Sachin Tendulkar has produced the most astonishing innings seen in 50-over cricket since the matches began. His breathtaking assault on a furious Pakistani attack brought thousands of spectators to their feet, waving, chanting and roaring themselves hoarse. Tendulkar was blistering and monumental, ruthlessly attacking off both feet and on both sides of the wicket.
On 32 he gave a chance and Pakistan did not take it. Abdur Razzaq dropping a difficult catch at deepish mid-off whereupon Wasim Akram cursed. Thereafter, Tendulkar's main concern was a leg injury that deteriorated as the innings went along and left him hobbling like a horse with a thorn. Later, a strained muscle was diagnosed. Hindered, he fell two runs shy of his hundred and it was left to the reassuring figure of Rahul Dravid to take India into the next round. Yuvraj Singh was as composed as his partner as the fifth wicket pair took their team towards its target.
Meanwhile, the Pakistanis prepare to go home, and to wave farewell to their ageing champions. Over the years Pakistan has dominated these opponents, yet they cannot beat them in the World Cup.
It was quite a day, not so much a cricket match as a madhouse. Tens of thousands arrived at Centurion to cheer for their team. Middle-aged ladies followed every ball, their faces painted in the colours of their country. Spectators lived and died with every ball. They watched a noisy, impassioned struggle between an aggressive Pakistani outfit and a spirited opponent. Not until a handful of notches were required was the issue settled for these matches are charged with emotion and can turn in a moment.
Happily, the match was dominated by its greatest player, the best batsman to appear since the war. No longer can Indian fans grumble that Tendulkar does not perform when it matters. His innings was a calculated, withering assault upon a desperate opponent. Moreover, he was responsible as he was inspired. Not once did Tendulkar lose his head, not even as the score rattled along.
Throughout this campaign there has been a look in his eye, the sort detected in Viv Richards before a final. Sachin means business. A mild man, he realises the time has come to leave his mark upon cricket's most prestigious tournament. He attacked the new ball with relish, settled as wickets fell and then, hampered by his injury, collected quietly till, almost immobile, he parried a bumper to gully. He had scored 98 in 74 balls.
Chasing 274 on a friendly pitch and beneath a warm sun, the Indians set off at a gallop, reaching 50 in the fifth over. Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag batted with gusto, the apprentice copying his master with a six over third man. Meanwhile, Tendulkar played a succession of thrilling drives that sent the ball speeding past the bowler and repeatedly rolled his wrists upon straight deliveries, deflecting towards the ropes at deep square leg. An off-side field was placed so he took the ball on the rise and placed it through extra cover. Now and then he defended and once he let a ball pass whereupon supporters cheered, not wanting him to get carried away. When spin was introduced, he bent low to guide a yorker through the slips.
Inevitably the crowd was intoxicated by the assault. Shoaib's opening over cost 18 runs whereupon he was withdrawn. He had been bowling too short. Even Wasim Akram could not stem the flow and it took the captain to bring much needed wickets as Sehwag drove without moving his feet and was held at cover. Sourav Ganguly did not survive his first ball as his team subsided to 53/2 in 6 overs. No editing was required for the highlights.
Now came the crucial partnership between Tendulkar and Mohammed Kaif, one of two Muslims in the Indian side which puts all the tomfoolery in its place. Kaif batted neatly as his opponents slowed the game down. Not until the score had reached 155 in the 22nd over did a third wicket fall as Kaif edged an undemanding delivery. Not long afterwards Tendulkar's exhibition came to an end. Indian nerves were settled by a calm contribution from Dravid who, like Tendulkar, is a strong team man.
Pakistan must have been satisfied with its score. Saeed Anwar directed operations with a polished effort. Sporting a black and bushy beard and resembling a Khyber Pass version of W G Grace, the veteran left-hander threaded the ball through the covers and, opening the face of the blade, guided it past slip as he moved serenely to three figures in 124 balls. Along the way he lost Taufiq Umar to a yorker and Razzaq to a diving catch behind the wicket. Alas, Inzamam did not last. So much for diets.
After hitting his first ball over the bowler's head this streamlined man from a large family in Multan embarked on a foolish run and did not make it, his 35th run out in 289 one-day innings.
Anwar continued to push the score along and comrades lent a hand. Yousuf Youhana, the fourth Christian to play for his country, contributed 25 in 41 balls and Younis Khan chiseled away helpfully against bowling that started and finished badly and was respectable in between. Not until the last few overs were the Pakistanis able to cut loose as Rashid Latif improvised and Akram lashed. Amongst the bowlers, Srinath impressed, Zaheer lost rhythm and was obliged to bowl 10 extra deliveries, Anil Kumble was presentable, the part-timers did their bit and Ashish Nehra learnt a lot about life. Irresistible against England, the lanky left-armer overpitched and was punished. Despite its predictability, the tactic of bowling only yorkers towards the end of an innings has been revived. It is not working.
Before the match the players had shaken hands and exchanged gifts, showing the crowd it was only a game and that other matters could be put aside for a day. Afterwards, the courtesies were repeated and then the players trooped from the field, the Pakistanis dismayed, the Indians excited, both exhausted. As a result of the self-indulgent boycotts of matches some strong teams will not reach the Super Sixes and the competition will be cheapened by their absence.