Holding their nerves did the trick
This Indian team has shown the ability to hold their nerve in crunch situations and, quite appropriately, this quality shone through again in the biggest game of the tournament. There were hiccups with the bat, there were moments when the bowling seemed to have lost its way, and there were stages in the game when it seemed Pakistan had the upper hand. When it came to the final shove, though, India showed a self-belief that has been a constant throughout the tournament. Today it helped them become world champions.
It wasn't a flawless performance, but then, Australia excepted, team performances in the final stages of big tournaments rarely are. What was hugely refreshing to see, though, was the way the team pulled together in the field through every mini-crisis. The batting had appeared the stronger suit on paper when India entered the tournament, but as Mahendra Singh Dhoni rightly pointed out, through the crucial stages it was the less-fancied bowling attack that stood up to the task, and the final was no exception.
In the conditions prevalent at Johannesburg, 157 was hardly a daunting target - in fact, it wasn't even par for the course. The pitch was admittedly slightly slow, while the Pakistan attack was excellent, but apart from Gautam Gambhir, the rest struggled for timing. Even Yuvraj Singh, in such sublime touch over the previous two matches he played, couldn't find his touch in the slower conditions and scored at a strike-rate of less than 75, a huge comedown from scoring at more than two runs per ball. Dhoni was even more out of sorts, and despite Rohit Sharma's belligerent and fearless cameo, it was clear that the change of conditions had been difficult to adapt to.
Then, the bowlers and the fielders stepped up to the job. In each of the last four games in this tournament, at least two of the bowlers have risen to the challenge, and RP Singh and Irfan Pathan, the two bowling heroes from this game, have been in that mix more often than not.
Singh delivered yet another near-flawless performance, and was so good that Shoaib Malik, the Pakistan captain, went to great lengths to explain just how much he had improved since Pakistan had last played India. "The pace has gone up, the control has gone up, and he has become really consistent," Malik said, and he was right on all three counts.
The two early wickets with the new ball put the early brakes on Pakistan, while the penultimate over he bowled - with Pakistan needing 20 - was near-flawless: he varied the length from yorker to slightly short to keep the batsmen guessing, and allowed a well-set Misbah-ul-Haq just two runs from three balls, while Umar Gul was far too incompetent with the bat to survive him.
Along with the excellence in each of the three departments, what has also
stood out has been Dhoni's captaincy in his first full
series in charge. He has shrugged off his contribution as a leader, but
throughout this frenetic tournament, he has kept a cool head in
difficult circumstances, thought clearly, and backed his hunches
If Singh's wickets were crucial, then so was Irfan's four-over spell. Dhoni has mostly used him in the middle of the innings in this tournament, bowling his four overs in a row, and he did that again today with spectacular success. Reading the slowness in the wicket, Irfan cleverly took a little pace off the ball and then occasionally slipped in the quicker one. The lack of pace did for Malik, and the dismissal of Shahid Afridi meant Pakistan would have needed something sensational to get on the right side of the result. Misbah tried, but eventually it was a bridge too far even for him.
The other, much-reviled aspect of their game which has stood up remarkably well throughout the tournament has been the Indian fielding. Robin Uthappa's direct hit to remove Imran Nazir completely changed the momentum of the game, while all catches were taken, and there were hardly any fumbles in the field.
Along with the excellence in each of the three departments, what has also stood out has been Dhoni's captaincy in his first full series in charge. He has shrugged off his contribution as a leader, but throughout this frenetic tournament, he has kept a cool head in difficult circumstances, thought clearly, and backed his hunches. Bowling the impressive Joginder Sharma in the last over instead of Harbhajan Singh - who had a rare off day - was one such call which worked perfectly, just like it had against Ausralia. Dhoni wasn't shy of speaking to the bowlers when they weren't doing the job - more than once today he ran up to Sreesanth when things weren't going right for him. Dhoni clearly has the respect of the team, but the bigger challenge is for him to sustain the intensity and the relish for a job which can often get too much even for the most hardened pro.
The season won't get any easier for him, but for the moment he can bask in the glow of being the captain who has given India the world champions tag for the first time in 22 years.
S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo