It's India again

Pakistan planned its chase poorly. Misbah-ul-Haq's dour defence when the asking rate was climbing was inexplicable. He was unable to rotate the strike and when he, finally, essayed a few strokes, the match was already beyond Pakistan, writes S. Dinakar.

The build-up to the clash of the titans was extraordinary. It was going to be a duel that would test the heart, nerve and skills of both teams. The expectations were huge before the India-Pakistan semifinal in Mohali.

A wave of excitement swept through the two countries after India had dethroned Australia to set up a meeting with its traditional rival. Some called it a final before the final.

‘Cricket Diplomacy' was part of this massive occasion and the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, invited his Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani for the big game.

The match held immense possibilities. Apart from the prospect of dishing out high octane cricket, it had the potential to bring the people of the two countries closer.

People-to-people contact during India's historic tour of Pakistan in 2004 did promise to improve relations between the two countries.

The match in Mohali represented another chance for the two nations to build the right climate before resolving their differences.

The news of hundreds of Pakistanis being given visas to attend the match was welcome. The atmosphere in the arena could be electric. The security was predictably tight. The team hotel and the Punjab Cricket Association ground were virtual fortresses and some of the key roads were sealed. The NSG Commandos were in view, and the special police force was in full strength. The authorities were taking no chances.

And there was considerable buzz around the two teams. There were speculations over selections too. Would speedster Shoaib Akhtar, who had announced that he would be retiring after the World Cup, receive a look-in? He could be the X-factor in a knock-out game of great significance.

Would India pick its own stormy cricketer S. Sreesanth on a surface that has, over the years, offered carry and movement to the pacemen?

The match-up was intriguing. India had the strength in batting, while Pakistan possessed a threatening attack in which paceman Umar Gul and leg-spinner Shahid Afridi would be key elements.

Despite the unprecedented hype, rival skippers Dhoni and Afridi emphasised that the match was nothing more than a very good game of cricket.

On the day of the second semifinal, all roads led to the PCA Stadium. The colourful crowd — several fans had their visages painted in the National colours — added to the atmosphere.

Then came the news from the teams — for Pakistan, there would be no Akhtar after all, and for India Ashish Nehra, not Sreesanth, would be the third seamer. The omission of R. Ashwin was a big decision made by the team management; the off-spinner had bowled capably in the competition.

In a contest that did not rise to great heights, India found the right answers. Virender Sehwag blitzed at the beginning with Gul going through the horrors. The paceman's exemplary control was missing and Sehwag took full toll.

Such contests can throw up unexpected heroes and it was Wahab Riaz who made things happen for Pakistan. The strongly-built left-arm seamer delivered from a good wrist and seam position, generated pace and found movement. Importantly, he hit the right areas. There was fluency in his run-up and bite in his bowling. Wahab swung the ball and seamed it as well to scalp five.

Player-of-the-Match Sachin Tendulkar's hard-fought 85 and a judicious unbeaten 36 from Suresh Raina at the end enabled India reach a fighting 260.

The Pakistani fielders were generous. Tendulkar was put down at least four times and senior cricketers Younus Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq grassed sitters. Afridi, bowling his leg-spinners with guile and control, suffered on three occasions.

The Pakistanis were not playing with the sort of passion that drives their cricket. The lapses in ground fielding added to Afridi's agony.

Off-spinner Saeed Ajmal bowled with imagination but was let down by errors on the field. However, with Riaz striking telling blows — he castled the in-form Yuvraj Singh first ball with a vicious in-swinging delivery — Pakistan still managed to create pressure but ran into a road-block in the form of Raina.

The left-hander's calm head and the ability to find the gaps with sensible batting enabled India to cash in on the batting Power Play.

Raina's ways at the crease instilled faith in the likes of Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan as well. These valuable runs added by India marked another turning point in the game.

After a promising start during the chase, Pakistan gradually lost its way. Despite the pitch offering purchase to the spinners, Dhoni's ploy of picking three seamers worked; the Indian captain said later that the decision was based on the theory that Pakistani batsmen handled spin better than pace.

Crucially, Munaf Patel and Nehra were accurate and put the batsmen under stress. Munaf seamed the ball both ways from a back-of-a-length while left-armer Nehra delivered leg-cutters from over-the-wicket at a reduced pace. Predictably, Zaheer bowled with exceptional control.

In the middle-overs Harbhajan Singh, bowling a more attacking line and spinning the ball in from outside the off-stump, and the steady Yuvraj Singh contained and struck. Then the seamers cut all escape routes.

Pakistan lost wickets at regular intervals and it was a poorly planned chase. Misbah-ul-Haq's dour defence when the asking rate was climbing was inexplicable. He was unable to rotate the strike and when he, finally, essayed a few strokes, the match was already beyond Pakistan.

At the end of it all, the Indian supporters sang and danced in Mohali. And fireworks lit the night sky.

India had recorded its fifth win over Pakistan in the World Cup.


Second semifinal, Mohali, March 30. India won by 29 runs.

India: V. Sehwag lbw b Riaz 38, S. R. Tendulkar c Afridi b Ajmal 85, G. Gambhir st K. Akmal b Hafeez 27, V. Kohli c U. Akmal b Riaz 9, Yuvraj Singh b Riaz 0, M. S. Dhoni lbw b Riaz 25, S. K. Raina (not out) 36, Harbhajan Singh st K. Akmal b Ajmal 12, Zaheer Khan c K. Akmal b Riaz 9, A. Nehra run out 1, M. Patel (not out) 0, Extras (lb-8, w-8, nb-2) 18. Total (for 9 wkts; 50 overs) 260.

Fall of wickets: 1-48, 2-116, 3-141, 4-141, 5-187, 6-205, 7-236, 8-256, 9-258.

Pakistan bowling: Umar Gul 8-0-69-0, Abdul Razzaq 2-0-14-0, Wahab Riaz 10-0-46-5, Saeed Ajmal 10-0-44-2, Shahid Afridi 10-0-45-0, Mohammad Hafeez 10-0-34-1.

Pakistan: K. Akmal c Yuvraj b Zaheer 19, M. Hafeez c Dhoni b Patel 43, A. Shafiq b Yuvraj 30, Younis Khan c Raina b Yuvraj 13, Misbah-ul-Haq c Kohli b Zaheer 56, U. Akmal b Harbhajan 29, A. Razzaq b Patel 3, S. Afridi c Sehwag b Harbhajan 19, W. Riaz c Tendulkar b Nehra 8, U. Gul lbw b Nehra 2, S. Ajmal (not out) 1, Extras (w-8) 8. Total (in 49.5 overs) 231.

Fall of wickets: 1-44, 2-70, 3-103, 4-106, 5-142, 6-150, 7-184, 8-199, 9-208.

India bowling: Zaheer 9.5-0-58-2, A. Nehra 10-0-33-2, M. Patel 10-1-40-2, Harbhajan 10-0-43-2, Yuvraj 10-1-57-2.