It went down to the last ball but when Jacques Kallis fell in the 43rd over, with South Africa requiring an improbable 74 from 43 balls and only two wickets in hand, it looked like game, set and match to India. From there, Dale Steyn and Wayne Parnell threatened to pull of an incredible heist but India held their nerve to clinch a final-ball win in Jaipur.
The quality of cricket was actually below-par from both sides - India's bowling threatened to completely disintegrate under the pressure and barring Kallis, South Africa's batting was quite dismal - but the contest was made memorable by the tailenders Steyn and Parnell. This is how it panned out in the end: Steyn lashed two straight sixes in the 46th over bowled by Suresh Raina, the pair pinched three boundaries in the 48th over bowled by an errant Sreesanth and when both batsmen struck audacious sixes down the ground against Ashish Nehra in the 49th over, South Africa required only 10 from the last over.
Praveen Kumar bowled Steyn with a slower one off the second delivery but the drama wasn't over yet. Charl Langeveldt pulled the penultimate delivery to long leg where Sachin Tendulkar dived full-stretch to prevent the boundary. Many replays later, the third umpire ruled it a legal save and South Africa had to be content with three runs but had the well-set Parnell on strike for the last delivery. More excitement lay ahead as Praveen hurled a wide leaving South Africa needing three to win. Parnell squeezed out the final delivery to third man where Sreesanth fielded the ball cleanly and threw in a slightly wide throw but MS Dhoni had enough time to break the stumps with Parnell just one yard short of levelling the scores.
Until those dramatic end overs where India threatened to choke, they had actually done most things necessary to win the game. No batsman got a big score, but there were enough handy contributions from the top-order to push India to a strong 298. No bowler got more than two wickets but there was enough combined discipline in the attack, till they crumbled under the Steyn & Parnell show, to restrict South Africa.
For their part, South Africa might have come very close in the end but the stand-in captain Jacques Kallis was the only top-order batsman to offer any resistance in the chase where Ravindra Jadeja starred for India with his unspectacular but steady spell of left-arm spin where he used the arm-ball quite liberally to keep the batsmen honest. When Jadeja came on to bowl South Africa were sitting pretty at 60 for 1 from nine overs. When he finished his first spell that read 8-2-23-2, and included the vital wickets of Herschelle Gibbs and AB de Villiers, South Africa had slowed down to 127 for 3 from 24 overs.
He didn't get the ball to turn but repeatedly slipped the one that went straight on with the arm to suffocate the batsmen. The ball also tended to skid on in this surface and at times kept a touch low and the batsmen struggled to put away his armers. He lured Gibbs to slice to long-off and troubled both Kallis and de Villiers with his skidding deliveries. de Villiers tried to wriggle free with an attempted cut shot that proved fatal as he completely failed to connect.
From then on South Africa were always chasing their own tail despite Kallis' effort and though Steyn and Parnell played the one-day innings of their lives, they fell short in the end.
Like South Africa, India too didn't have any centurion today but, unlike the visitors, there were enough contributions to charge them to a strong score. On a day when Virender Sehwag played a couple of typically stunning shots - a slashed six over third man and another flamboyantly carved over covers being the picks - two innings, from men who are yet to secure their spots in the playing eleven, caught the eye. Karthik's entertaining 44 and Raina's attractive 58 stood out for their sparkling shots, and also for their untimely dismissals. Both fell when they were well-set and had the opportunity to take India to an unassailable position.
India were at 32 for the loss of Tendulkar in seven overs when Karthik started to go for his shots. Until then, he was playing the conventional strokes and even timing them well but was unable to find the gaps.
Everything changed in the eighth over bowled by Parnell. The first ball, a short of a length delivery outside off stump, was flat-batted - a forehand cross-court swat - over the bowler's head. Off the third delivery, he walked down the track to upset the line and length and whipped through midwicket for another boundary and a pull off the fifth delivery fetched him a couple before he collected another pulled boundary off the last ball.
Karthik continued to innovate and play the big shots - a slog-swept six against Johan Botha being the highlight - before he fell. This ability to manufacture shots and pull out the big hits irrespective of the match situation has been his strength and weakness. Shot selection hasn't always been his strong point but it looked like today was going to be his day until he was dismissed against the run of play, mistiming a pull shot off Langeveldt straight to mid-on.
Raina took over after Karthik's exit, starting off with a delightful, on-the-up, cover-driven boundary off Albie Morkel, and handled himself well against the short stuff from Kallis. The pitch was a flat beauty and there wasn't great pace or bounce to cause any trouble and Raina collected boundaries with upper cuts and a couple of pull shots. He went on to heave a back-of-length delivery from Parnell over wide long-on boundary but in the 44th over, with India on 260 for 6, he moved away from the stumps to try an expansive inside-out drive over the covers, only to edge Kallis behind the wicket.
It was left to the tail to push India towards 300, which proved more than enough in the end courtesy a fine spell from Jadeja. Kallis carried on gamely with a characteristic innings but he received no support from his team-mates: Mark Boucher edged a slightly wide delivery, Alviro Petersen was run out as he failed to ground his bat, and both Morkel and Botha fell playing across the line. Kallis dealt in singles initially, put away most of the bad balls, and tried to manufacture a few big shots in the end overs but the stiff target proved too much for him to pull off a one-man-show. Steyn and Parnell nearly pulled off the improbable but couldn't complete a fairy-tale finish.
Sriram Veera is a staff writer at Cricinfo