A flat pitch, a truckload of runs — nothing matters against a rampant Dale Steyn © Getty Images
A flat pitch, a truckload of runs — nothing matters against a rampant Dale Steyn © Getty Images

March 12, 2011. It should have been a gigantic total to beat all teams after Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag had set Nagpur on fire. However, the Indians lost 9 wickets for 29 to Dale Steyn. And then there was a chase that showcased all that is wonderful about One-Day cricket. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the nerve-racking Nagpur showdown in which the South Africans held their nerves and the Indians choked.

Decided in 10 overs

The first ball from Dale Steyn was lofted by Virender Sehwag with typical nonchalance. It sailed over mid-on, bounced once in the unattended outfield, and thudded against the advertising board.

Towards the end of the eighth over, Sachin Tendulkar crashed Morne Morkel through the covers and followed it by driving straight back past the bowler for a couple of trademark boundaries. And in the tenth, Steyn bounced, Tendulkar swivelled with style, unleashing an audacious hook. It sailed over square-leg into the crowd.

The score after the first 10 was 87 without loss. Sehwag had hogged the strike, racing to 45 off 41. Tendulkar had faced 20 and was on 31. The most blistering opening duo was on song and the duet was proving destructive. The sky and perhaps a total of around 400 seemed the limit.

The crowd were already hoarse with their full throated cheering. This was what they had come to watch: The Master and the blaster pulverising the opposition into submission, scintillating strokeplay setting the ground ablaze, South Africans scurrying for cover and finally being vanquished by the local heroes.

They got it all, but for the last bit. What seemed to be a script written to order for the millions of supporters of the home team turned out to have a caveat, and a crucial one. And that critical twist was provided in two small sub-plots, the new feature of five-over batting Powerplays.

India huffed, puffed, tripped and tumbled through their 5, scoring 30, losing 4 wickets, all the momentum and much of the advantage. On the other hand, South Africa launched into the bowling, plundering 52 in exchange of just one dismissal, herding a chase gone awry back into the home stretch, injecting the innings with the impetus it needed to breast the tape in the photo-finish.

The batting Powerplays changed the complexion of the contest and ultimately the conclusion.

The Tendulkar Show

Yet, till very late in the Indian innings, the Tendulkar show had promised a one-sided romp.

JP Duminy sent down his off-spinners, and the master essayed a golf hit, sending it into the stratosphere, over long on for another six. At the other end, Robin Peterson pitched short and Sehwag carved him inside out over cover.

It was the 18th over and India were coasting at 142 without loss when Sehwag tried to make room and hit through the off once too often and was bowled by the innocuous leg-break of Faf du Plessis. It happens to be one of the two wickets he has picked up till date.

But, the dismissal seemed just a minor bump on a road paved with riches. Gautam Gambhir announced himself with an inside out loft over cover off Johan Botha. Tendulkar struck Peterson for yet another six over long-on. The 200 was up in the 31st over. With a drive off Morkel, the master completed his 48th hundred off just 92 balls, the 99th international century of his astounding career and the final one bearing the stamp of his unmatched genius.

He carried on for a while in the same vein. Morkel bowled short and Tendulkar slapped him off front foot to the off-side boundary. He was on 110. Gambhir, with a flurry of boundaries, had raced to 56. At the end of the 38th over India were coasting on some fascinating display of batting, the score read 253 for 1. A huge, huge score was on the cards. And India opted for the batting Powerplay.

The Indian implosion

The start of this crucial phase was decent enough. Steyn’s over produced five, and Gambhir followed it with two boundaries off successive Morkel deliveries. The trouble ensued with the fourth ball of the Morkel over. Tendulkar aimed for the on side and was caught off the leading edge at point. The great man departed for 111 from 101 balls.

Yet, at 268 for 2 in 40 overs, the line-up loaded with power-hitters, India looked set for 350 or more. But then the innings fell away like a pack of cards.

Off the first ball of the next over, Steyn got Gambhir off a slower. Two balls later, Yusuf Pathan drilled one down the throat of cover. Yuvraj Singh hit Botha out of the ground and then spooned a Jacques Kallis full toss to long on. Four wickets had been lost in the Powerplay, most of them through poor shot selection.

And the capitulation continued even after the five fatal overs were completed. Kohli hit one back to Peterson. And with captain MS Dhoni waiting to have a go at one end, Harbhajan Singh, Ashish Nehra and Munaf Patel chose to back themselves against Steyn. Tail-enders can seldom afford to take on the best bowler of the world and get away with it. The immensely experienced Zaheer Khan lofted one off Peterson to long on. It was spontaneous implosion. Within a crazy period of 61 balls, India lost 9 wickets for 29 runs, 5 of them to Steyn. The total of 296 looked rather unremarkable when compared with the projected scores a while earlier. The South Africans were back in the game and riding on momentum.

The chase

If the Indian start had been scorching, the South African approach was sedate and secure. Hashim Amla and captain Graeme Smith played the ball according to merit, keeping the good ones out, rotating the strike and lashing out at the poor deliveries.

Smith was picked up by his nemesis Zaheer for 16 against the run of play, but Kallis and Amla countered the loss with composure and class. There was the rough to negotiate with spinners bowling in tandem, there was the chokers tag that hung in the air, especially so after their recent collapse against England. But the two men in the middle were serene. Kallis swept off the ridge which Yuvraj tried to utilise. Harbhajan was swept square and fine. Everything Amla did had the approval of the coaching manuals, yet he had moved to 60 off just 70 balls.

