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India will Beat Pakistan

It is the lot of the cricket reporter's life, especially when there is a big tournament on, to go through days, weeks even, celebrating the mediocre. Someone gets runs against ordinary bowling, and you overdose on the superlatives - it is the World Cup, after all.

And then - very rarely, but just often enough to wake us all up - a champion comes along and shows you what this game is really all about. And what it is not.

Irrespective of the outcome of the game, Ricky Ponting's century at the Motera is one for the ages - the kind of knock 'motivational speakers' will want to draw on.

What Australia's batting has lacked through this tournament is the towering tentpole that can hold its edifice up. Once Shane Watson and Brad Haddin are done doing their thing, the rest of the innings has been about the odd cameo, the occasional bravura performance - it wouldn't be unfair to say the porous Australian middle order has begun at number three.

Today, with Watson gone aiming a wild slog sweep at Ashwin to try and break his bonds, Australia needed its best, most experienced batsman to stand up and be counted. And just to up the ante, some joker leaked the news that Cricket Australia had already decided to sack Ponting from the captaincy.

What resulted was a display of grit; an innings as diametrically opposed to, but as valuable, as the century Ponting hit in the 2003 WC final against India. That one was scintillating, arrogant; this was hard manual labor by a batsman fighting, simultaneously, the demons in his mind, the surprises of a wicket baked dusty, a bowling that for once was in no mood to give much away, and a fielding side that, for once, showed some awareness of the value of saving the single.

Through this innings, Ponting was a rock - and the Indian bowlers and other Australian batsmen flowed and eddied around him. He was never entirely comfortable - but equally, barring a brief period at the start of his innings, there was never a time when he was vulnerable. That was when he squared up to Harbhajan Singh, who has had the wood on the Australian skipper since the time they first squared up.

The wicket had turn and just the hint of uncertain bounce; there were fielders close in, and it was set up to be a contest - till Harbhajan backed off. Ponting's problems against off spinners has largely had to do with how he leads with his bat, early in his innings; once Bhajji went around the wicket, the risks were reduced, and Ponting found he could close the bat face down, and just working the spinner away with minimal risk.

At the other end, Brad Haddin played the perfect foil. For someone who came in to the side with the reputation of a berserker, Haddin has matured remarkably in recent outings. Early on, he took on himself the onus of facing Ashwin after seeing his partner struggle against the off spinner who, yet again, opened for India (and it is noticeable that when MS Dhoni switched the bowler to the other end, Watson ended up facing him, got fuddled, tried to break free, and got out).

Once Ponting joined him, Haddin batted with monumental calm, knocking the ball around the park, playing largely in the V to counter spin, and latching on to the odd loose ball with fierce intent. The partnership (70 in 12.5 overs) wasn't electric, but it was very effective in keeping the Indian bowlers pegged.

One critical difference in the Indian side on the day was the entry of Suresh Raina, who teamed up with Virat Kohli and Yuvraj Singh (and Ashwin out on the long boundaries) to finally give the fielding some legs. And this factor was what resulted in the wicket: Haddin, who had single-handedly shamed Munaf Patel in front of his home crowd, was consumed by his own exuberance for once and against Yuvraj, chanced his arm to a ball that was floated, hit off, and spun away. Haddin tried a drive of sorts but failed to account for the spin; the ball went off the toe of the bat, and was dying on him when Raina dived headlong and held. And Yuvraj, feeling his oats, got another one quickly when Clarke played as ugly a slog sweep as you want to see.

That was the cue for the game to turn on a dime. Again. And Zaheer Khan - again - started it with as perfect a set up as you will ever see. Scratch that - as perfect a set up as you have seen, over and over, from the left arm seamer.

He took the ball out, had Michael Hussey fishing, then he produced his now famous knuckle ball - the one that slows down, and shapes in off the deck. Hussey, playing for it to go away, opened a gap as wide as all outdoors; the ball lazily crept through it and onto the stumps, and the batsman's bemused look said it all. The next time he produced a variation was when he held one back on Cameron White - again, the batsman was foxed, and could merely pat it back to the bowler.

