India power home in high-voltage clash
This was the day that London's Underground workers suspended their strike, raising visions of a city free of suffocating buses, cramped streets and restricted space. Today was also a day when several batsmen, uncluttered in mind and free of spirit, helped produce one of the most sensational one-dayers in recent times.
The best part about the sixth ODI of the series was how both teams showed a willingness to go for broke. If there was a risk that had to be taken, they took it. Tyros played with a maturity beyond their years, aged hands displayed exuberance reminiscent of youth. There was hardly any thought for safety.
The individual battles made the contest riveting. James Anderson and Stuart Broad tried to contain by bowling high-speed yorkers. Robin Uthappa walked down the track and attempted the cutest of paddles. Monty Panesar misfielded, prompting The Oval to reverberate in a mighty gasp. When fine leg went back for the final ball, with 4 needed off three deliveries, Uthappa aimed for long-off. The final sequence of events began with a powerful drive, followed by unbelievable tension as the ball sped towards Alastair Cook, whose full-length dive at mid-off failed to save the boundary. India celebrated, and how.
The taut state of the series ought to have made this a game of chess. One would have imagined the teams trying to out-smart the other and capitalising on the crucial mistakes. Instead an all-out assault unfolded, almost as if the teams had forgotten what was at stake.
Sachin Tendulkar's most unfettered innings of the series had a boyish touch. He played masterful flicks against Anderson, paddle-swept Dimitri Mascarenhas and shimmied away from the stumps to hit Panesar through covers. The innings was masterful but it also had chutzpah. He batted murderously but had moments of playfulness. It's a big game, he seemed to be saying, but it's still only a game.
For the fifth time on this tour he missed out on a hundred. He was in such pain because of cramps that he took a while to walk up the stairs to the dressing room. He hobbled away in agony but had, by then, conjured up a kind of magic not seen in recent times. He used his crease skilfully - moving across to the faster men and backing away against the spinners - and struck the ball with a crispness that's been a highlight of the series.
Before Tendulkar began his riposte, India had been assaulted, twice. Luke Wright's debut came with a whiff of freshness. Here was a 22-year-old taking the match by the scruff of its neck in the company of Owais Shah, who struck his maiden one-day century. At times Shah batted with an axeman's violence but even he was overshadowed when Mascarenhas clobbered Yuvraj Singh for five consecutive sixes in the 50th over.
Verbal jousts added to the intensity and misfields at crucial junctures ensured that nobody left the stadium with nails intact. Sourav Ganguly, who unleashed a barrage of lofted drives, then followed it up with some verbals to Broad; the exchange became so heated that umpire Aleem Dar was forced to intervene on more than one occasion. The tension was evident when Kevin Pietersen muffed the simplest of collections at long leg and England conceded an overthrow off a direct hit towards the climactic stages.
India, on the other hand, put in their best fielding performance of the series. A picture of Uthappa's direct hit to get rid of the dangerous Wright should be framed in the Indian board offices in Mumbai because few remember when such an event last occurred. They also had some good fortune: umpire Peter Hartley, officiating in his first game, decided to refer a run-out decision after seeing the replay on the giant screen.
At the end of normal time during the 1966 World Cup football final, England coach Alf Ramsey is said to have inspired his charges with this: "You've won it once. Now you'll have to go out there and win it again." India will need to tell themselves something similar before they make the trip across the Thames for Saturday's showdown.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is assistant editor of Cricinfo