Harmeet and Sandeep do it, drip by drip
On the eve of the quarterfinal against Pakistan, India's coach Bharat Arun had said having left-arm spinner Harmeet Singh, who had been ill for the last two group games, available for selection again was "a big boost and advantage." He was talking about Harmeet the bowler of course. Arun could not have imagined that Harmeet the batsman would be mobbed by euphoric team-mates after completing a one-wicket victory, with No. 11 Sandeep Sharma for company, in a sensationally tense finish.
"When I hit it [the winning shot], I knew it was two runs," said Harmeet, still trembling with exhilaration half an hour after he had sent the spirited group of Indian fans at the Tony Ireland Stadium into raptures. "When I ran the first run, I couldn't breathe. I couldn't cry, I couldn't laugh. It was something in between. The emotion was tremendous."
One moment, Harmeet was sitting in the dugout with his pads on, watching the fluent Baba Aparajith steer India to within 17 runs of a spot in the semifinals. The next, he was walking past Aparajith, who had been caught at cover. India still had four wickets in hand, with the wicketkeeper Smit Patel batting, and Kamal Passi, who had blitzed 24 off five balls against Zimbabwe, to come.
"I didn't think I'd have to bat," Harmeet said later. As it transpired, not only did Harmeet have to bat, he also had to play the lead. Smit tried to cut but edged one that bounced a bit more, and fast bowler Azizullah had Passi lbw and Ravikant Singh bowled for ducks. India had lost 3 for 4 in ten balls.
The coterie of Indian fans that had out-waved, out-sung and out-shouted the smaller group of Pakistanis, ever since Sandeep had taken two wickets in the first over of the day, were winded as he walked out to join Harmeet. India needed 10 runs; Pakistan only one wicket. Nine overs remained.
"No. Just 137 runs, our batting is strong, I thought they will score easily," Sandeep said when asked if he'd imagined he'd be needed to bat. "When I went in there was lots of pressure. I was just thinking, I just have to play; Harmeet will score."
With all that had gone before, the manner in which 19 batsmen had been dismissed, it seemed a matter of time before either Sandeep or Harmeet would fall to a good ball, or while attempting a big shot. Or they might have a go and get lucky, and the 10 India needed would come off an edge or a slog. What came to pass was anything but.
"I backed myself and I knew Sandy [Sandeep] could play. The ones who had got out, they could also play," Harmeet said. "It was just about pressure, the balls they got out to were not that great. So it was just pressure that we got under."
Two balls after Sandeep came to the crease, Harmeet played the left-arm spinner Zafar Gohar on the leg side for a single. Nine to get. There were shouts from the dismissed Indian batsmen on the sidelines. Perhaps they were cheering the run, perhaps they were imploring Harmeet to farm strike. Sandeep, striding forward and defending, kept out the remaining four balls of the 42nd over,.
In the tensest of situations, Harmeet was astute enough to read the game, and know that Azizullah, who had taken two wickets in his previous over, had only one left - the 43rd. "I decided that I'll play that over," Harmeet said. "After that there were only spinners, and there wasn't much spin [in the pitch]. So that's what I did, I just played that over and nudged around."
Off the fourth ball of that Azizullah over, with only nine to get, Harmeet refused a single to long-off. "That fast bowler took two wickets in his last over. I didn't take a chance there and after that I knew Sandy could play all the spinners. I had confidence in Sandy. I knew he could stay there and not play a shot for maybe the whole day. I played with him in the Cooch Behar [Indian domestic Under-19 tournament]. He has got patience, that's why I backed him and took singles again after the fast bowler had finished."
Harmeet's faith was not misplaced. Despite every fielder coming in to the 30-yard circle to keep Sandeep on strike, he did not try and hit the ball over the top. He defended the whole of the 44th over from the other left-arm spinner Mohammad Nawaz.
"I was just concentrating on the ball," Sandeep said. "Harmeet was playing really well, he was telling me to 'just play with a straight bat, the ball is doing nothing, so just play with a straight bat.' I was just focussing on saving my wicket."
With so few runs to defend, and majority of the fielders saving the single, only a tremendously confident and mature spinner will slow down his pace and flight the ball to tempt the batsman into indiscretion. Gohar and Nawaz bowled defensively - quicker and flatter - and Harmeet, being a left-arm spinner, realised they were no threat if handled sensibly.
India were in no hurry whatsoever. Harmeet took two off the first ball of the 45th over - seven needed - and blocked the rest. The Indian fans, who had fallen silent, found voices again, most of them hoarse by now. Sandeep had defended 12 balls with a calmness that would have reassured thumping hearts in the Indian camp before driving Nawaz to long-off for a single. He would finish on 2 off 22 deliveries.
Drip by drip India crawled closer. With two runs needed, Harmeet decided the time was right and played his first airborne shot, chipping Nawaz over square leg to bring an end to the ordeal. The partnership was worth a match-winning 10; it had taken seven overs.
The release of emotion after the winning hit was palpable, from the fans and from the players and support staff rushing to greet their saviours. And despite the hugs, the high-fives and the back-slaps, the over-riding feeling among those who watched from the bench should be one of gratitude.
Sandeep and Harmeet had taken 3 for 24 and 1 for 20 to help dismiss Pakistan for 136. And yet their top-order batsmen, who have disappointed as a unit throughout the group stages, left the job undone once again.
Harmeet, however, said he had made it a point to try and enjoy himself. "It's great to be back like this," he said. "For us, it's been a bit of a struggle, but we're still there. That's what matters for us."
Most of the top-order batsmen should be watching videos of Harmeet and Sandeep's approach. They owe them big time.
George Binoy is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo