Premadasa Stadium, Champions Trophy 2002

Herschell Gibbs developed cramps in both his hands.

It was perhaps not surprising. Those hands had orchestrated an onslaught of brutal magic. Under that stifling heat, a series of cover drives, pulls and sweeps had torn the bowling to shreds and made a mockery of the Indian total in the Champions Trophy semi-final. The match was all but in the bag by then.

The conditions were not really tailor made for explosive batting. Virender Sehwag had managed 59 off 58 balls when the wicket was fresh and the heat less oppressive. Thereafter had been moments that had threatened implosion, especially when Sachin Tendulkar had been run out after a subdued 16. However, Yuvraj Singh, the steadily maturing youngster, had kept the momentum going alongside the sensible restraint of Rahul Dravid. The 261 runs they had amassed had looked quite impressive. Especially when Yuvraj, flinging himself through the air, had held on to a blinder from Graeme Smith early in the innings. But, all that was before Gibbs had decided to cut loose.

The man from Cape Town had begun relatively slowly. Just one boundary an over off Ashish Nehra’s first four overs. Then there had been the acceleration. Three fours off the bowler’s fifth over. Suddenly he was racing along.

The Indians had responded by unleashing their spinners. Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, experience and talent, adept at exploiting a painstakingly slow surface that cracked under the extreme Colombo heat. Jacques Kallis and Gibbs had milked the tweakers, punctuating the steady flow of singles with the occasional boundary.

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The Gibbs fifty had come up in 59 balls, the South African hundred in the 22nd over.

And then the heat had taken its toll on Nehra. The left-arm pacer had limped away with cramps. Sourav Ganguly had come on himself to finish the over. Then he had bowled one more. Gibbs had helped himself to three boundaries at the Indian captain’s expense.

The slow wicket had been helping the spinners. After Kumble and Harbhajan, Ganguly had brought on Yuvraj and Tendulkar. Run-making was not easy. But nothing had deterred Gibbs.

A blistering pull off Tendulkar had got him his hundred. Off just 98 balls. He had celebrated the milestone by drilling Kumble for his 16th boundary. At the other end, Kallis had been steady, the perfect foil. The Indians had used seven bowlers, and had nothing to show for their efforts since the dismissal of Smith.

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Yes, Gibbs had seemed to be struggling. His footwork had been getting slower, restricted. Smith had come in once again, this time as his runner. When he had tried to pull Zaheer to the leg, the cramps had been all too apparent.

But now, as Smith approached with evident concern and took the bat from the grasp of the tired batsman, the scoreboard showed 192 for 1 from 37. Gibbs was on 116, Kallis 63. A mere 70 runs were required from 13 overs. Nine wickets were intact. Gibbs was in obvious pain. But surely the rest of the South African lineup, with their glittering array of all-rounders down the order, was more than capable of getting just over five runs per over.

So, Gibbs limped off, drained, dehydrated. Undefeated but exhausted.

The turnaround

Johnty Rhodes took his place. Zaheer Khan sent down an uneventful over that resulted in two singles. The required rate was a meagre 5.66.

And then all of a sudden, the Indians started clawing back into the game.

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Harbhajan purchased turn, and a bit of bounce. Rhodes, cheeky batsman he was, went for the sweep to throw the spinner off his line. The ball struck the top edge, and went fine, quick and plummeting. Yuvraj, the man patrolling the forty-five degree on the leg side, took off to his right, flew through the air right arm outstretched, and came up with the catch even as the ball dipped. There was something about this tournament that brought out the best in that man.

In walked Boeta Dippenaar. Two balls were blocked. The third was slightly short. Dippenaar swivelled and pulled. Another top edge, it gained height rather than distance. At deep square leg Kumble got under it.

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The game had almost changed in a flash. South Africans were 194 for 3, effectively 194 for 4. And the asking rate had inched ahead of six an over.

There was still experience on the crease. Kallis was joined by Mark Boucher. A quiet couple of overs from Zaheer and Harbhajan yielded just four runs. There was consolidation, a break in the procession of departing batsmen, but suddenly it was 62 required from 54 deliveries. The Indians were bowling tight and fielding like men possessed.

However, there were problems as well. Harbhajan had finished his spell, a splendid 10-0-37-2. Zaheer had bowled 8. Kumble had bowled 8 as well, a trifle expensive. Nehra had been profligate and had cramps.

Who would bowl the remaining overs?

And with the pitch breaking up, Harbhajan proving extremely difficult to score off, the Indians opted for a calculated gamble in form of Sehwag.

