It had no reason to end up as a heart-stopping, knuckle-cracking thriller, but it did.
At Centurion, in the 11th match of the Champions Trophy edition of 2009, Australia had been cruising. Victory had seemed to be theirs for the taking, regulation, standard issue. With Mike Hussey and Ricky Ponting collaborating in a major partnership, at one stage they had required 66 from 19 overs, with 8 wickets to the good. One cannot expect to beat an Australian side from that sort of position.
But the Pakistanis were capable of both the most profound and the most lousy. That day they fought, like – to use a cliche of national identity – cornered tigers. They clawed their way back, inch by inch. But even then, by the time 10 overs remained, just 36 runs were required, 6 wickets in hand.
And then there was a drama that saw nails bitten down to the raw. Ponting confessed that he was indeed chewing his nails. It went down to the dramatic last ball.
Earlier, Pakistan had laboured through their 50 overs. The platform had been painstakingly put together, but they had taken way too long to build the launchpad … the final launch had been absent.
But then, it was not a wicket which encouraged easy strokeplay. And with Brett Lee leading the attack, Mitchell Johnson, Shane Watson and Nathan Hauritz had been difficult to get away.
Shahid Afridi had failed to boom boom his way at the top. Kamran Akmal had taken way too long over his 44. Mohammad Yousuf had never managed to break free. And Misbah-ul-Haq, the most fluent Pakistani batsman of the day, had initiated a charge late in the innings but had trod on his stumps trying to leave a wide delivery.
The final result had been a modest 205.
The most interested among the spectators, as Australians had begun their innings, had been the Indian fans. The only way for them to the knockout stage was if Pakistan defeated Australia. In that case, India would join Pakistan in the semi-finals from this tough group.
But, Watson hammered Umar Gul for a couple of boundaries in the first over. Mohammad Asif, on a comeback trail, was clouted by the makeshift opener, stumper Tim Paine, for a magnificent six in the second. The Indian chances did not really look bright.
Things did turn a bit bleak for the Australians when Watson and Paine had been dismissed within a brief span of time. However, Hussey had begun with a bang and continued to bat in his sleek, smooth way. Ponting, uncharacteristically workmanlike, had been more circumspect.
But, as these two masters had negotiated the middle overs and taken the score ahead without any further hiccups, the result had seemed a foregone conclusion. Hussey had slammed Naved -a-Hasan for six to bring up the hundred of the innings, driven him for a couple of boundaries in his next over and had looked in splendid touch.
And then things had started happening.
Shahid Afridi’s fastish leg-breaks had not been easy to work around for runs. The rather late introduction of Saeed Ajmal had suddenly floated some interesting parameters into the game. The wicket seemed to have quite a bit for the tweaker, and given that the classy Ajmal had almost his full quota to bowl, runs would definitely be difficult from one end.
However, even as Ponting and Hussey played four Ajmal overs with circumspect correctness, it was Shoaib Malik’s underrated off-break that started the turnaround. Ponting, perhaps not used to scoring at a strike rate of 50, slogged one from outside the off. At deep square leg, Umar Gul ran in, tumbled and came up with the catch. 140 for 3. 66 to win in 18 overs and four balls. Just a minor hiccup along the way.
Callum Ferguson was talented and classy. Yet, he was rather green. He did well to pick a doosra bowled by Ajmal, but could not figure out how to score off the many variations. A maiden was bowled. Things were not going to be very easy after all.
But as the players broke for drinks, only 62 remained to be scored from 16 overs. An asking rate of less than 4, with Hussey on exactly 50.
Till now Ajmal had threatened the Australians like a dark looming cloud till now. After the interval, he struck. It was fired in quick, kept a tad low and turned a prodigious deal. The middle and leg were hit. Ferguson walked back after a rather nightmarish stay.
But in the very next over Afridi fired a ball down the leg side for five wides. Just a few runs remaining. And when Mohammad Asif came back, inducing a drive off newcomer Cameron White, the volatile all-rounder spilled the simplest of catches. One surely could not win with this amount of profligacy when the equation was incredibly against you to start with?
Yet, this was Pakistan. Predictably unpredictable. A curious crew of maverick cricketers. They could achieve the unexpected, and slip disastrously on their own cakewalks.
Rana Naved-ul-Hasan produced a near-unplayable inswinging yorker to send back Hussey. Big, big wicket. And Australia had a new man at either end. 175 for 5. The result did not look cast in stone anymore.
