Keeping it tight at the end

S. DINAKAR

THE South Africans blew it yet again. They are known for choking big time on big occasions, and under the lights of the Premadasa Stadium, things turned very dark for the Proteas as India snatched a remarkable 10-run victory in the ICC Champions Trophy's first semifinal.

Sourav Ganguly with his match-winner, Virender Sehwag.-N. BALAJI

"We threw it away," said skipper Shaun Pollock in anguish and indeed, Jacques Kallis and Lance Klusener, two experienced campaigners, did not really cover themselves in glory, failing to put away non-regular bowlers towards the climactic stages. It was a meek display by a side that has enormous batting depth.

The South Africans were coasting at 192 for one in 37 overs, chasing India's 261, when Gibbs, retired hurt due to cramps after reaching a marvellous hundred - Ganguly was right in refusing a runner to the South African - and the match witnessed an astonishing turnaround as the pitch started playing slower and slower.

Jonty Rhodes, who can be extremely useful in these conditions, given his ability to sweep the spinners well and hit them off a length, fell to a spectacular catch by Yuveraj Singh, who dived full length to his right and plucked the ball one handed at short fine-leg.

Harbhajan Singh and Ganguly are overjoyed at the exit of Boeta Dippenaar.-N. BALAJI

The outstanding catch triggered an Indian revival and Ganguly's men bowled and fielded like tigers after that stage.

Boeta Dippenaar fell in the same over, off-spinner Harbhajan Singh picking up his second victim. The tale of horrors for the South Africans had begun. Mark Boucher, an aggressive batsman by instinct, struggled to find his bearings and it came as no surprise when he made his way back to the dressing room, unable to force the pace.

In walked Lance Klusener, the most feared batsman in the end overs of a limited overs contest, someone who can swing matches around in a couple of overs, making a mockery of the asking rates. But this innings would prove to be a nightmare for the man they call Zulu. At the other end, Jacques Kallis was progressing towards his hundred.

Mark Boucher runs out Sachin Tendulkar.-N. BALAJI

This was a day when Ganguly decided to show a lot of faith in Sehwag's off-spin. Now, Sehwag is not the most versatile offie around, yet he is someone who bowls a steady line not really providing room for the batsmen for the big hits.

And Sehwag played his part extremely well, holding his nerve and just doing the basics right, the slowness of the wicket with some turn making it difficult for Kallis and Klusener to go after the bowling.

At the other end, left-arm paceman Zaheer Khan sent down a terrific final spell, and during a stage when the South Africans desperately required fours and sixes, he actually managed to send down dot balls. Tendulkar, with his assorted spin, went for a few runs, but not for so many that South Africa could get back into the match.

Their big knocks were in vain: Jacques Kallis and Herschelle Gibbs take a breather during their huge partnership.-N. BALAJI

It finally boiled down to Sehwag's last over with the South Africans requiring 21 for a place in the final. Kallis struck the first delivery for a six over mid-wicket to move to 97, but fell to the very next delivery, top-edging a pull sweep, and it was left to Klusener, who had crossed ends, to get 15 off four balls. However, this was a day when little went right for South Africa and, in the end, Klusener walked back a fallen hero, holing out in the deep off the final ball, South Africa, still requiring 11 to win. Klusener had been struggling to put away the slower bowlers in recent times and skipper Shaun Pollock, who has the habit of clearing the ground against the spinners, could have promoted himself in the order.

Looking back, the seven balls wasted by Klusener - he made 14 off 21 - most definitely led to the South African debacle.

The Indians were jubilant and the South Africans, who are the major hosts of the 2003 World Cup, were left wondering at what might have been. There was considerable anger in the South African camp too. It came to light later that the team-management had sent a message to the two batsmen in the middle, which said Kallis should rotate the bowling, while Klusener had to go for the big hits. In the event, Zulu was a big let-down.

The South African camp has not really been pleased with Klusener's attitude in recent months. He is a reluctant customer at the nets, and his refusal to practice against slow bowling - the chink in his armour - cost South Africa dear at the crunch.

Shaun Pollock has just nailed Mohammed Kaif.-N. BALAJI

The Indians were not complaining though. They were cock-a-hoop. They had held their nerve, believed in themselves, and bowled and fielded with much passion towards the end... it was South Africa that stumbled at the finish.

Earlier in the day, after India had won the toss, Sehwag had provided a typically blistering start with a 58-ball 59, and although the South Africans fought back well, they were baulked by Rahul Dravid (49) and Yuveraj Singh (62). The former collected his runs in ones and twos - he understood the nature of the pitch - while the latter too went about his job in a matured fashion, before exploding with some telling strokes in the final stages of his innings. And looking back, Mohammed Kaif's 19-ball 21 was a vital effort, an innings where he ran like a hare between the wickets.

