The stands practically draped, end to end, in the Indian flag. Dead silence at Aussie successes, tumult at India’s. Cries of Ganpati Bappa Moreya and the rather lesser devout ones of “Australians suck”. The scorer in the press box beginning the proceedings with a loud Jai Hind. Young men taking their shirts off and doing a Ganguly with them. Thus, in a city which has perhaps patented its own brand of extreme nationalism, India beat Australia to reach the semi-final for a confrontation with an opponent considered its principal historical and cricketing antagonist. India meets Pakistan in Mohali. But for now, savour this moment.
The heartstopper of a contest provided the 42,106-strong crowd their money’s worth—the thrill of seeing India take itself across the finish line. Despite signs of choking, India raised their game for what was their most difficult clash of this World Cup—the fielding and the bowling were their best in the tournament, though the running was in parts frighteningly amateurish.
The keywords were ‘believe and dream’. India believed they could win this game, and the exhortative dreams of a billion souls backed them. More importantly, they had a man they think is god by their side, a man playing his sixth and final World Cup. Yuvraj Singh, having collected his fourth Man of the Match trophy of the tournament, said the recurring motif of his dreams over the last one year was playing a decisive, unbeaten innings against Australia in the World Cup. “From last year on, I’ve thought about this day. I’ve thought about this moment, that I’m there until the end, hitting the winning runs against Australia,” he said. Quite mysteriously, he went on to say that when he bats at the World Cup, it’s the thought of doing it for a person who’s special to him. “I’ll reveal who that person is after the final,” he said. A good guess would be Sachin Tendulkar, though Yuvraj can spring his own surprises.
An interpreter of dreams might trace Yuvraj’s passion for humbling Australia to what happened eight years ago almost exactly to the day. On March 23, 2003, Australia had whipped India in the World Cup final at Johannesburg. Ricky Ponting, the Australian captain, had blasted India out of the game with a stunning innings of 140 not out off 121 balls. On March 24 at Ahmedabad, Ponting, still the Australian captain but aged, haggard and without the services of his most skilful mates, scored a dogged rather than a blistering century. The ageless Sachin Tendulkar, then out for four runs, now responded with an almost perfect innings of 53 which ended with his first error of the day, sending the crowd into a funereal silence.
Some senseless batting and running by the younger Indian batsmen did put the scare into the crowd but Australia didn’t have the bowling muscle or skill on the day to finish India off on a pitch that was worn out at both ends. And in stepped Yuvi to finish the match with some brave, powerful strokeplay. “It wasn’t easy. After Gambhir got out, I thought I and MS (Dhoni) needed a good partnership,” Yuvraj said. “When Dhoni fell, it was a shock to me. But then I thought, Suresh Raina is a good batsman, and Bhajji can bat a bit too. I decided I’ll play straight and play in the air only if the required run-rate went over 7.5 an over.”
It was very difficult to control emotions at the wicket, Yuvraj went on to add. The same could be said of the stands when, for instance, Zaheer Khan bowled yorker after pinpoint yorker and the crowd chanted his name—a poignant moment in a state polarised on the basis of religion; or when Tendulkar, seemingly on way to his 100th century in international cricket, fell to Shaun Tait in somewhat anti-climactic manner.
Ponting said after the match that he thinks India will beat Pakistan at Mohali. Yuvraj, when asked for his reaction, said if “a great batsman” like Ponting thinks so, he must have excellent reasons for it. “But theirs is a very fine team and playing really well,” he added, throwing a note of caution. Pakistan’s bowlers are fearsome, but must India fear them? Not really, say the experts. “You have batsmen like Tendulkar and Sehwag in this Indian team, and they know what’s to be done, they’ve done it hundreds of times before,” says spinner Murali Kartik. “They’re all very experienced players. I don’t foresee them having any problem against the Pakistani bowling attack.”
Ball by ball A charged up Pakistan team during their Windies Q/F match
Pakistan has been the outstanding team in this World Cup of equals. Their bowling has been especially good and captain Shahid Afridi has been bizarre and brilliant in turns. He heads the list of wicket-takers with 21 in seven matches (but with his maniacal batting is rather down in the list of run-scorers), and Umar Gul is joint third with 14. The challenge they pose can’t be brushed aside that easily.
India’s batting is their strength but it has played to its potential and showed its depth really only in Ahmedabad. The explosive Yusuf Pathan was dropped for Suresh Raina, who did not disappoint, sticking to his task with a quiet confidence and later on attacking with aplomb. “They and we must forget what happened in the groups stage (when the batting collapsed in at least four matches),” former Indian captain Bishan Singh Bedi told Outlook. “Led by the peerless Tendulkar, they have the ability to nullify the Pakistan pacers.”
The plan seems simple enough in theory—Tendulkar and Sehwag will overwhelm the pace bowlers, as they’ve done several times in this tournament, and make things easier for the middle-order. India’s fearsome reputation, which Ponting referred to with respect, may mean that opponents wouldn’t try anything extraordinary in a high-stakes game. “A lot of teams have tried to use a spinner upfront against many teams, because there are openers like Chris Gayle or such blasters at the top,” says Outlook columnist Sanjay Manjrekar. “But nobody has tried to do that against India because this team is blessed with three-four batsmen at the top who are good against all kinds of bowling.”
It would seem that again India’s bowling would be the area of some concern. “Pakistan’s bowling is not a worry...our own bowling is!” Kiran More, former India player and selector, told Outlook. “We need someone to give support to Zaheer, who’s been fantastic but has got no great support from the other seamers.” Munaf Patel was disappointing in Motera. His focus on accuracy at the cost of speed isn’t working that well. Adds More, “Munaf is bowling too slow. He needs to pick it up, bowl a few bouncers and a few yorkers to surprise the batsmen. Or else, I think Sreesanth is a good option to bring into the team.”
The key batsman could again be Yuvraj, who seems to have tempered his ferocity with care and has also been among the wickets. He’s not letting out the gameplan, they’ll follow against Pakistan. “I’m sure MS will tell you the plans at a press conference soon,” he dead-panned. Nobody believed him, of course. Over to Mohali next week.