Emotions hit fever pitch in iconic rivalry

Harbhajan Singh and Shoaib Akhtar turn on the heat Associated Press

There were vast swathes of empty seats in Dambulla, but even without a capacity crowd to incite the players, India and Pakistan played out a bare-knuckle brawl that had all the intensity of the more famous matches of the illustrious rivalry. It had been nearly three years since the teams were involved in a last-over finish, and the tightness of the contest brought out the sparks.

Most of all, you could feel the intensity towards the death. You could see it when Suresh Raina was standing with hands on hips staring at the dressing-room with the entire Pakistan team in a celebratory huddle a few metres behind. India's last remaining specialist batsman was waiting for a third-umpire's decision after a desperate dive to sneak a bye and get on strike in the final over.

It was in the previous edition of the Asia Cup that his international career got going, and here he was dragging India to the brink of the finish line in the headline-match of the tournament. A topsy-turvy match seemed headed Pakistan's way after the dismissal of MS Dhoni in the 43rd over, but a flurry of boundaries had brought it down to six off five deliveries. Raina was out by a whisker, and he swung the bat furiously at the ground before trudging off.

India still had a man who thrives in a scrap, and has several meetings with match referees to prove it. Harbhajan Singh's most famous moment with a bat in hand is when he squirted Glenn McGrath past point for two to clinch a riveting Test series in 2001. Today's display is likely to slot in at No. 2. He was already involved in a verbal volley with another man with a long disciplinary record, Shoaib Akhtar, after failing to connect with the final two deliveries of the penultimate over.

A charged-up Harbhajan was back on strike only on the fifth ball of the final over, with three runs to get. A big swipe sent the ball rocketing over midwicket. Arms outstretched, he let out a victory cry, making sure to turn to Shoaib at third man and give him the message. Raina, a picture of despair moments earlier, was the first man to embrace Harbhajan.

Such scenes hardly looked likely when the contest got underway. It had started out like any other run-of-the-mill one-dayer, with the first half of the match being incident-free. But once Pakistan had been pulled back from a potential 300 to a more manageable but still taxing 267, it was time for the strongest suits of the two teams to face off - Pakistan's bowling against India's batting.

Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir are among the most accomplished opening pairs in the world but they had a rough time in the face of a high-quality opening spell from Shoaib, frequently topping the 90mph mark, and Mohammad Aamer, cleverly utilising the left-armer's natural angle. Sehwag, a man who started the tour of New Zealand by whacking his first three deliveries for six, took an unusual 12 balls to get off the mark. Gambhir had trouble even with his go-to shot on the off side - the dab in the arc between point and third man - being beaten early and once bottom-edging past the keeper for four.

India lost a couple of wickets and the match switched to slow-burn mode with the side's two most versatile batsmen at the crease- Dhoni and Gambhir. They set about accumulating runs mostly in singles but it was a hard grind.

Gambhir is widely regarded as one of the finest batsmen against spin in India, but he was routinely found out by Saeed Ajmal, whose doosra he struggled to pick under the Dambulla floodlights. He outside-edged an offbreak past the keeper for four in the 19th over, and the very next ball was a doosra which cramped him as he went for the big cut. There was a let-off on 69 when Aamer dropped a dolly at long-off, and in the 34th over another Ajmal doosra baffled him to the extent that he was hit on the arm as he tried to glide it.

Gambhir had unfinished business with Pakistan: he had glided his way to 57 the last time these sides met, in the Champions Trophy in South Africa last year, when he was dismissed through a lazy bit of running. He set about correcting that by grafting his way to his second substantial score of the tournament despite not looking his fluent best.

As he soldiered on, things came to a head when a loud caught-behind appeal from Kamran Akmal led to an exchange of words. Dhoni quickly separated the two, but on more chirping from Akmal, Gambhir walked up to him and the pair stared each other down before the umpires ended the incident. Gambhir was bristling about it right through the drinks break. He was eventually dismissed by his tormentor of the day, Ajmal, for 83, but spared the heartburn of another defeat at the hands of Pakistan by the heroics of Harbhajan.