Champions Trophy 2000, the second edition.
The venue remained exotic. This time it was Nairobi, Kenya. That was how ICC seemed to conceptualise it.
The tournament continued in the knock-out format.
Yet, ICC was more confident about the status of the event this time. Andy Atkinson, the pitch consultant, went down to work on the wickets a few months before the scheduled start of the tournament. The result was sporting pitches, making for excellent games.
The only downside was that even the limited seating in the grounds seldom reached half capacity. Even as more viewers worldwide were glued to their television screens to follow the games, the local people stayed away.
Because of the format, the quarterfinal was the second game for India after their cakewalk against Kenya. It meant they had to win. One bad game and one was out. You caught the next flight back from Nairobi.
Facing Australia is seldom ideal in such circumstances. Especially so in 2000, with the side from Down Under teeming with greats, some established, others in the making.
And India decided to meet the challenge head on.
In some ways, the approach resembled a blitzkrieg. In certain other ways, it was quite like a game of chess.
Steve Waugh won the toss and preferred to let loose Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee on the Indian batsmen. It had worked so often in the recent past. And Sachin Tendulkar decided to go into the full assault mode.
Yes, the Indian openers came out all guns blazing. Especially in the context of those days when T20 had not redefined speed of run-scoring.
Yet, it was like a game of chess. The onus was on seizing the initiative. India did not want to surrender the momentum at any stage, much like the battling pieces and pawns during the first phase of a tussle over the chessboard.
It was unlike any other Indian approach of those times. And that is what made the game unforgettable.
That and the numerous other subplots.
The way Tendulkar went after McGrath. The way the middle-game was masterminded by a superbly assured 18-year-old. The way another youngster bowled his way into the public imagination. The way the Indians surprisingly turned the tables on the Australians with their superlative fielding. And, not least, the way Venkatesh Prasad played the shot of his life.
Often when the sides met in those days, the Indian surrender took place early, with the fall of a few quick wickets, with Glenn McGrath more often than not doing the damage with his relentless line, length and guile.
However, today Tendulkar launched into the great fast bowler from the word go. The first ball of McGrath’s second over pitched as naggingly as ever outside the off-stump. Tendulkar reached out and swiped at it. The strike came off the top edge rather than the middle, but nevertheless, it sailed over third man for six. The initiative was seized with a slice of luck.
The following McGrath over needed no such stroke of fortune. As the bowler ran in, Tendulkar was already down the wicket. There was nothing wrong with the delivery, but it was picked up from outside the off-stump and dispatched over the sight screen. He followed the stroke with another down the wicket sashay, this time flat-batting him over the mid-off for four. The master nodded with an assertion. McGrath nodded back in acknowledgment. It was genius against genius.
Minutes later McGrath bounced, and the master swivelled, connecting the pull with a crack. The ball sailed into the distant trees that stood beyond the stands at square leg.
The bogeyman had been tamed. McGrath’s first six overs cost more than 40.
After a couple more blistering drives Tendulkar succumbed, slashing at Brett Lee and pouched at slip. His 38 off 37 would remain the second highest score of the innings. At the other end, Sourav Ganguly had stroked the ball with less violence but enough panache. The 66-run opening partnership in just less than 12 overs had been all about seizing the initiative.
But this was Australia. They were indeed shocked by the charge but had the depth to absorb it and the resilience to bounce back.
Jason Gillespie ran in now as McGrath licked his wounds in the long boundary. Ganguly nicked one down the leg side. Rahul Dravid struggled to maintain the run-rate, finally picking a ball from his toes and sending it down the throat of deep-square leg.
It was 90 for 3, the scoring rate checked back to below five an over. The epochal moment when the tall, lean frame of 18-year-old Yuvraj Singh was seen making his way to the crease.
It was his second match, and the first foray to the crease. He had not been required when India had chased down the 209 against puny Kenya.
Yet, rookie that he was, short of years and experience, there was hardly a tell-tale sign of nerve. From the word go he stood tall at the crease, his left-handedness endowing his willow-work with that special extra elegance. He started by driving Ian Harvey imperiously and straight, back past the bowler for four. When the bowler bounced, he rocked back and pulled him with nonchalance. Gillespie was wristed away to the square leg fence, the stroke stamped with style and gifted with timing.
It was apparent that someone special had emerged. After that flashing opening, the middle overs demanded consolidation through sustained pace of scoring, something a quick flurry wickets threatened to deny. Yet, this young man was unruffled. The drives continued, some of them lofted with majestic contempt. One such signature stroke, straight and sparkling, brought up his half-century. Once in a while the cut was unfurled. And deflections were executed with plenty of wrist in them.
It is a cliché, but to a great extent, that was the dawn of a new India. An India that did not scour for cover at the loss of big wickets. Tendulkar, Ganguly and Dravid had fallen before Yuvraj walked in. Vinod Kambli went a few overs later. He lost Robin Singh, the last of the recognised men, after a fighting partnership. But he carried on, none of his strokeplay checked in apprehension, not one hit reined in by the thoughts dwelling on the departed cream of batting.
