No team that drops six catches – four of those of Sachin Tendulkar – in a World Cup semi-final deserves to win. On the biggest of nights, Pakistan needed to confront their inner demons and vanquish them. Instead, those demons conquered Pakistan.
It was, so to speak, a Pakistan vs Pakistan contest. In that encounter, the frail, fallible, fickle Pakistan beat the Pakistan that is as dangerous as it is full of dazzle – the team that we have admired till the semi-finals, the team that has been keen to exorcise the ghosts of its recent past, and set the foundation for a better cricketing future.
India – determined to get one step closer to erasing 28 years of yearning and hurt – were lucky. But they were plucky, too. They held their nerve every time Pakistan kept them in the hunt by doing something inexplicable.
They did it when, in the 16th over, Mohammad Hafeez tried to play a paddle sweep to the widest ball Munaf Patel had yet bowled, and perished. When Misbah-ul-Haq bewilderingly gouged out an innings of agonizing slothfulness. When Pakistan did not take the batting power play with Misbah and Shahid Afridi at the crease. When Afridi, frustrated that Harbhajan’s previous ball in the 41st over had not been called a wide, mishit a full toss to Virender Sehwag.
India kept hanging in – something that is of inestimable value in a knockout match. With Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina attacking the ball inside the ring, India were able to make their fielding appear adequate. Yuvraj prised the game open with a double strike (Asad Shafiq and Younis Khan) in his first spell. Harbhajan Singh got the menacing Umar Akmal – who had taken a six and a four off Yuvraj in the 30th over – with an arm ball in the 33rd over. Ashis Nehra diligently bowled yorkers in the 45th over, and finally claimed Pakistan’s bowling hero, Wahab Riaz, in it. Munaf Patel bowled straight and with discipline to winkle out two wickets. And MS Dhoni, despite having inexplicably left out R Ashwin (he later confessed that he had misread the pitch) and scratched around for an unconvincing 25 runs from 42 balls, kept his calm, and that of his team’s.
All of this might not have come to much without Virender Sehwag. Within the space of six balls, he destroyed and took out of the equation Umar Gul, Pakistan’s most feared fast bowler, and the man who would have been capable of singlehandedly demolishing India’s challenge.
In the third over of the game, Sehwag crunched Gul through the off and whipped him through the leg side for five boundaries. He scored only 38, but 36 of those runs had come from boundaries; he had ripped the heart out of the bowler India had most feared. Something died in the Pakistan attack in that third over.
Sachin Tendulkar played a bemusing innings, buoyed by incredible luck, but lambent with a resolve to make the best of a very bad day. We found out at the end how valuable that luck and that resolve were. Raina more than justified his place in the side; the importance of his 36 not out from 39 balls can’t be overemphasized. Without those runs – and without his intelligent batting in the final overs – even Pakistan might not have been able to rescue India.
Sri Lanka will be harder opponents in the final. They have been very dominant. Their bowling has tremendous variety and their batting is nowhere as brittle as Pakistan’s (of the five top run scorers in the tournament, three are from Sri Lanka).
India have gained enormous confidence and momentum with this win. They have shown calmness and grit. And they will be playing on the home ground of a man who has every kind of record but one: the medal of a World Cup winner.
[ Soumya Bhattacharya is the Editor of Hindustan Times, Mumbai. He is the author of You Must Like Cricket? and All That You Can't Leave Behind --both memoirs on how cricket defines India -- and the novel, If I Could Tell You. His books have been nominated for national and international literary prizes. He can be reached on twitter at @soumya1910 ]