Inspired India grab window of opportunity

In a breath-stopping, heart-thumping finish, India pulled off a stunning 10-run win over South Africa at Premadasa Stadium on Wednesday night and entered the final of the Champions Trophy.

South Africa are a professional side. The Indians are a feisty bunch. South Africa are a tight-knit one-day unit. The Indians are unruly talents. South Africa are fit, athletic and skilled enough to beat anyone. The Indians are determined and have enough cricket sense to hold their own against the best. It's clich d but, on the day, it was a triumph of flair over skill.

With back-to-back centuries Gibbs had a chance to put his indelible stamp on the tournament. By retiring hurt on 116 (119 balls, 16 fours) with his side still needing 70 runs for victory, Gibbs gave India the tiniest window of opportunity. Not very different from the time he famously dropped Steve Waugh and got told, "you've just dropped the World Cup, mate." The Indians, applying pressure took a vice-like grip on the game after Gibbs left the field. And yes, Gibbs' departure did cost the South Africans the Champions Trophy.

It would take a cruel man, however, to lay all the blame for South Africa's defeat on Gibbs' weary, dehydrated shoulders. The opener had done a great deal, slamming a brisk ton to set up the best possible foundations for his team.

It was Gibbs' opposite number, Virender Sehwag, who turned the tide. Bowling his flat, quick off-spin, Sehwag did what the frontline Indian spinners could not do. He tied down the South African batsmen at the death, picked up crucial wickets, bagged three for 25 and walked away with the Man of the Match award for the second consecutive game.

With Graeme Smith perishing early on to a spectacular catch by Yuvraj Singh, flying high to his right at point, Jacques Kallis was at the wicket in just the fourth over of the day. Yuvraj's effort was an early indicator of what people call fire in the belly; of what Imran Khan called 'playing like cornered tigers'.

A masterful batsman, Kallis kept the scoreboard ticking over at an even clip from the moment he was in, taking no chances yet scoring freely.

Gibbs, who seemed perfectly at ease for the best part of his innings, suddenly started to suffer from severe body cramps. At first a runner assisted him but, unable to grip the bat, he was forced off the field in the 37th over of the innings. Nevertheless, South Africa were 192/1 and still clear favourites.

Just two runs later, Jonty Rhodes was brilliantly caught by yet another full length drive from Yuvraj. Boeta Dippenaar played the sweep to Harbhajan Singh and Kumble snapped up the catch on the fine leg fence. Then Mark Boucher (10) also perished sweeping, top-edging an easy catch to Yuvraj. What is normally the most productive shot against spin for the South Africans proved their downfall.

Even Kallis, whose controlled 97 (133 balls, six fours, one six) certainly deserved a hundred, could not deliver the 21 runs South Africa needed for victory in the last over of the day. The air was thick with tension and could have been cut with the proverbial butter knife. Just minutes before the final over began, Zaheer Khan had sent down a fiery penultimate over, keeping the ball in the block-hole and denying Klusener the opportunity to score.

Kallis began the final over by nonchalantly launching Sehwag into the stands at mid-wicket. Fifteen needed from five balls then. Kallis tried to repeat the stroke, top-edged to the 'keeper and India were one inch closer.

Klusener, who had crossed over while the catch was being taken, battled hard but could not free his arms and managed just four more runs off the over before hitting Kaif a catch off the last ball of the innings. Yet again Klusener had been unable to produce those mighty blows that had been a feature of his batting some years ago. He managed only 14 off 21 balls, failing to hit a single boundary.

Earlier, the day began with a touch of surprise, as South Africa went into the big game with Makhaya Ntini ahead of the experienced Steve Elworthy and debutant Robin Peterson in place of Justin Ontong.

Sehwag batted as though he started on a hundred not out and not zero. Hitting the ball as cleanly as he had against England, the fiery opener got the crowds roaring. Two square drives, two pulls and one straight drive had raced off the flashing blade before even seven overs were completed.

Sourav Ganguly certainly looked in sparkling form. After beginning with a slash that just evaded the slip cordon the Indian skipper unveiled the pull, the shot he plays with least comfort, slamming Ntini to the fence in front of square.

But someone sauntering near the boundary ropes said it seemed too good to be true and as though he'd been overhead, Ganguly went for an audacious hook and sent a Ntini short ball straight down Dippenaar's throat at deep backward square leg.

And then, while Sehwag motored on at one end, the Indian batting spluttered, chugged like an old jalopy and seized up at the other end. VVS Laxman made a pretty 22 before having a forgettable waft outside the off to be caught behind. Sachin Tendulkar, unusually reticent for 16 off 29 balls was run out by a tremendous bit of fielding from Rhodes, the man who has inspired kids to say, "when I grow up I want to be a fielder."

India found themselves in trouble on 135/4.

Rahul Dravid and Yuvraj began the recovery. Dravid, sensible as ever, kept the scoreboard ticking over with a series of well-placed drives while Yuvraj provided the impetus with his sprinting between the wickets and audacious strokes. It's not often that a batsman comes down the wicket and belts Allan Donald through mid-wicket and then kills the follow-up bouncer with a lightning pull that dents the advertising hoardings. Yuvraj did just that, blasting his way to a remarkable 62 (72 balls, six fours). Dravid made 49 invaluable runs and India, despite losing three tail-end wickets in one Pollock over, ended with 261/9 from 50 overs.

Despite what the pundits and punters had to say, this proved enough to secure a famous victory.