Until 5.21pm, September 30 was the most dramatic day of simultaneous ODI cricket a scriptwriter could have thought of. In Johannesburg, India tried their best to beat West Indies, while Pakistan pulled Australia back from what seemed a facile win in Centurion. For most of West Indies' innings, Australia's score remained the more important one. Chasing 206, Australia collapsed from 140 for 2 in 31.1 overs to 187 for 8 in 45.5 overs by the time India shot West Indies out for 129.
To qualify for the semi-finals, India needed Australia to lose to Pakistan in Centurion, and then thump West Indies in Johannesburg. By the time MS Dhoni walked out for the toss, though, Pakistan were hurtling towards defeat, having wasted a solid start with the bat and then having let Australia get off to a flier. For good measure, Sachin Tendulkar had been ruled out of India's match because of a stomach infection.
And then the game started turning in Centurion, and at the same time India kept making inroads. In the dressing room India's support staff, glued to Australia's choke, watched the visuals from Centurion as opposed to the live action unfolding in front of them. Soon as Praveen Kumar bounced out Gavin Tonge, his third wicket and the innings' last, the Indian players rushed to their balcony and crowded around the TV.
Gautam Gambhir and Dinesh Karthik had to tear themselves from the action and start their chase, with Australia needing six off eight balls with two wickets in hand. Even a tie would be enough to knock India out. The Indian openers didn't watch Umar Gul bowl a special last over and Brett Lee scrambled through for the score-levelling single, off the penultimate ball, at 5.21pm. And out went the excel sheets to calculate net run-rates.
West Indies, who until then were almost a non-party to the state of affairs, chose the time to announce themselves. Kemar Roach bowled Gambhir, and David Bernard came up with a sharp effort to run Rahul Dravid out. Roach and the three medium-pacers made Dinesh Karthik and Virat Kohli work hard for the win. Which they did: Kohli with a composed, and at times attractive, career-best 79 not out, and Karthik with a more laboured 34.
For the first half of the game, though, West Indies hardly turned up. Dhoni's pace bowlers - minus Ishant Sharma - enjoyed the friendly conditions, getting consistent swing and ripping through a hapless top order. With Australia's win looking certain at that time, and India running out of Ashish Nehra and Praveen's overs, and with that choices to exploit the conditions, Dhoni decided to have some fun. Before the start of the 17th over, he gave his keeping gloves to Dinesh Karthik, and decided to bowl, something he does to good effect in the nets.
The first two balls Dhoni bowled were long hops, and were duly pulled and cut for boundaries by Travis Dowlin. The fourth ball, though, was fuller, and took the inside edge onto the stumps. And everybody had a bit of a laugh. Dhoni then proceeded to merrily seam his way through one more over, and also had a difficult edge dropped by Karthik.
If Dhoni was the surprise package, Nehra and Praveen expectedly exploited the helpful conditions. Praveen bowled a dream over to Andre Fletcher first up. Three outswingers, two of which beat Fletcher, were followed by two inswingers, one producing a close lbw shout. By now Fletcher should have been expecting an outswinger to cap off the over. He got one, but it started too close to the stumps for him to not play a shot. The edge was safely taken by first slip.
West Indies got their first loose delivery in the fourth over, and with that their first runs. That delivery was the aberration as Nehra gave Kieran Powell the left-armer's version of the perfect outswinger. Two balls later, Devon Smith went chasing another delivery moving away, and West Indies were 27 for 3 in eight overs. Floyd Reifer then edged Praveen to make it 31 for 4.
How Dhoni would have wished he had played another pace bowler on this pitch: dropping both RP Singh and Ishant on this bowling heaven was more a sign of exasperation, and an unsubtle message to the lacklustre bowlers. Abhishek Nayar, brought in to replace Ishant, couldn't extract much from the pitch, and meanwhile Australia kept inching closer to knocking India out. That, then, was the time for Dhoni to come on and take the fifth wicket.
David Bernard and Darren Sammy staged a mini recovery with a 32-run sixth-wicket stand. But when Amit Mishra got Bernard to edge to slip, another slide started. Nikita Miller managed 17 runs in 13 balls, but ran out of partners as Nehra and Praveen finished what they started, and rushed to watch - like the rest of the world - the Australia-Pakistan match.