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November 23, 2008
After nearly five hours of rain delays, the contest was minutes away from an abandonment when the umpires decreed that the conditions were fit for play, and as things turned out, their decision proved to be worthwhile. For eight hard-hitting overs, while Owais Shah and Andrew Flintoff were together at the crease, adding 82 for the fourth wicket, England put up the best fight they have shown all series. But in the final analysis, the unbridled flamboyance of India's batsmen, coupled with the nerveless short-form skills that India's bowlers have learnt from their time in the IPL, proved decisive.
In every respect, India's approach to the game was superior to that of their opponents. Virender Sehwag epitomised the difference in mindset - the bulk of his 69 from 57 balls came when he was batting with a view to lasting for 50 overs, but in the final analysis you would hardly be able to tell the difference. He started the match by belting James Anderson's first ball over the covers for four, as India cruised a healthy 106 for 1 after 17 overs. Then, nearly seven hours later, he clobbered Samit Patel's first ball of the resumption for six, as India reappeared to help themselves to 60 more runs in the remaining five overs of their reduced allocation.
India's ability to switch tempo at will was astonishing and, to England's rigid mentality, unthinkable. Yuvraj Singh belted three more sixes to continue his extraordinary run of form with 25 not out from 11 balls, while both Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Yusuf Pathan - from the final ball of the innings - also launched the first balls they faced into the stands. Their final total of 166 for 4 was rightly adjusted under the Duckworth-Lewis method to an imposing target of 198, a prospect that looked stillborn when England began their chase.
The contrast between Sehwag's onslaught and the cautious dirge chosen by England's openers was stark. Only 21 runs came from England's first six Powerplay overs, and though Zaheer Khan, who finished with 2 for 20 from five overs, was exceptional - both for his own bowling and the way in which he guided his younger team-mates - England's stifling orthodoxy was bewildering and self-defeating. Playing with a pendulum-straight bat, Ravi Bopara played out four dot balls in the first over, before being caught by a flying Ishant Sharma in the second, while Ian Bell managed a gravity defying seven runs in seven overs.
With every straight-batted push that England produced, the run-rate leapt another notch or ten. Bell was eventually bowled for 12 while attempting a sweep against Harbhajan Singh, and though Kevin Pietersen clipped his first ball effortlessly through midwicket for four, he had arrived at the crease approximately eight overs too late. In his haste to make up for lost time, he inside-edged a massive swipe across the line, and was bowled for 5 by a gleeful Sharma.
India's dominance at this stage was so total that Yuvraj was able to burst out laughing after a blunder from Suresh Raina on the square leg rope gifted Shah an extra boundary. Slowly but surely, however, England found their feet. Shah brought up his half-century in flamboyant style - and from an unexpectedly brisk 35 deliveries - with a pull through midwicket off Sharma, then creamed a huge six into the stands with a fetched slog-sweep off Yuvraj. Flintoff, meanwhile, ran a clever four off an open-faced bat after noticing that third man was up in the circle, and then made Harbhajan pay for one full-toss too many by swiping him fiercely through cow corner.
That single blow gave Flintoff the confidence he needed, because he followed up with arguably the biggest blow of the series so far, a gargantuan swipe that might have ended up in Chennai had it not rebounded off the top of the stadium roof. It meant that England had added 61 in five overs, at the required rate of two a ball, and for the first time in four matches they were matching India's strokeplay shot for shot.
Shah continued in the same vein, greeting Munaf Patel's return with another flick into the midwicket stands to bring the requirement down to 73 runs from 43 balls. But back came Zaheer for the final Powerplay, and after conceding three runs from his first four balls, he beat Shah with a low full toss that flew off the leading edge to Sachin Tendulkar at point to end a fantastic innings of 72 from 48 balls. In the very next over, Flintoff drove a slower ball from Sharma to extra cover, and England's two big guns had gone in the space of five balls.
That was effectively that. Samit Patel drove his first ball through long-on for four as he and Collingwood kept England in contention until the penultimate over. But Zaheer, kept bowling full and fast, removed Patel via a butterfingered catch in the covers from Gambhir, and Munaf was given the honour of sealing the contest as he successfully defended the 27 runs England still needed in the final over. For the fourth match in a row, England had shown an improvement on their earlier efforts in the series, and yet the gulf between the sides appeared as wide as ever before. The prospect of a 7-0 clean sweep looms ever larger.
Stats highlights from the fourth ODI between India and West Indies in Dharamsala