Inspired India evict South Africa
A sensational spell of 4 for 13 from Rudra Pratap Singh dumped South Africa out of the Twenty20 party as India romped to a comprehensive 37-run victory that sealed a place in the semi-final against Australia. South Africa, previously unbeaten in the competition, again proved masters of the choke, falling 10 short of the 126 that would have taken them to the last four and eliminated New Zealand.
India, rocked by the withdrawal of Yuvraj Singh before the game with tendonitis of the left elbow, had struggled with the bat themselves, slipping to 33 for 3, but a tremendous 85-run partnership between Rohit Sharma and Mahendra Singh Dhoni propelled them to 153 for 5 on a well-grassed pitch of variable bounce.
Rohit Sharma, in his first innings in the tournament, struck some sumptuous strokes through the cover region, making room and lofting the ball cleanly over the infield. He also targetted the midwicket region, finishing the innings with a glorious six over square leg off a Johan van der Wath full-toss. At the halfway stage India had only 57 on the board, but Rohit Sharma and Dhoni amassed 56 in the last five overs as a frown started to crease Graeme Smith's brow.
India's defence of 153 started in appalling fashion with Sreesanth pushing the first ball down the leg side for four wides, and when Smith clipped one off his pads for four, South Africa had 11 from the first over. That, though, was as good as it would get. RP Singh made the perfect start, trapping Herschelle Gibbs leg before, before a stupendous Jonty Rhodes-like dive from Dinesh Karthik at wide second slip sent Smith on his way.
Enter Sreesanth. AB de Villiers survived one vociferous appeal for leg before, but the second one was so plumb that he might as well have walked. And though both Justin Kemp and Mark Boucher started with fours, the runs dried up as a hint of swing led to more flails at air than solid connections.
Kemp was always going to be dangerous, and the manner of his dismissal once again illustrated the value of youth in the side. Boucher tapped and ran, but Rohit Sharma raced in from cover to pick up and throw in a fluid motion that caught Kemp marginally short of the crease.
The home support was in shock, and that quickly turned to despondency when RP Singh came round the wicket to deliver a peach that cleaned up Shaun Pollock's leg stump. At 31 for 5, it seemed like game over. But Albie Morkel had been in magnificent hitting form all tournament, and Boucher held down one end as South Africa watched the asking-rate spiral beyond 10 an over.
When Joginder Sharma, who bowled fairly tidily, came on, Morkel drove him through cover - the same fate that met Irfan Pathan when he gave a little too much width. Generally, though, the bowling was impeccable, forcing both batsmen to settle for singles and the odd two into the outfield.
The momentum shifted slightly when Harbhajan Singh was introduced. Boucher tucked a full-toss off his pads for four, cut one late to third man and then clipped one beautifully between the leg-side fielders; 15 came from the over. But even when Morkel swung Joginder Sharma for a massive six straight down the ground, the asking-rate remained 12 an over.
That pressure eventually told when Sreesanth was brought back for his final over and the 17th of the innings. Boucher chopped one back on, and as he walked off, it was apparent that the limit of South Africa's ambition would be the 126 needed to qualify for the last four.
Vernon Philander and van der Wath both went down swinging, stumped by Karthik - who had taken over the gloves once Dhoni felt some back pain early in the innings - off Harbhajan, but the final nail was hammered in when RP Singh produced a magnificent yorker to end Morkel's defiance at 36.
It left Smith to ponder just what had gone wrong, after miserly bowling from Pollock had reined in the Indian openers. Gautam Gambhir was the aggressor early on, and he enjoyed a reprieve as well, when Philander made only a half-hearted attempt to catch a miscued pull.
On his home patch it was Pollock who made the breakthrough, having Gambhir mishit one to Smith at mid-off. And it soon got worse for India as Karthik chipped the first ball he faced to Albie Morkel at square leg.
It then became three wickets in four balls when Virender Sehwag's attempt to guide the ball down to third man ended up in Boucher's gloves. With the run-rate going nowhere, and two new men at the crease, India were in disarray.
Robin Uthappa walloped one mighty six off van der Wath, and was then put down by Philander at mid-on. With Rohit Sharma starting to play his strokes, the mood in the dug-out was starting to lift a little, but then Uthappa drove Morne Morkel on the up to Smith at mid-off.
Despite the blip, Rohit Sharma started to time the ball beautifully and the South Africans began to get flustered about errors in the field. Dhoni clouted Albie Morkel over long-on with a tennis forehand, and also benefited from a top edge over the keeper. There was a massive six over midwicket as Morne Morkel overstepped, and it was all India thereafter as a match that they began in a bullock cart ended in a magic carpet ride. For South Africa, another major tournament, and the Chuck Palahniuk novel...Choke.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor on Cricinfo