India hold their nerve to win thriller
Ten days earlier, India and Pakistan couldn't be separated in Durban. In front of a frenzied crowd at the Wanderers on Monday, they played out perhaps the best final ever seen in a major tournament. Once again, the ice-cool Misbah-ul-Haq threatened to drag Pakistan back from the brink, but the Indians just about held their nerve to clinch a five-run victory and the inaugural ICC World Twenty20.
After scrapping hard to get to 157 for 5 in the face of some tigerish bowling and fielding, India were inspired with the ball, and Pakistan appeared to be well out of contention with 54 needed from 24 balls and just three wickets in hand. But when Misbah thumped Harbhajan Singh for three sixes and Sohail Tanvir chipped in with a four-ball 12, the improbable became possible.
With Misbah on strike, Pakistan needed 13 from the final over. After a great deal of thought, Mahendra Singh Dhoni gambled on the inexperienced Joginder Sharma. When he started with a wide, Indian fans groaned, and the situation became even more desperate when Misbah pummelled a full toss miles over long-off for six. But with victory in his grasp, his judgement failed him. Moving across his stumps, he went for the scoop down to fine leg. He didn't connect cleanly, and millions on the subcontinent held their breath as Sreesanth came under the ball at short fine leg. When he held it, the stadium erupted.
The architects of the Indian triumph were the two left-armers, Rudra Pratap Singh and Irfan Pathan, both of whom scalped three wickets to scupper the chase. Singh struck in both his opening overs, having Mohammad Hafeez caught at slip and knocking Kamran Akmal's off stump out of the ground, but Imran Nazir played a blinder at the other end to keep his side ahead of the asking rate.
Two sixes and two fours came in Sreesanth's opening over, as Nazir cut and pulled with immense power. Sreesanth redeemed himself with a maiden to Younis Khan, but India still needed wickets as they sought to defend a middling total. The inspiration came from Robin Uthappa, whose unerring throw from mid-off to the keeper's end ended Nazir's blistering 14-ball 33.
Joginder's lack of pace provided the next breakthrough, with Younis miscuing one to mid-on, and the onus was on Shoaib Malik to see his side home. But with Irfan bowling a impeccable line and length and the Indian voices in the crowd growing louder, something had to give. And it was Malik that cracked, dragging a long hop to midwicket.
Pathan was euphoric, and moments later he and his team-mates were beyond the clouds. Shahid Afridi came to the crease with a boom-boom reputation, but left with a whimper after a heads-up heave that found Sreesanth at long-off. With the scoreboard showing 77 for 6, the match had seemingly swung inexorably India's way.
But Misbah, supported brilliantly by Yasir Arafat and Tanvir, had other ideas. And even though Irfan, Sreesanth and RP Singh produced magnificent yorkers to take India to the brink, no one breathed easy until Misbah fluffed his final line.
Gautam Gambhir and Umar Gul had shared the limelight in the Indian innings, with Gul taking 3 for 28 in a splendid spell where he bowled yorkers almost at will. Gambhir's scintillating 75 held the Indian innings together, and a late 30-run cameo from Rohit Sharma gave India them hope.
India's plans for the game had been rocked by the groin injury to Virender Sehwag, and his replacement, Yusuf Pathan, was nearly run out after dawdling for the first one. Otherwise known as Irfan's older brother, Yusuf came into prominence in domestic Twenty20, and he quickly demonstrated his ability with a straight six off Mohammad Asif.
With Asif bowling well below his normal pace, Yusuf then carved one through point for four before an ambitious pull landed in Malik's hands at mid-on. That stemmed the early tide, and India were reliant mainly on singles to up the scoring rate. Uthappa endeavoured to inject some momentum into the innings, but his attempt to go over extra-cover landed tamely in the hands of the fielder.
With Malik quickly bringing on Afridi and Hafeez, India needed someone to find the gaps. Gambhir was the man, lacing some lovely drives through the covers and pushing the singles as Yuvraj Singh played himself in. Gambhir was ruthless with the loose delivery, heaving Afridi over midwicket for six as runs started to come too quickly for Malik's liking.
His response was to call on Gul, Pakistan's most effective pace bowler in this competition. Gambhir cut him behind point en route to a 38-ball 50, but Gul's round-the-wicket line was soon to earn its reward. Yuvraj, in resplendent batting form in previous big games, didn't ever get going and a miscued pull landed straight back down in Gul's hands.
With the fielders showing tremendous commitment in the outfield and Gul mixing short-pitched deliveries with perfect yorkers, the batsmen grew increasingly frustrated. The pressure finally told on Dhoni, whose swipe met only with air as Gul produced another fast-and-straight special.
Gambhir tried to break free of the shackles, and a massive six that thudded into the scoreboard at midwicket had the Indian fans dancing, but Gul's retribution was swift. An attempted flick-paddle went straight to Asif at short fine leg, and Gambhir's splendid innings was finally over.
Sharma had shone against South Africa in a crunch game, and he came to the fore again in the final two overs, taking Arafat for two fours before he lofted a slower ball from Tanvir in the direction of long-on. Hafeez got there, but could only tip the ball over the rope. On such incidents are matches between these two great rivals won and lost. On an enthralling afternoon at the Bullring though, there were no winners or losers, just a resounding success for a format that is undoubtedly here to stay.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor on Cricinfo