Harbhajan has been India's best spinner for as long as one can remember in limited-overs cricket, but mostly through drying up runs. His economy-rate has generally been good but wickets haven't always been forthcoming. Tonight he got wickets when it mattered. It was a long overdue performance. Tonight he combined some refreshing air on the ball with an understanding of Sri Lankan pitches. He got Dilshan with a slider, scrambled seam being the key, and Mahela Jayawardene with a doosra. Then he delivered the killer blow, bowling Kandamby and getting Lasith Malinga first ball.

India owed much to Suresh Raina too, who had a superb outing. A tidy offspinner with a classical round-arm action, Raina churned out a clever mix of slower balls and cutters. His slow loopy bowling confused the batsmen - Kumar Sangakkara should have been stumped on 21 but Dhoni fumbled - but he also got enough turn to keep them guessing. In his first six overs he gave only 18 runs and bowled 19 dot balls, 16 of them to Kandamby. When he came back for the 41st over, Sri Lanka needed 80 from 60 balls, and Raina gave three singles and a leg bye. Then he struck in the 43rd over, as Chamara Kapugedera edged a quicker one.

Sangakkara pinpointed that dismissal as the turning point. "We were in it until Kapugedera got out," he said. "Kandamby and Kapugedera showed a lot of character in the middle order to get us close, but it was disappointing to lose, given the way those two were chasing."

Raina's bowling from around the stumps - which he perfected in South Africa during the IPL this year - has proved useful and he has given the team an extra dimension. In between overs 40 and 44, India allowed Sri Lanka 18 runs and took a wicket. That was a crucial passage.

Harbhajan, and several others, would have had vivid memories of this venue four years ago when they lost another final to Sri Lanka. This wasn't any ordinary win; this was India's first tournament success in Sri Lanka since 1998. India had been thumped in Saturday's dress rehearsal, their top order had been shaky, and they were up against history. This was retribution, at some level, for years of struggle in finals against this opposition. Points in the bag, yes, but there's still plenty of room for improvement and higher gears to be reached if they are to challenge teams in the Champions Trophy.

Jamie Alter is a senior sub-editor at Cricinfo