Indian tailenders steal unlikely victory
The stage was set for India's most loved cricketing son to bid adieu to his home crowd with the sort of innings that he often played to illuminate this venue for almost two decades. Instead, it was Murali Kartik, forever condemned to Indian cricket's fringes, who basked in the late-afternoon sunshine with a mesmeric spell of left-arm spin bowling, before taking part in the unlikeliest of rearguard actions to script a famous victory.
Australia's pace bowlers had bullied and toyed with India's top order, before a defiant 65-run partnership between Robin Uthappa and Harbhajan Singh gave India fleeting hope. However, it was a stunning 52-run stand for the ninth wicket between Kartik and Zaheer Khan that gave India a consolation win in a series otherwise dominated by the world champions.
By one of those strange quirks of fate, the Kartik-Zaheer partnership mirrored the epic one between Javagal Srinath and Anil Kumble in Bangalore 11 years earlier. A crowd that had become despondent with Uthappa's exit roused itself to cheer every forward defensive prod, every nudge and even every swipe that just evaded the outside edge.
At 64 for 6, with only the cavalier Uthappa left of the top order, abject humiliation was on the cards but the partnership with Harbhajan spared a few blushes, before Michael Clarke and Johnson appeared to remove the last vestiges of resistance. Zaheer, however, clouted Brett Lee for a straight six, and when Kartik edged one between the wicketkeeper and slip for four, you sensed that the cricketing gods were on India's side. Four leg byes off Mitchell Johnson settled it with four overs to spare, and fittingly, it was Kartik who was on strike.
Even though the target of 194 wasn't an imposing one, it was imperative that India got a good start. They didn't, with Johnson inducing diffident edges from both Sourav Ganguly and Dinesh Karthik. Tendulkar sparkled briefly, with two glorious cuts for four off Johnson, but the moment he played on to Lee, the writing was clearly legible on the wall.
Lee bowled at fearsome pace, but if anything, India's plight only worsened with the introduction of Nathan Bracken's medium pace. Showing superb control of swing and seam, Bracken had Yuvraj Singh edging behind before slanting one away from Mahendra Singh Dhoni to get the same result.
When Pathan edged to slip off James Hopes - there was no weak link to exploit anywhere - thoughts of victory receded into the far distance, and the cheers as Uthappa spanked two huge sixes rang almost as hollow as Indian claims to batting greatness.
The undoubted star of the day though was Kartik. Four years ago, he was India's best bowler in the TVS Cup that Australia won, but was never trusted enough to kick on to greater heights. On Wednesday, he showed just why he's India's most potent one-day spinner with a wonderful combination of teasing flight, guile and sharp turn.
The last time he played an international game in Mumbai, Kartik had been instrumental in India defending a paltry target of 107 in a dead-rubber, dismissing Ponting and Damien Martyn in the same over. The man who captained India to that improbable win, Rahul Dravid, may have been missing today but Kartik was again to the fore, on a hat-trick twice as he finished with the best figures by an Indian bowler against Australia.
The key moments came in the passage of play when Brad Hodge and Andrew Symonds were dismissed off successive deliveries. Symonds, the outstanding player of the series, came to the crease accompanied by a chorus of boos, and many more jeers and whistles followed him back after he cut a delivery to Tendulkar at short cover. The previous ball had seen Hodge's Indian nightmare continue, with Kartik angling one across to take the edge to slip.
It was respite that India needed after they had squandered the perfect start. Clarke was plumb first ball, but though Zaheer did little wrong, RP Singh started woefully at the other end, conceding four wides in his opening over. Adam Gilchrist struggled as the ball moved around, but Ponting was ruthless on the slightest bowling transgressions, driving, flicking off the pads and cutting with precision.
India's plight worsened when Zaheer was denied a second wicket as Gilchrist, on 2, edged one toward the slips. Uthappa could only get his fingertips to it. After a sedate start by his standards, Gilchrist appeared to be finding some touch with two fours in Pathan's opening over but when he subsequently slashed at one, Harbhajan took a running catch at third man.
With pace not doing the trick, and Ganguly's mixed bag not helping, Dhoni turned to his spinners, and Kartik certainly didn't disappoint. The otherwise wayward RP Singh also played his part with the crucial wicket of Ponting, coming round the wicket to induce an edge.
If Kartik's first double-whammy put India in charge, the second killed off Australian hopes of a large total. Brad Haddin, dropped moments earlier by Zaheer at deep midwicket, was trapped in front by the arm ball before Brad Hogg and Lee fell to the fourth and fifth balls of the over. Hogg was dubiously given out, caught at forward short leg, while Lee edged one to RP Singh at short gully.
By the time he ended a 22-run cameo from Hopes, Kartik, his team-mates and the capacity crowd were beyond the clouds. But Johnson's 24-run cameo turned out to be a warning, and after dinner, it was back to terra firma with a thud as the three-time world champions illustrated their hatred of defeat. Fortunately for India, Kartik was intent on ensuring that his dream day didn't become a nightmare.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor on Cricinfo