By the fourth edition, Champions Trophy had become important enough to be contested in the spiritual home of cricket. Yes, England hosted the tournament in 2004.
And for the first time, an India-Pakistan encounter was contested in Birmingham, a city teeming with thousands of expats from both these neighbouring countries.
Edgbaston, the only ground in England where Bollywood music blared from the stalls, where more biriyani abounded than pie and mash. An Indo-Pak encounter would always convert any stadium in any part of the world into a capsule of the subcontinent. But, for Edgbaston the makeover was as near perfect as could be. Perhaps even more so than Sharjah.
The formula was so successful that it has been repeated ever since. When the sides met in the Champions Trophy nine years later in 2013. And they will be meeting there again in the forthcoming Champions Trophy showdown on the coming Sunday.
It was a pressure match. Do or die. The format was no longer knockout, but it had boiled down to the same. Both the teams had steamrolled Kenya. Whoever won this battle would proceed to the semi-finals.
And India were already suffering from a huge handicap. This was the dark period when Sachin Tendulkar suffered from tennis elbow and the entire nation winced in pain. He was not taking part in the tournament. To a great extent, the way India batted underlined that they had not yet managed to wrap their minds around this enormous hole at the top.
A tedious progress
Inzamam-ul-Haq won the spin of the coin, glanced at the greenish tinge and had no hesitation in asking India to take first strike. Skipper Sourav Ganguly wafted at every erratic ball of the first over bowled by Mohammad Sami, playing and missing five times before he finally got a touch on the last, straight to the keeper. Atrocious beginning. It was to turn worse.
With his penchant for using the depth of the crease to gain the extra fraction of a second, VVS Laxman was always vulnerable in English conditions. But technical flaws against swing had little to do with his removal. It was a rank long hop and he slammed it straight to square leg.
That was not quite the end of the saga of suicides. Virender Sehwag, going through a miserable run, flicked a full ball from Rana Naved-al-Hasan straight to Shoaib Malik. 27 for 3 in the 10th over, the innings was tottering.
Scoring runs in these conditions required class and technique. Only Rahul Dravid had it in plenty and was in the form of his life. But, with the absence of Tendulkar looming like a dark cloud over the Indian line up, none of the others seemed up to playing a supporting role.
Naved and Abdul Razzaq choked the flow of runs down to a trickle. And then Shoaib Akhtar, astutely held back by Inzamam, came charging in as a second change in the 16th over, daring the batsmen to take him on.
Mohammad Kaif and Yuvraj Singh were caught nicking short of length deliveries in the same over from the express pacer, the latter for a third-ball duck. At 73 for 5, Rohan Gavaskar joined Dravid and produced one of the most painstaking knocks ever witnessed in the history of the tournament. All at sea, excruciatingly late in playing Shoaib, sometimes even late while negotiating Razzaq, he stayed at the crease for 52 agonising minutes, consuming 43 deliveries for his 13. He was clearly not geared for this level.
The 33-run sixth wicket partnership had trickled through in 14 overs, and by now India were all but out of the game. The score read 106 for 6 and two-thirds of the overs had been bowled. It was an enormously disappointed contingent of Indian supporters who sat morosely in the stands.
But now, a revival took place. Bombay Duck or not, Ajit Agarkar could be handy with the bat. There has hardly ever been a better timer of the ball in the lower order.
After a few overs of consolidation, he took the aerial route, lofting Sami over mid-on for four. He followed it up with an expansive drive over mid-wicket off Shahid Afridi, and then pulled the same bowler into the crowd. With Dravid his workmanlike self, nudging the runs around the wicket, occasionally finding a deftly placed boundary, the Indian fans finally found some voice.
With the total recovering to 182 for 6 in 46 overs, a substantial late charge could still amount to a challenging total. This was a needle match between two old foes, and a total between 220 and 230 could always be tricky in such circumstances.
But then Naved returned to finish the innings alongside Shoaib. The ball climbed onto Dravid too quickly and the attempted pull was skied back to the bowler. The maestro left for 67 off 108 balls, a fighting innings.
Agarkar moved across his stumps and aimed for the vacant fine leg boundary, but was unlucky to pick the man at short fine. His enterprising knock of 47 from 50 balls had served as a pacemaker for the comatose innings.
The rest of the batting tried in vain to force the pace against the top-class bowling. But in the end Naved (4 for 25) and Shoaib (4 for 36) were too hot to handle. The Indian innings finished at the nice round figure of 200, but they had needed much more.
But if Pakistan had used the conditions masterfully with their battery of pacers, the Indians struck back through Irfan Pathan. In the very first over of the Pakistan innings, it was apparent that this was going to be no regulation chase.
Imran Farhat wafted at one that moved away and nicked to Dravid behind the wicket. In his next over, Pathan slanted one away from Shoaib Malik. The batsman feathered it and once again Dravid was in action. 10 for 2 in 3 overs, and tension was mounting.
Inzamam came in, cautious, circumspect. Yasir Hameed flashed alarmingly. However, Pathan’s good work was not really supported at the other end. Ashish Nehra was just about decent, the pressure was not quite enough.
