India v Pakistan

A fairy-tale match

India 349 for 7 (Dravid 99, Sehwag 79) beat Pakistan 344 for 8 (Inzamam 122, Youhana 73) by 5 runs

Inzamam-ul-Haq's amaxing knock was not enough for Pakistan © AFP

One of the most abused clichés in sport is the one about the game, rather than a team or individual, being the winner. For those on the losing side, especially after a contest decided by the length of a fingernail, such a glib phrase is no more than a slap in the face, another reminder of falling agonisingly short. But sometimes, maybe once every decade or so, sport has the ability to transcend itself and render the result immaterial. So it was with this one-day international at Karachi.

Years from now, those present will still marvel at the vivid memories, while those who watch archival footage will stare in awe at the splendour of the sporting theatre on offer. For India, the victory erased bitter memories that went back almost two decades, but ultimately the result mattered little when compared to the atmosphere that enveloped the ground as the afternoon slid into night.

It had been seven years since an Indian team played in Pakistan, and there had been no full tour since 1989. With Karachi being denied a Test match, the opening one-day match carried additional resonance, and there was a security phalanx in place by the time the two captains walked out to toss.

Inzamam-ul-Haq won the toss to thunderous applause, and then befuddled everyone by sending India in. The expected Sachin Tendulkar-Shoaib Akhtar sideshow didn¹t disappoint, but after the master had played some glorious shots, it was Shoaib who wheeled away in celebration. By then though, with Virender Sehwag blazing away in all directions the run-rate had reached astronomic proportions.

By the time Sehwag was outfoxed by a slow yorker from Rana Naved-ul-Hasan ­ tarred, feathered and hung out to dry by some scintillating shotmaking ­ India were rattling along at ten an over, with the fielding restrictions still in place. Though Pakistan hauled it back in the second half of the innings, a majestic 99 from Rahul Dravid gave India the impetus to reach 349, leaving Pakistan to make 20 more than any team had ever done to win a match batting second. And while the batting had been dazzling, it was overshadowed by the effervescence and sense of fairness of a capacity crowd that accorded a surprised Dravid a standing ovation.

Pakistan¹s run chase, for the most part, seemed to consist of chasing shadows. The openers barely made a dent, and even though both Inzamam and Yousuf Youhana batted with refreshing positivity and class, the required run-rate refused to climb below eight. Youhana¹s was a coruscating hand, a joyful amalgam of drives, cuts, languid flicks and outrageous hoicks that appeared to give Inzamam heartburn. After he departed for a brilliant 73, the stage was all Inzamam¹s.

He had eased into the cricketing consciousness with imperious shotmaking in a World Cup semi-final 12 years earlier, and faced with near-impossible odds, he delved into his treasure chest of experience to unveil an innings of intelligence and beauty. Paced to perfection, it had both bludgeon and caress and strokes timed so magnificently that the fielders were made to look clumsy and second-rate. With Younis Khan providing inventive support at the other end, the 350-run oasis suddenly appeared to be more than a chimera.

It was Murali Kartik, playing only because both Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble were out injured, who gave Ganguly respite, coaxing the faintest of nicks from Inzamam¹s bat after he had stomped to 122 from just 104 balls. Suddenly, the equation ­ 72 from 47 balls ­ didn¹t seem as easily solvable.

Younis and Abdul Razzaq though wouldn¹t entertain negative thoughts, thumping some fine boundaries as the target was whittled down. But Kartik then bowled Younis, and Zaheer Khan pegged back Razzaq¹s off stump to leave the burden to Moin Khan, an impudent and aggressive shotmaker in his heyday, and Shoaib Malik.

With only 10 needed from eight balls came another defining moment in a match that was full of them. Malik¹s mighty heave had both Hemang Badani and Mohammad Kaif running for it, and it required stunning concentration and spectacular agility from Kaif to prevent a sickening collision and hold on to a catch that gave the Indians fresh spring in weary stride.

Nine were needed when Ganguly tossed the ball to Ashish Nehra, the most infuriatingly inconsistent element of India¹s pace attack. But Naved was nervous, and Moin not quite the batsmen he was, as Nehra managed five balls for just three runs. After close to eight hours of compelling action, it had come to this ­ a six off the last ball.

Up on the players¹ balcony, Javed Miandad played out the stroke which would do it, desperately wishing to transmit the thought and action to Moin. Almost 18 years earlier, Miandad had picked up a legside full-toss from Chetan Sharma and slammed it over midwicket to stab a gaping hole in India¹s cricket psyche, and he must have watched in amazement as Nehra came up with a waist-high offering.

Moin, though, was no Miandad, and this full toss hastened on to his bat before he could complete the cleaving motion that would send the ball into orbit. As the ball looped up to Zaheer at midwicket, there were yells of triumph from the Indian fielders. After a moment of stunned resignation, the crowd responded with a chorus that no Indian present there will ever forget. In a rivalry characterised by mindless posturing and hatred on both sides, it was an epochal moment, that once-in-a-lifetime occasion when a tired cliché about triumph and defeat being irrelevant made perfect sense.