Street-smart, canny, with a penchant for cramping the batsman up with his flattish, quick off-breaks, Sehwag allowed just 4 off his first over. Even best attempts by the batsmen to collar him did not come off.

204 for 3, 58 required from 48 deliveries.

The next over from Kumble brought 7. The Proteas were in the hunt.

Sehwag had the ball again. Boucher knocked a single. Kallis ran another.  Sehwag sent down the next ball, flat, quick and on middle stump. Boucher swiped at it, an almighty heave. It went straight up off the splice. And once again Yuvraj was in action at short fine leg, running around to hold the skier. 213 for 4. The Indians were slowly becoming the favourites.

Lance Klusener was in now. Perhaps the best man in such circumstances. However, a lot of time had elapsed since those halcyon days of 1999 when he had bludgeoned opposition after opposition in the World Cup, overhauling incredible targets. He was not in the best batting nick now. Shaun Pollock, the captain, on the other hand, was in excellent touch. Not long back had he hammered 69 from 34 deliveries against New Zealand. Should he have come in now?

Perhaps. Klusener failed to break the shackles. The word ‘chokers’ have been used often as a tag for the Proteans, sometimes a tad unfairly. However, in this game, they were being well and truly choked, by some superlatively accurate bowling.

Sehwag’s second over cost 3, his third 3 more. At the end of the 46th over South Africa were 223 for 4, having managed 31 for 2 in 9 overs from the moment Gibbs staggered off. 39 were needed from 4 overs.

It had been an unbelievable comeback by India.

With Kumble having ended his spell, Tendulkar was given the ball. Kallis pulled him for four to relieve the pressure somewhat.

South Africa needed 30 from the last 3.

And Sehwag kept spearing his off-breaks quick and flat into the batsmen. Klusener tried to get under one and clear the fence. But it yielded just a single. Kallis managed a couple of braces, but there were dots in between. The fourth Sehwag over cost 5.  The ask was now 25 from 2.

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It was now back to Zaheer. Perhaps a paceman of older Indian teams would have tried to deliver at great speed, ending up producing eminently hittable balls. But this was a youngster who had grown up on these situations. Zaheer mixed his pace masterfully. Kallis, batting for over three hours now, failed to connect. Klusener moved away, made room for himself, but kept struggling to find the gap. A measly four runs resulted from the penultimate over.

The target that had been reduced to a modest one by Gibbs had now been reconstructed into a mammoth ask. 21 were needed from the final over.

At long, long last, the charge came in the form of a Kallis slog. Sehwag erred by going round the wicket, and Kallis got on his knees to swing him over the mid-wicket fence.

The part-timer did not repeat mistakes. He was back to over the wicket for the next ball. It was outside the off. The batsman had already picked his spot, trying to dispatch it over the cow corner. Yet another cross-batted swipe off an off-break that came off the pitch ever so slowly. Yet another top edge. The story of the last few overs. And this time wicketkeeper Dravid moved a few paces to the off side to hold the catch.

Kallis was gone for 97 fighting runs, and Shaun Pollock was in, at last, destined to remain at the non-striker’s end, watching helplessly as the match slipped away.

Twice Klusener swung mightily, twice the batsmen ran 2. But they needed much more. The boundary and beyond remained elusive.

With 11 to win off the final two balls, Klusener charged out. Sehwag floated it outside the left-hander’s off-stump. The fierce hit was stopped at cover. At mid-wicket, Sourav Ganguly exulted. All Sehwag needed to ensure now was that he bowled a legal delivery.

Sehwag did more than that. Klusener swung at his last ball, and it went skywards. At long off Mohammad Kaif held it. India had won by 10 runs.

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It had been an amazing heist, a remarkable turnaround after they had been all but pummelled into submission.  A heart-stopping, knuckle cracking game ending with an incredible turnaround.

Heaving with understandable emotion, veteran journalist Partab Ramchand wrote, “Believe me— this Indian cricket team can walk on water. Believe me — they can stride across a pit full of burning coal and come out unscathed. Believe me —if India could win the match against South Africa on Wednesday, they can win anything.”

Too bad the final was washed out.

Brief Scores


India 261 for 9  in 50 overs (Virender Sehwag 59, Rahul Dravid 49, Yuvraj Singh 62; Shaun Pollock 3 for 43) beat South Africa 251 for 6 in 50 overs (Herschelle Gibbs 116*[retd hurt], Jacques Kallis 97; Virender Sehwag 3 for 25) by 10 runs.

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