In the 10th over Agarkar came on, and was greeted with a boundary by Inzamam. But, with the movement beating the bat over and over again without getting the edge, Pathan now opted for the bouncer. Yasir hooked, and the top edge went steepling to Nehra at long leg.28 for 3 after 11 overs, Pathan had figures of 6-1-8-3. The match was on.
Class in the middle
But, in contrast to the solitary Indian batsman of class, Pakistan had two.
Yousuf Youhana started with nervous apprehension but soon got his act together. And Inzamam was the face of calm assurance.
After 7 overs for 11 runs, Pathan had to be rested, saved for the finale. Nehra was brought back from his end. And Youhana cut for four and then drove another to the boundary. By the time the first drinks was taken, Pakistan had recovered to 47 for 3 from 18. The tussle was still Titanic, but the lack of depth in the Indian attack was palpable by now.
It became more apparent immediately after resumption. Perhaps the Pakistanis planned the assault, perhaps they didn’t. But, it did come off brilliantly.
Agarkar pitched short, and Youhana rocked back to pull him for six. In the next over they targeted the other man who could become crucial in these circumstances. Harbhajan Singh was driven by Youhana through point for four, and then a single was taken and Inzamam steered him fine and swept him powerfully for two more boundaries. The laid-back giant of Pakistan soon raised his 10,000 ODI runs, the second person to get there after Tendulkar.
Soon Ganguly was bowling in tandem with Sehwag, not the best advertisement for incisive bowling. The Pakistan captain launched his Indian counterpart back over his head for four. The tension was now writ on Ganguly’s face. He had to find a wicket somehow. The score passed 100 and both these classy batsmen had settled down.
The wicket did come, against the run of play. Agarkar, brought back for a second spell, got Inzamam to nick one as he aimed to tickle it fine.
This started a 12-over phase during which India clawed their way back into the game. A few determined overs from Agarkar and Harbhajan checked the rate of scoring as Abdul Razzaq took his time to settle down. Then Sehwag was brought on as change, and immediately Razzaq chopped one on to his stumps.
The experienced Moin Khan nudged the ball around for a while. Nehra, in his second spell, was pulled for four by Youhana. However, in the following over he slanted one across Moin and the slash flew to point where Yuvraj took one of his characteristic blinders.
The Afridi annihilation
152 for 6. Another 48 runs required off 58 deliveries, but wickets were falling.
Shahid Afridi had come in, a man who could make or break a match with a few swings of the bat. The key was to get him early.
They almost did. The first ball Afridi faced was bludgeoned to mid off, straight to the fielder, and the bastmen started scampering down the wicket. Agarkar fielded and threw. The all-rounder would have been miles short had it hit, but the shy missed the mark.
It was a make or break time. And hence, after another Harbhajan over, Ganguly tossed the ball to Pathan, by far the best Indian bowler on display, the man who could win it for them. 40 were now required from 48 balls.
But now Pathan erred big time. After those fantastic opening overs, he now fell prey to inexperience. He bounced at Afridi. The resulting pull sounded like the crack of thunder and the ball disappeared in a streak of white lightning. It was six.
The following ball was pitched on length, in the perfect slot for an Afridi biff. The willow came down in a mighty swing and the ball disappeared over long on, for the second six in succession. With these two strokes the match was decided. It was down to 27 runs from 45 balls. Cakewalk from now on.
Naved and Shoaib had sent down fascinating spells to choke India. Pathan had delivered his first few overs in ideal response. But with the second and third balls of his second spell, he had lost the plot and the game. Three great spells and finally one that went horribly wrong.
More so when Afridi drilled a boundary off the first ball of his next over.
Yuvraj Singh was called up to deliver a miracle, and he did get Afridi. Another hit was aimed out of Birmingham, perhaps beyond Warwickshire, but ended up in Sehwag’s hands in long on. The 12-ball cameo had amounted to 25 and had decided the match.
By then just 14 remained off 28 deliveries. At the other end Youhana was tiring, had a touch of cramp, needed a runner, but carried on all the same. All Naved, the new man, had to do was to keep rotating the strike once in a while.
There was no attempt at heroism. The runs were gathered with consummate professional diligence. Once Youhana pulled a ball, and his cramps had him writhing on the ground. But Imran Farhat, his runner, and Naved, the non-striker, sprinted through for two.
The Indians did manage to stretch it to the last over. But by then the scores were tied and the result a foregone conclusion. Youhana cut the second ball from Yuvraj past point to bring up the victory. He remained unbeaten on 81, the classiest of knocks seen on that day.
A day full of potent swing bowling and a couple of classy knocks, decided by a whirlwind cameo.
India 200 in 49.5 overs [max 50] (Rahul Dravid 67, Ajit Agarkar 47; Naved-ul-Hasan 4 for 25, Shoaib Akhtar 4 for 36) lost to Pakistan 201 for 7 in 49.2 overs (Inzamam-ul-Haq 41, Yousuf Youhana 81*; Irfan Pathan 3 for 34) by 3 wickets with 4 balls remaining.