On days like these, you realise the value of hanging in there until the bitter end. On days like these, you become cricket theists; you start acknowledging the concept of cricketing gods. On days like these, you can waste a solid start, a middle-order rebuild, end up with 190 on a fairly good batting surface, and still win. On days like these, the opposition captain can go for glory, asking for a Powerplay when he needs only 2.4 runs an over, and lose three wickets for 20 runs. On days like these, you can get lbws without hitting the pad. On days like these, you can miss a run-out and nearly miss another but still get that wicket. On days like these, you can be lazy at third man, costing the team three crucial runs, but still come back and bowl two short and wide deliveries to take the last two wickets, with one run to defend.
Days like these are when you don't pocket any of the first eight balls, but your opponent misses a simple shot at the nine ball. Still, you have to make that final pocket, put that nine ball in. When the opposition is offering you gifts, you have to be there to receive them. India were there to receive theirs today, nudging South Africa and the cricketing gods enough at the right times to make sure those gifts came their way.
When Zaheer Khan didn't get off to the best of starts with the ball, Munaf Patel made sure India got the early wicket. He extracted bounce from the pitch, and relied on that early seam movement to snare Hashim Amla, and went for just 18 in his first spell of four overs. When Ashish Nehra struggled against a rampaging Graeme Smith, Harbhajan Singh tied the other end up, coming on to bowl during the first Powerplay, keeping India in the game for longer.
MS Dhoni commended Harbhajan's effort later, to go with Munaf's start. "Harbhajan's contribution was really important," he said. "The South African batsmen had momentum on their side. The way he bowled, that eight-over spell (for 27 runs), they decided to not take Harbhajan on, which meant they lost a bit of momentum. That really brought us back. After that every body contributed. Munaf's contribution was brilliant. He bowls really straight, varies his pace really well, and he deserves to be the Man of the Match."
Still, with Dhoni dropping Colin Ingram, with the fielding not looking greater than it usually is, the game seemed to meander towards the obvious result, but this was not a night for the obvious results. Dhoni introduced part-time spin, JP Duminy went for glory too, and India were now into the inexperienced David Miller and the five bowlers, a ploy India have always avoided. And Dhoni was quick to point this game out to illustrate why he doesn't play five bowlers.
"Putting pressure on the South African middle and lower order order was important," Dhoni said. "We knew [Johan] Botha and [Wayne] Parnell can bat, but pressure is a completely different ball game. When you put pressure on players like, from our side, Harbhajan or Zaheer, who we know can bat, but in a situation like this it becomes very different. That's what we wanted to do. At times pressure makes you do things that you are not supposed to do."
The pressure didn't quite work immediately. Smith and Miller added 32 runs, and while Miller looked shaky, it seemed Smith was back to his form of carrying the team through till the end. And suddenly he too seemed to want to make a statement by finishing it off in style, calling for the Powerplay. Then Munaf produced what Smith called a "good slower ball", one that straightened enough to catch the inside edge onto the stumps.
Now India started feeling it. Back came their hunter, Zaheer, who likes to prey on weak minds. He shouldn't have got Botha's wicket when he did, but the slower bouncer he bowled to Miller showed good awareness of how the pitch was behaving. It was a pitch on which Munaf showed that the slower ones gripped and bounced at the batsmen, and Zaheer started using that too.
And again, when Parnell and Morne Morkel looked like they had sort of got used to Munaf's rhythm, Dhoni brought Raina on. It might not have worked on the night, but the mind was working, an attempt was being made to try and make things happen, to try and encash that gift voucher. Dhoni was proactive again when he brought Munaf back with three runs required, keeping the fields up, unlike in Tests.
His description of the events of that last over just reinforced the presence of cricketing gods, who smile at some and punish some others. "When you need one or two wickets, and the opposition needs three runs, you know they are just one stroke away," Dhoni said. "There is pressure then as to whether the fielder should be in or out to save that boundary. When you come back after losing a toss, you blame yourself, thinking you could have called heads as opposed to tails. Bringing that point fielder in was a somewhat similar situation. I had just decided to bring Yusuf [Pathan] in, and the catch went his way." Thus the nine ball went in.