David Hussey walked in - and proved that his selection was spot on, with an innings of explosive power that took the onus of run-scoring from his captain, allowing Ponting to continue his calm accumulation. 55 runs at a tick over 7.7 runs between the pair threatened to take the game away from India - but yet again, the game spun around with Ashwin ending Ponting's vigil. That made the difference between a potential 275-plus, and the 260 Australia ended up with.

Rarely has a score made so many people happy. In a note for the team ahead of this game, coach Gary Kirsten had told his wards, 'Do not allow Australia to score over 260.' At the toss, when asked what score he wanted to defend, Ricky Ponting said 260.

As it turned out, Kirsten knew exactly what he was talking of. Though Virender Sehwag, looking a pale shadow of his usual self (there is something seriously wrong with the man, physically - and the most visible symptom is his inability to use his shoulders and wrist to play off his pads, a shot with which he earns his daily bread when he is fully fit and switched on), left early, Sachin Tendulkar looked totally assured and in his shadow, Gautam Gambhir took root, and began to flourish.

Their 50 run association was vital in calming nerves; it ended with the dismissal of Tendulkar, feathering an edge off one of the rare deliveries Shaun Tait got on target. But then followed the best period of play: Virat Kohli and Gautam Gambhir bled Australia in a way I personally haven't seen since Asanka, Aravinda and Arjuna combined in the 1996 final.

Against pace and spin alike, they tapped the ball around the park with almost casual ease, running effortlessly and chipping chunks off the target without looking in the least troubled. It didn't help the bowling side that without exception, their bowlers failed to string a series of good deliveries together. (At the halfway mark, India had taken 14 more singles and twos against Australia's sharp fielding than the Aussies had managed against India).

Just when it looked like India would canter to a one-sided win against the reigning world champions, the home side decided to spice things up a bit. Virat Kohli started it with an incredibly ugly swipe at a David Hussey full toss. Then Gautam Gambhir, who till then had been running as if he had taken lessons from a hamster, totally lost his wits. He has played enough with Yuvraj to realize that the middle order batsman is no longer as fleet of foot as in his heyday, but insisted on calling his partner for incredibly risky singles. Thrice Gambhir looked to run himself out; on the third occasion, after an uncharacteristic miss by Australia on the second try, the batsman succeeded.

When MS Dhoni fell to a superb catch by Michael Clarke at point off a fierce cut, and the score slid from 2/142 in 28 to 5/187 in 37.3, it seemed as if India was set to outdo its earlier collapses.

If, in the end, it cantered to a win with five wickets in hand, credit owes to Yuvraj Singh who, yet again, played a calculating knock that perfectly mixed his trademark punched drives and ferocious pulls with some touch play to work the ball around, and Suresh Raina, in for Yusuf Pathan, taking the likes of Lee and Watson head on as they tried to bounce him out.

What had the potential of being a tense haul to the finish line turned into a thrill a minute ride for the full house at the Motera, with both batsmen opening their shoulders and smashing the ball all around the park. Perhaps the one shot that epitomized both their mood, and the helplessness of the Australians against the sudden counter-attack, came in the 46th over. Lee, bowling around the wicket, speared down an extra quick delivery on length; Raina wound up and smashed the ball effortlessly over the long on fence. As the ball sailed off the bat, you saw, for one moment, Lee stop in his follow through, stare at Raina in disbelief, and drop his head.

16 more runs were needed after that six, but as far as the game was concerned, that shot effectively ended it - and set up what, for fans of both nations, is a dream semi-final between Pakistan and India at Mohali.

The former had ended Australia's 34-game winning streak, the latter had ended its reign as the defending champions.

At the end, you felt for Ponting. He played out of his skin, and way beyond the dictates of form - but he could not find one ally to do for his team with the ball what he had so bravely done with the bat. Australia's batting chinks had been exposed before, but somehow its bowling fault line (the sameness of Johnson, the self-indulgent rubbish dished out by Tait, the fairly ordinary skills of Jason Krejza) had managed to remain hidden till first the Gambhir-Kohli partnership, then the spell of brilliance by Yuvraj and Raina, exposed them cruelly.

Bottomline: The champions have been knocked out. Whoever succeeds them will find very big boots to fill.

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