Shaun Pollock, bringing about subtle changes in pace, picked up three wickets in his last over - Yuveraj, Kaif and Zaheer Khan - but it was actually Klusener who pegged India back in the middle overs, with his off-cutters sent down from a shorter run. Little did we know then that he would be the villain of the day with the bat for his team. That's cricket.

The scores:

India: V. Sehwag c Klusener b Kallis 59; S. Ganguly c Dippennar b Ntini 13; V. V. S. Laxman c Boucher b Donald 22; S. Tendulkar (run out) 16; R. Dravid lbw b Klusener 49; Y. Singh c Gibbs b Pollock 62; M. Kaif c Rhodes b Pollock 19; H. Singh b Donald 4; Z. Khan c Smith b Pollock 0; A. Kumble (not out) 2; A. Nehra (not out) 1. Extras: (nb-3, w-8, lb-1, b-2) 14. Total (for nine wkts. in 50 overs) 261.

Fall of wickets: 1-42, 2-102, 3-108, 4-135, 5-207, 6-254, 7-254, 8-255, 9-260.

South Africa bowling: Pollock 9-0-43-3, Ntini 5-0-37-1, Donald 8-0-41-2, Kallis 8-1-50-1, Klusener 10-0-40-1, Peterson 10-0-47-0.

South Africa: H. Gibbs (retd. hurt) 116; G. Smith c Yuveraj b Zaheer 4; J. Kallis c Dravid b Sehwag 97; J. Rhodes c Yuveraj b Harbhajan 1; B. Dippenaar c Kumble b Harbhajan 0; M. Boucher c Yuveraj b Sehwag 10; L. Klusener c Kaif b Sehwag 14; S. Pollock (not out) 0. Extras: (b-1, lb-3, w-5) 9. Total (for six wkts. in 50 overs) 251.

Fall of wickets: 1-4, 2-194, 3-194, 4-213, 5-247, 6-251.

India bowling: Zaheer 9-2-27-1, Nehra 7.3-0-41-0, Kumble 10-0-53-0, Harbhajan 10-0-37-2, Yuveraj 3-0-17-0, Ganguly 1.3-0-15-0, Tendulkar 4-0-32-0, Sehwag 5-0-25-3.

WHEN skipper Sourav Ganguly threw the ball to Virender Sehwag during the climactic stages of a nerve-wracking semifinal, he knew it was a 'perform or perish' situation for India. Sehwag was up against Jacques Kallis and Lance Klusener, two strokemakers, who can hit huge sixes.

Klusener, in particular, has the reputation of being a finisher, someone whom bowlers dread taking on at the death. The pressure on Sehwag was immense. He had to be on the spot, bowl to the field set for him, and one costly over from him and India could so easily have been out of the game.

Sehwag responded to the challenge in an admirable manner. He bowled stump to stump, gave little width, and the South Africans were coming under increasing pressure since they failed to find the boundaries that they so urgently required.

Sehwag is a regular bowler for Delhi in the Ranji Trophy, and it is not uncommon to see him send down 15 to 20 overs in an innings. He is more of an off-spinner, who is quicker through the air - Sehwag does use his strong shoulders to hit the pitch harder.

And on the night of September 25, as the ball got softer, it was becoming increasingly difficult to whip Sehwag around on the slow pitch. Klusener struggled, so did a well-set Kallis, and South Africa was going down a slippery slope.

It marked a huge triumph for Sehwag when he consumed both Kallis and Klusener in the 50th over with South Africa requiring 21 off six balls. Kallis struck the first delivery over mid-wicket for a six. However Sehwag nailed him off the next, and then a hapless Klusener perished off the final ball, his miscued hit taken in the deep.

Earlier, Sehwag's 59 in 58 balls, dotted with 10 fours, was an outstanding knock where he made full use of some early pace in the pitch, taking on the South African pacemen head on.

There were several sparkling strokes in Sehwag's innings - a glorious straight drive off Mkhaya Ntini, an audacious lofted blow over wide mid-on off Allan Donald, a scorching pull off Jacques Kallis, and a sizzling square drive off Donald. He had got to his fifty in just 46 balls.

He finally fell attempting to pull Kallis. However, by then, he had once again given India a flying start. The advantages of Sehwag firing at the top of the order is that he provides such a boost to the run-rate that even if the wickets are lost in the middle-overs, the run-rate remains healthy.

This man is seldom bothered by reputations and just goes out there and plays his natural game. And his temperament is his great allay - he seldom gets rattled.

India combined wonderfully as a team in the semifinal, yet Sehwag was the man who made the difference. He collected his second successive Man of the Match award, and nobody was complaining.