Beating the Australians at their own game
India's fairytale continues. In a tournament in which few gave them a chance, they have now played three successive high-quality games, each performance a little better than the previous one. The latest one on Saturday means we are in for a mouthwatering Monday-afternoon finale, with India taking on Pakistan to decide who will be called the World Twenty20 champions.
This performance against Australia was out of the top drawer for several reasons. The batting, bowling and fielding all dazzled, and there were few faults you could find in any department. Most importantly, it was special because the team managed to hold its nerve in a crucial knockout game, against a team that has almost made it their business to win all big games, and almost intimidate opponents into playing several notches lower.
There were several moments when the game was in the balance, and almost every time the Indians won the crucial phases to wrest the initiative. When batting, they only had 48 after nine overs, but then Yuvraj Singh played such a blinder - for the second time in a row - that Australia completely lost momentum in the field.
Chasing under lights, there was more than one occasion when Australia looked like they had seized the advantage; each time, India fought back. After 14 overs Matthew Hayden - who started scratchily but then produced another power-packed performance - and Andrew Symonds were so dominant that they had added 66 in six overs, bringing the asking-rate down to ten an over. With eight wickets in hand in reasonably good batting conditions, you'd normally back the batting team to get the job done. More so if the batting team is Australia.
Instead, the Indians turned it around with a display of such intensity that even Australia withered. Sreesanth triggered it all: he sent down an impeccable first spell, bowling with the hostility that we all know he is capable of, but marrying it to a consistency that has often eluded him. He had bothered Hayden throughout an outstanding second over before dismissing Gilchrist, and returning in the 15th over, he nailed Hayden to halt the Australian juggernaut. They never recovered from the blow, and Sreesanth finished with figures of 2 for 12 from four overs; only Syed Rasel has conceded fewer runs in a four-over spell in Twenty20 cricket.
Once Sreesanth was done, India still had plenty to do, and they found two other bowling heroes, one who has often done it before, and another from whom little was expected. Harbhajan Singh conceded only three in the 18th over when Australia needed 31 from three, while Joginder Sharma, who had gone for plenty in his first couple of overs, turned in a perfect last over, conceding only six when Australia needed 22.
"The batsmen were going after him when he came on to bowl, so I thought I'd hold him back and see how they'd react in the later overs when the pressure was on the batsmen too," Dhoni explained. The reasoning was sound, and it worked like a dream.
If the fielding and bowling were clinical - there were only three wides, a huge improvement from Thursday's 11 against South Africa - the batting performance was a lesson in pacing the innings. India are only a few games old in this format, but they're showing a steep learning curve. The way they gradually built momentum when batting showed the team has quickly learned that even in 20-over cricket it's not necessary to go full throttle all the time.
Forty-eight from the first nine overs might seem like too few in this shortened version - even in 50-over cricket it would only qualify as a reasonable start - but throughout it was clear India were playing to a plan: see off the early overs without losing too many wickets, and have plenty of batsmen in hand for later in the innings. What was also apparent was that each batsman had specific instructions: Gautam Gambhir scored at a run a ball, while Robin Uthappa dealt only in singles and twos for large parts of his innings.
All that planning needed good execution, though, and India found their man for the moment in Yuvraj, yet again. He had been in the zone against England, and the one-match forced break due to tendonitis did nothing to disrupt his rhythm. He started off with a swivelled pull off the second ball he faced, from Stuart Clark, the best bowler in the tournament.
From there, he simply flowed. The shots were struck with such grace, skill, and with such little effort, that it is difficult to pick the best one. Was it the casual, flicked six off Brett Lee, or the caress over cover off Nathan Bracken, or the pull off the slower ball from Clark which brought up Yuvraj's fifty? His entire innings was a highlights reel, and the way he dismantled Clark was breathtaking. When asked about his arm after the match, Yuvraj extended it completely - there was still a strap around his elbow - grinned, and said, "It's fine. There's no problem." All of India will be praying for the arm to be just right come Monday.
S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo