The maestro at his best

THIS match was about Sachin Tendulkar and his obsession to bat at his best when the occasion is big. This was a match about a team's strong belief in itself.

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

Sachin Tendulkar despatches Abdul Razzaq to the fence. The little master played a vital role in India's victory against ist arch-rival, but fell short of a will-deserved century by just two runs.-Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN

THIS match was about Sachin Tendulkar and his obsession to bat at his best when the occasion is big. This was a match about a team's strong belief in itself. The way the Indian team backed itself was the most outstanding gain from the match, which saw India record one of its most remarkable one-day victories against Pakistan.

"It was one of the most important innings of my career. That it came in the World Cup and against Pakistan makes it all the more special. I would put it right up there," Tendulkar said later. The master blaster's rating of his knock should give an indication of how the team itself valued this victory.

When India last met Pakistan in the Asia Cup at Dhaka in June 2000, it turned out to be a mis-match. India was beaten convincingly. The memories of that match motivated the Indians to plug all loopholes this time. Aggression was borne out of the tremendous confidence the team had and the ICC Cricket World Cup match at the SuperSport Park in Centurion became the stage for India to put it across Pakistan in a decisive manner.

The defining moment came from the audacious six over point by Tendulkar, and then by Virender Sehwag. Tendulkar greeted Shoaib Akhtar and Sehwag welcomed Waqar Younis and the Indians were truly on course. It was a rare piece of aggression by Tendulkar but most timely because it carried the team to great heights.

"When a game involves Pakistan, it gets bigger. It was a crucial match and all the people back home were looking forward to it. I had been hearing for a year and a half about this match," said Tendulkar.

The master batsman was fiercely focussed on the game. The target was stiff but he had planned his act. "I just went out with a blank mind. I wanted to see the ball and hit it if I picked it early. I thought I picked the line and length pretty early. I felt very comfortable in the middle from the first over, when I hit that back foot cover drive against Wasim (Akram)."

A welcome change in the batting order also gave an indication of how the team had come to adapt so wonderfully. Tendulkar was listed at number one, to take strike, something he had not done for some time. "I took the first strike because I thought I should take the initiative. Wasim is a very senior bowler and I wanted to face his bowling. I did the same in the '99 World Cup. But it's a fact that both Virender (Sehwag) and I are comfortable batting at number two."

The venue was transformed into a grand arena of excitement and entertainment as Tendulkar produced one of his imperious forms to decimate the Pakistan attack. A century by Saeed Anwar earlier had set up a competitive target but it had also given Tendulkar enough time to study the pitch and plan his assault.

The annihilation of Akhtar was simply stunning. Tendulkar put the express bowler in his place with a sensational piece of attacking batsmanship. Akhtar was swept off his feet and removed from the attack. Waqar Younis was given the same treatment. The exception was Akram as he commanded respect right through.

There was a stage when Tendulkar, hit by cramps, had to call for a runner, a rare sight indeed but not quite comfortable. Tendulkar did not appreciate the idea of having a runner until it became unbearable. "I've never used a runner before. I had cramps and it came to a stage when I couldn't even stand. The moment I hit I know how hard I have hit and for that message to go to my runner is very hard. I was trying to bat as much as I can. But I had to opt for a runner when I realised I couldn't go on. I don't think the presence of a runner affected my concentration. I just got out."

There was a notion that Tendulkar had shed his aggressive instincts even as he tried to spend more time in the middle. But he had an explanation. "I've played as I've always done. I didn't bat freely against Namibia because the ball wasn't coming on to the bat. Since our batting was not doing too well I had decided to take extra responsibility."

An unsung star of the match was Sourav Ganguly. He displayed exemplary maturity in handling the situation. By keeping emotions under check, he ensured that the team gave its best. As he said, "You could see both the sides were nervous. It's an India-Pakistan game and with crowd behind you and millions following it back home, it's natural for bowlers to take four or five overs to settle down. But once they settled down, I thought they did a pretty good job."

The Indian skipper did a commendable job in reading the situation and making some tactical bowling changes. His handling of Zaheer Khan was superb as he used the fast bowler in four spells. With Ashish Nehra having an awful day, and Anil Kumble too struggling to contain the batsmen, it was Zaheer who took on the responsibility. True, Nehra got two vital wickets but it was the pressure created by Zaheer that opened up avenues for the others to strike.

And then there was the partnership between Rahul Dravid and Yuvraj Singh, which took India to the peak. As Ganguly said, "Both played brilliantly. Yuvraj is a free flowing batsman and batted superbly but I thought Dravid did even better in the manner he kept his cool."

The ultimate tribute to Tendulkar came from the Pakistani captain Waqar Younis. "The boys went down a little after Sachin played that innings. It wasn't easy for us to pick ourselves after that. Sachin played an absolutely brilliant knock. By putting India to 110 in the first 11 overs, he took the game away from us. He laid the base for an Indian victory. We still thought we had a chance when Sachin was out but then Dravid came in and batted as he has always done, rotating the strike well and executing an excellent knock."

Waqar conceded, "We didn't bowl according to the plan we had made against the Indians. None of the bowlers bowled in the right place. Not only Shoaib, everyone else also bowled poorly. I removed Shoaib after his first over because he wasn't feeling well once he was hit for those (18) runs. We also fielded very poorly."

As far as Pakistan was concerned, the team was done in by Tendulkar, who would cherish this one `Man of the Match' honour that came his way from his sensational innings. His knock had such aesthetic value that a brilliant century earlier by Anwar was lost in Tendulkar's dominating show.

The scores:

Pakistan: S. Anwar b Nehra 101; T. Umar b Zaheer 22; A. Razzaq c Dravid b Nehra 12; Inzamam (run out) 6; Y. Youhana c Zaheer b Srinath 26; Younis Khan c Mongia b Zaheer 32; S. Afridi c Kumble b Mongia 9; R. Latif (not out) 29; Wasim Akram (not out) 10. Extras (b-4, lb-6, w-10, nb-6) 26. Total (for seven wkts. in 50 overs) 273.

Fall of wickets: 1-58, 2-90, 3-98, 4-171, 5-195, 6-208, 7-256.

India bowling: Zaheer 10-0-46-2, Srinath 10-0-41-1, Nehra 10-0-74-2, Kumble 10-0-51-0, Ganguly 3-0-14-0, Sehwag 4-0-19-0, Mongia 3-0-19-1.

India: S. Tendulkar c Younis Khan b Shoaib 98; V. Sehwag c Afridi b Waqar 21; S. Ganguly lbw b Waqar 0; M. Kaif b Afridai 35; R. Dravid (not out) 44; Yuvraj Singh (not out) 50. Extras (b-8, lb-4, w-11, nb-5) 28. Total (for four wkts. in 45.4 overs) 276.

Fall of wickets: 1-53, 2-53, 3-155, 4-177.

Pakistan bowling: Wasim Akram 10-0-48-0, Shoaib 10-0-72-1, Waqar 8.4-0-71-2, Afridi 9-0-45-1, Razzaq 8-0-36-0.