It is a pity that the brilliance was recaptured not that often in the arena of Test cricket. But Yuvraj Singh was definitely one of the architects of India’s limited over fortunes through the next dozen years. And it was on that Nairobi morning that he made his presence felt, in a way that made the cricket world sit up and take notice.
He was the eighth man to fall, to a rather ugly scythe at the end of such a fascinatingly pleasing array of strokeplay. By then India were 239 with 20-odd balls remaining. The young man left the ground to standing ovation and walked straight into the folklore of Indian cricket. A star had been born, and it would dazzle further on the field later in the day.
The sense of purpose demonstrated by this greenhorn rubbed on the old and young anew. Anil Kumble and Zaheer Khan — the latter, like Yuvraj, having made his debut in the match against Kenya — added quick runs towards the end. And when, Venkatesh Prasad faced his only ball, the final of the innings, he plonked his front foot forward and essayed the stroke of his life, a fabulous drive over extra cover that sailed into the crowd.
India finished with 265 for 9, remarkable in that the steady fall of wickets had not been able to check the flow of runs.
There was a spring in their collective step as they took the field. More so because the slow over rate had seen Australia docked two overs, and they now had to get the runs in 48.
Streaks of blue
But India was up against the world champions, after all. Adam Gilchrist responded with his brand of assault. Agarkar was driven down the ground, over mid on and pummelled to the leg fence; Zaheer was cut square over point for six.
The bowlers struck back by removing the openers, but by then 50 was up at a run a ball. And Ian Harvey, sent in to accelerate, was looking threatening in the company of the classy Ricky Ponting.
This marked the start of something hitherto unknown. India turning the tables on Australia with fielding brilliance. And right in the thick of things was the 18-year-old Yuvraj once again.
Harvey drove Prasad hard and uppish through the covers. The young man flew through the air to his left and held on to a spectacular catch at full stretch. 86 for 3.
But Australia had gathered enough momentum and had the quality to carry it along. Ponting was looking increasingly dangerous, especially in the manner he stepped out to Prasad and launched him over long on. With him was Michael Bevan, by far the best finisher of his era.
The partnership amounted to 73, with brilliant running and the periodic boundary. A little more than a 100 were required at a rate of just over 5. Both Ponting and Bevan were in the 40s. Australians had clawed their way back to the top. And now it was the turn of the second moment of brilliance in the field.
Yet, in contrast to the youthful Yuvraj, it was effected by the oldest man in the side. Tendulkar, in the midst of one of his many splendidly accurate spells, pitched short. Ponting latched on to the off-break and pulled hard. The 37-year-oldRobin Singh, standing slightly behind square, flung himself to the left and the ball stuck to his extended hand. It was an incredible take.
The batting, though, was deep, really deep. Captain Steve Waugh now joined Bevan at the wicket.
16 tight balls and just 4 runs later, Bevan pushed Robin Singh to mid-off and set off for a run. There was young Yuvraj again, sprinting forward, swooping down on the ball and sending in a return on the bounce. It knocked the stumps out of the ground. Umpire David Shepherd signalled for the third umpire, but Bevan was already walking. Indian fielding had well and truly turned things around.
Wickets tumbled now. Damien Martyn missed the line of one from Robin Singh. Shane Lee pushed one too close to Ganguly and hesitated way too long before setting out for the run. It was 189 for 7, another 77 needed from 67 balls. The pendulum had shifted yet again.
But there was Steve Waugh, a man who often crystallised into brilliance under pressure. And Brett Lee had considerable talent with the willow and enough will to win. Twice the latter swung his blade, straight and clean. Twice the ball cleared the field and ate chunks off the target.
35 were added in 32 balls. It again looked just a few big hits away.
But once again it was the young men from India who had the final say. Zaheer Khan ran in to deliver the first ball of the 43rd over. Waugh backed away slightly, eyeing the vast areas beyond cover. The ball was straight and full. The angled bat tried to guide it through the off. But it was too good a delivery to be diverted by such flirtations. The leg and middle stumps were hit, the sticks stood at an awkward angle and the young lad exulted. The sight and sound that form a budding fast bowler’s dream. The clinching blow. 224 for 8.
A run later Lee was caught off Agarkar and the end was in sight.
McGrath and Gillespie were a fascinating pair with the ball. Not so much with the bat. But try they did, managing four boundaries between them. Till finally, with 20 runs separating the teams, Gillespie guided a full toss from Prasad to backward point and, in keeping with the superb standard of fielding through the match, Robin Singh tumbled to take the catch.
The exuberance of youth had taken India to the semi-finals. Aided by some sterling seniors.
It was not really an upset, after all, Indians were known to defeat the Australians every now and then. But the result was definitely unexpected.
A memorable triumph in a classic match, engineered by the deeds of the two youngest members. The dawn of a couple of stars for India. Perhaps one can say that it was indeed the dawn of a new era.
India 265 for 9 in 50 overs (Sachin Tendulkar 38, Yuvraj Singh 84) beat Australia 245 all out in 46.4 overs [max 48] (Adam Gilchrist 33, Ricky Ponting 46, Michael Bevan 42, Brett Lee 31) by 20 runs.