One of the most compelling aspects of watching a juggernaut rolling is to wait for it to be stopped. India's winning streak couldn't go on and on and it was just a matter of how much they could stretch themselves, through experiments and different combinations, before they were thwarted. With the series sealed, they could afford a slip or two but they must make sure that this defeat, while trying out an inexperienced bowling line-up, is only a minor blip in their improving graph.
Despite the reverse, partly owing to a middle-overs stutter, India had a lot to cheer. There was a fantastic century from Gautam Gambhir, in just his sixth one-dayer, Rahul Dravid continued his brilliant run and Greg Chappell felt that the fielding display was one of the best in recent times. Dravid the captain has attacked and experimented with gusto and, like a medieval alchemist, almost all his moves have produced gold. Dravid the batsman has been plain golden. All talk of the captaincy affecting his batting form has been shoved away in the cold storage after his awe-inspiring lessons in leading by example. If his 85 at Nagpur was simply sublime - every shot appeared to go exactly where he wanted - and his 63 at Pune was superbly paced, his century here was both of those.
There were eight fours in all, apart from a lofted six off Murali, but the first one showed the stratospheric zone he is currently batting in. Chaminda Vaas was in the middle of a masterful spell, conceding 0,1 and 3 in his previous three overs, and had tied Yuvraj Singh up in all kinds of knots. Dravid had just come in but he met the good-length ball with such precise footwork and such immaculate bat swing that Vaas, the fielder at short mid-off, mid-off and mid-on could just watch.
It was the sort of pinpoint precision, the sort of ability to counter a masterful bowler with minimum fuss, which can really hurt the opposition. And Dravid continued to hurt them: with scampered singles, with deft glides, with sweeps, with more classical strokeplay and the kind of finish that has made him such a gem of a one-day batsman. India have shuffled the batting order in this series with different players performing the roles of openers, pinch-hitters, floaters and finishers. At the moment, it appears that Dravid can do anything, anytime. A cramp in the hamstring prevented him from taking the field and maybe, just maybe, India might have pulled this off as well with his magical presence. Virender Sehwag, though, did his bit while marshalling the troops and as Dravid himself admitted later, "The conditions were very, very tough for the fielding side. We should have got around 25 runs more."
For most of his innings, though, Dravid was being overshadowed by the exuberance of youth with Gambhir displaying an unbridled freedom. Backing himself against the faster men, and not ducking when the ball was dug in short, he peppered the square boundaries with some glorious cuts and pulls. At the sight of Dilhara Fernando, he unleashed a rasping slash; at the sight of Nuwan Zoysa, he charged down the track and swung him over midwicket. Both returned for second spells and both were again dispatched with similar ferocity. The run-rate slowed, two quick wickets fell at the other end, and bowlers tightened up their line, but nothing appeared to fluster Gambhir. Playing his first ODI at home, revelling in the atmosphere and following up boundaries with judicious tip-and-run singles, he was both striker and defender rolled into one.
Fittingly, the celebration that followed his first ODI century was as unfettered as his batting style - a spontaneous punch of the air, a springboard leap, a pumped-up wave of the bat, and a sheer ecstasy in delivering on the big stage. He may be just 24 but Gambhir knows how hard life on the fringes can be, despite attaining dizzying heights in first-class level and staking his claim with a mountain of runs. He is still far from a permanent slot in the side, in fact he may be back to the outer, if Mohammad Kaif and Sachin Tendulkar return, but he's come up with the sort of innings that's both tough to forget and brings with it tremendous promise.
Five years back, with the ghost of match-fixing not yet laid to rest, India traveled to Nairobi, for the ICC Knockout tournament, with a young side, under a relatively new captain and coach, that weren't expected to ruffle too many feathers. It took them just four games to stir the nation and, despite losing in a close final, returned to a hero's welcome. There was spunk, intensity and large chunks of promise from the youngsters. There was a captain in the form of his life. History, chooses the best times, to repeat itself.