And now Asif sealed his comeback with a scintillating over. James Hopes drove him into the waiting hands of Younis Khan at mid-off. Mitchell Johnson just about managed to escape being run out as he hastened through for a single. And then White pushed forward. The off-cutter beat the bat and sneaked through to rattle his stumps.
Suddenly it was 176 for 7. 8 overs and a ball were left to get those 30 more runs. But, Ajmal had 2 and Asif 3 and both looked like getting a wicket every delivery.
Naved ran in now, Ajmal held back for the end. There was just a single off the next over. Lee and Johnson were both capable bats, and they managed to squeeze 4 from the Asif over that followed.
And then with 23 required from 6 overs, Naved charged in and bowled a maiden. Every ball tested Lee, the yorker was brought out twice. The Australian fast bowler managed to get his bat in the way. Six dots. Six exasperated sighs. Six groans. Tension was mounting.
Ajmal was back now, for his 9th over. The field was up. Round the wicket to Johnson. The first ball turned past the outside edge. Beaten. The second and third were bowled, not one run scored.
Now a slip was in place. The fourth ball was tossed up, Johnson reached out with his long leg and drove it handsomely through the off-side for four. Pressure relieved. Or was it?
The following ball was a top-spinner, coming on to Johnson a shade quicker than he expected. The left-hander tried to force it through the off, but was nowhere near the line. The stumps were struck.
187 for 8. The Indian fans had been watching this game even as their side were outplaying West Indies at Johannesburg. Could their arch rivals do them this near-impossible favour?
Naved had the ball. New batsman Hauritz had pushed a single and was on strike. Over no. 47. Once again the man from Sheikhupura ran in with endless zeal, mixing it up, picthing his yorkers with superb precision. Hauritz was beaten three times, just managed to get his bat on it on the other occasions. Yet another maiden.
In the end stages of an ODI, Naved had bowled the 45th and 47th overs without conceding a run. And now it was 18 required off 18 balls.
The vice-like grip of the bowlers was broken at last. Lee came down the track and carted Ajmal over mid-off for four. Runs were scampered. The pad was hit outside the line. The off-spinner, who had bowled magnificently, went for 8 in his final over. 10-1-31-2.
Naved had the ball again. Two more dot balls. It was 10 from 10 again. And then a yorker went slightly awry, and Hauritz cleared his front foot and drove it between mid-on and mid-wicket for four.
6 off 9.
The three remaining balls produced two singles.
Australia needed 4 from the last over. Asif had two overs to go with his explosive pace. Younis Khan thought a lot and called Umar Gul. Less chance of nicks running away for the deciding boundary.
The fans, Australian, Pakistani, Indian … all waited with bated breath.
Lee drove the first ball straight to mid-wicket.
4 required from 5.
The second delivery was a near perfect inswinging yorker. Lee just managed to get his bat there to produce an inside edge. It went on to his pad and rolled away towards the off side. Even as the bowler groaned, a run was scampered.
3 to win from 4, but 2 would get them through to the next round.
The next ball was a slower one, and Hauritz pushed it back to the bowler.
3 to win from 3.
The following delivery was full, a yorker that did not materialise. Hauritz drove to mid wicket. Misbah flung himself to the right to stop it. But a single was taken.
2 to win from 2.
Gul ran in again. Another full ball and Lee drove it down to mid on and ran with the stroke. The scores were tied, a ball to go and Australia had qualified. The Indians were out.
But Pakistan still wanted to win. The field was brought in. Gul ran in. Hauritz waited. The ball was full. Hauritz moved outside his leg stump and swung. It did not connect and missed the stumps as well. But Lee was already charging down the wicket. Akmal had the ball and sent in his return under arm. It missed the target. Lee was home and Hauritz had sprinted through. A bye had clinched it.
The maverick Pakistanis had almost pulled off an impossible win, but the Australians had refused to be beaten.
A match that had looked done and dusted an hour earlier had been clinched off the last delivery. The nails were mangled and nerves in shreds by the time it was over.
One Day Internationals do produce close matches all the time, but seldom a thriller of that creeps up on you this stealthily.
Pakistan 205 for 6 in 50 overs (Kamran Akmal 44, Mohammad Yousuf 45, Misbah-ul-Haq 41) lost to Australia 206 for 8 in 50 overs (Ricky Ponting 32, Michael Hussey 64) by 2 wickets with 0 balls remaining.