Sizzling Sachin sees India home
As the sun shone over Stormont in the afternoon, Father Time was forgotten, with Sachin Tendulkar delving into his back pages to produce a sparkling innings. Chasing a tricky target of 227, Tendulkar dusted off his pull stroke and took a heavy toll on the pace attack, but when he fell to Thandi Tshabalala for 93, India experienced an almighty stutter. A score of 134 for 0 soon became 142 for 4, and it required a rollicking 85-run partnership between Yuvraj Singh and Dinesh Karthik to square the series at one all.
South Africa's total of 226 owed much to a gritty 82 from Mornè van Wyk. After Rahul Dravid opted to bowl in seam-friendly conditions, Zaheer Khan and RP Singh had the top order in all sorts of trouble, and it needed an 85-run association between van Wyk and Jean-Paul Duminy to lead South Africa towards respectability. Mark Boucher's belligerent 55 not out provided the late flourish, but even that appeared to be inadequate while Tendulkar was leaving his inimitable imprint on proceedings.
Having decided that discretion clearly wasn't the better part of valour here, Tendulkar initially trained his sights on Makhaya Ntini. A first pull for four signalled intent, and after Charl Langeveldt had been tucked off the pads for two fours, Ntini was infuriated to find two short-pitched deliveries pulled with contemptuous ease.
It wasn't as though that was the only shot in the arsenal either. When afforded width, Tendulkar cut powerfully and precisely to the rope. There was a stroke of fortune, an edge of Langeveldt that just grazed Jacques Kallis's fingers at second slip, but otherwise, he bided his time and waited for the loose ball to put away. On the rare occasions when he swished impetuously, Ganguly would be down the track to ask his partner to play it cool.
South Africa's biggest threat came from Andrè Nel, whose pace and hostility pushed both men on to the back foot. Sourav Ganguly was becalmed for vast portions of his innings, but twice he showed what he could do by stepping out and driving Ntini through the covers. This though was the Tendulkar show, and even Nel wasn't exempt from some punishment. Having avoided several short-pitched ones, Tendulkar finally let his instincts take over, hooking one powerfully over square leg for six.
The 15,000-barrier was surpassed with the aid of overthrows, and celebration came in the form of some gorgeous drives off the medium pace of Andrew Hall. By the time Kallis turned to the offspin of Tshabalala, South Africa's task had become an onerous one. Just how onerous became evident when Ganguly sauntered down the track and pinged one over long-on without even connecting cleanly.
When he fell though, smooth progress became tortuous passage. Dravid was undone by steepling bounce, and Mahendra Singh Dhoni went to an inside edge, but the biggest blow was delivered by Tshabalala. Having been taken for six over long-on, and 14 in an earlier over, he refused to compromise on flight and turn, and reaped the reward when Tendulkar chopped one on.
With the light fading and South Africa scenting victory, Karthik and Yuvraj rode their luck to the finish. Nel and Ntini were a handful, but couldn't quite provide the breakthrough as India sneaked home amid the lengthening shadows. Yuvraj finished on 49, while Karthik's Energizer bunny-style fetched him an unbeaten 32.
The bowlers had been to the fore in the morning, with Zaheer Khan and RP Singh bowling superb new-ball spells. They tied the batsmen down, and the frustration undoubtedly contributed to the dismissal of AB de Villiers, caught just short of his ground after being sent back by van Wyk. The prized wicket arrived soon after, with Kallis - matchwinner in the last game with an unbeaten 91 - dragging an RP Singh delivery back on to his leg stump.
Herschelle Gibbs got going with a nonchalant cover-drive, but when he drove lazily at Zaheer, India were very much in charge of proceedings with the scoreboard showing 46 for 3. It took van Wyk's determination, Duminy's class and Boucher's ebullience to wrest control back.
van Wyk played and missed often, with the pitch affording both appreciable seam movement and bounce, but once his trademark cuts started to find their range, the complexion of the innings changed. With the more graceful Duminy playing some gorgeous strokes down the ground, van Wyk played to his strengths, cutting and pulling with immense power.
There were moments of anxiety, most notably against the wiles of Piyush Chawla and Ramesh Powar, but with Ishant Sharma largely disappointing on one-day debut, the runs started to come too quickly for Dravid's liking. As is so often the case, it was the desperate bowling change that did the trick, with Yuvraj Singh's left-arm spin accounting for both Duminy and van Wyk as the bat started to be thrown around.
Duminy cut a loose delivery straight to short third man, while van Wyk went for one cut too many. As in the opening game, India scented an opening, but this time it was Boucher that closed the door. There was a huge six over long on as Chawla went for 13 in his comeback over, and some hefty clouts off Powar, and with Hall joining in, 52 runs came at better than a run a ball. Yuvraj took a third scalp when he cleaned up Hall, but by then, South Africa had exceeded all but their own expectations.
On another day, it might have been enough. But after Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist had pulled alongside them during the World Cup, this was an afternoon for the old firm of Tendulkar and Ganguly, who reclaimed the record with a 17th three-figure partnership. The halcyon years may be long gone, but as Tendulkar demonstrated, there are days when he can still shine like the sun.
Dileep Premachandran is associate editor of Cricinfo