Now Harbhajan turned one from the middle stump, Amla flicked it to mid-wicket, the ball ballooned to Yuvraj and the best Indian fielder dropped an opportunity that came knocking head-high. The run of luck seemed to be going South Africa’s way. However, Harbhajan got his man in his very next over, cramping him on the cut shot with Dhoni holding on to the edge.

As AB de Villiers joined Kallis, the champion batsman countered the dismissal by sweeping Harbhajan for two boundaries, one of them an audacious scoop. The younger man dispatched the off-spinner over mid-wicket. Runs were coming freely, the asking rate high but manageable in the post Twenty20 days. At the end of the 35th over it was 170 for two, the match heading for one more of the many spine chilling finishes the tournament had been witnessing.

Zaheer came back and hit Kallis on the pads. The appeal was turned down, the Indians wanted the review. The ball was hitting off, but the batsman was more than 2.5 metres down the wicket.  Just like Ian Bell had done in the earlier match against the hosts, Kallis survived. But, this time it was not that costly. The following ball was pulled off his face, the batsmen shuttled back for the second, Dhoni collected Harbhajan’s not-quite-accurate throw, swivelled in mid-air and whipped off the bails. Kallis was caught short of ground for 69.

Robin Peterson: the unlikely hero who came to party in the end © Getty Images
Robin Peterson: the unlikely hero who came to party in the end © Getty Images

The Protean Explosion

Now 124 were needed off 84 balls, the set batsman had been removed. In a decision dipped in pluck, Duminy and de Villiers opted for the batting Powerplay. And the five-over tale that followed was a total antithesis of the mess that India had made of theirs.

Nehra was brought back, and Duminy late cut him for four. De Villiers aimed for the scoop and succeeded in edging it fine where no fielder stood. Dhoni threw the ball to Munaf; both batsmen got boundary balls and made full use of them.

Still 96 runs were needed off 11 overs. Zaheer ran in, his eight overs till then having cost just 22. De Villiers found the boundary twice, one of them a curious leading edge off an attempted reverse-sweep. And Duminy picked up the slower ball and drilled it over the bowler’s head for six.

17 runs off the over. 79 required off 10, far more manageable now. Harbhajan came in and de Villiers manufactured a boundary, reverse-sweeping him over short third man. The following ball saw Kohli tumble at square leg to catch a slog-sweep. The young man walked back for a superb 39-ball cameo worth 52. The Indians had got a wicket, but the 5 defining overs had cost 52.

Yuvraj came in as the Powerplay ended, and the new man, du Plessis, launched him over long on.

The dramatic swing of fortunes continued. Harbhajan saw Duminy charging down the track and fired it down the leg-side. Dhoni fumbled but had enough time to effect the stumping. Morne van Wyk mowed Munaf to long leg and Gambhir spilt the skier, letting it through for four. The South African keeper turned over-ambitious, tried to reverse-sweep Munaf, and was caught plumb in front.

Harbhajan kept things tight, making the batsmen fight for runs. 31 remained to be scored off the final 3. Amidst all this drama du Plessis had remained placidly poker-faced.

And now Munaf ran in, a veritable bundle of nerves, spreading it all over the place. Botha swung him to the leg for four, and launched him straight back for six. And the next ball was top edged, went spiralling up into the orbit and came down into the hands of cover. Peterson walked out to join du Plessis.

Two overs remained. 17 runs to score. Zaheer tore in for his last over. The first four balls were splendid yorkers, variously dug out, survived, some squeezed for scampered singles. The last was a full toss with four written all over it. Du Plessis missed it. The Indians heaved a sigh of relief. The pendulum of fate had swung again. There were 13 needed off the final over. Peterson on strike.

Dhoni had to choose between Harbhajan and Nehra. The former had gone for just five in his last over. But a couple of juicy hits could settle the issue. The captain opted for his left-arm pacer.

The first ball was on line, Peterson swung wildly. The stroke was audacious, but carried the most important factor that governs sports — luck. It struck the inside edge and went past the stumps to the fine-leg boundary.

Nehra ran in again, and sent down perhaps the worst ball of the day. Peterson put his front foot out of the way; his bat swung in a full arc, the ball disappeared over the cow-corner. Deathly silence descended on the crowd. The South Africans in the dressing room jumped up and down in delight.

Nehra scowled, grimaced, wiped sweat off his brow and turned to bowl again. This time it was an yorker, well directed. The bat came down just in time, the ball was squeezed out fine. The batsmen ran hard, turned, sprinting back for the second. The throw came searing in, hitting the stump on the full. But Peterson had put in the slide and he was home. The scores were tied with three balls to go.

The field came up, crouching and creeping in from the circle as the bowler ran in again. Peterson moved away and slammed it through the covers. It went blazing away through a wide off-side gap, reaching the fence unchallenged. The batsmen ran with their ecstatic willows raised high in the air. On the field the Indian shoulders were slumped. In the stands the Indian voices, raucous for most of the game, were stilled into stupor.

South Africa had won it, with 2 balls of the 100 overs game in the bank. They had been down and out after the first 38 overs, and after that it had been a stupendous turnaround.

The match had actually been decided in the course of ten overs. The two batting Powerplays with incredibly different results.

Brief Scores

India 296 in 48.4 overs (Virender Sehwag 73, Sachin Tendulkar 111, Gautam Gambhir 69; Dale Steyn 5 for 50) lost to South Africa 300 for 7 in 49.4 overs (Hashim Amla 61, Jacques Kallis 69, AB de Villiers 52; Harbhajan Singh 3 for 53) by 3 wickets with 2 balls to spare.

Man of the Match: Dale Steyn.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)