Pakistan innings: Overs 41-50:
Zaheer Khan set things up with a tight 41st over that produced just four despite all the huffing and puffing; Harbhajan nailed it in the next, when he tossed up a ball way too much; it ended up as a full toss and Afridi, overdosing on adrenalin, heaved where he could have guided, put it up in the air, and down the throat of Sehwag at cover. The ask had topped ten, and the tail had been exposed at one end -- and that put India firmly in the box seat.
From then on, it was almost mathematical: shut them down and take them out. Nehra -- and while on that, it will be a long time before anyone, present company included, questions any decision no matter how bizarre that Dhoni makes -- produced an inswinging yorker onto Umar Gul's front pad to nail him in front of the stump.
Misbah, who had spent much of his innings in an Abou-ben-Adhem like deep dream of peace, woke up when it was way too late, hitting some crisp shots down the line -- but an asking rate of 3+ per ball was too much for one man to attempt while simultaneously protecting the tail. India is good in such situations -- they absorb the odd fours with equanimity, and just look to bowl enough dot balls to shut the door. And in the experienced Zaheer, a Munaf Patel in form, and a Nehra bowling as if to prove his detractors wrong, they had the bowlers to do it.
Perhaps the seal was set on the game when Misbah, with 30 needed to win, heaved and heaved and failed to pierce the field, before finally heaving one high down the throat of long on to end the game and give India passage to the final by 29 runs.
India played the pressure moments better than Pakistan. There was the Sehwag blitz at the top. The dogged innings Sachin played despite being repeatedly beaten, given life after life. Raina's little gem at the end. And with the ball, the dogged discipline of Munaf and Nehra, the ability of Yuvraj to strike at opportune moments, Zaheer's steady head not merely with ball in hand, but in talking his seam bowling mates through their tasks... all cemented by Dhoni's preternatural calm.
Against that, Pakistan's best bowler lost the plot; with the bat, its two most experienced bats, Younis and Misbah, were becalmed just when they could least afford to be, and barring Umar Akmal in the middle and the openers at the top, there was no one to give the innings its backbone.
Pakistan innings: Overs 31-40:
Yuvraj's first four overs had produced one maiden, nine runs and two wickets. But in this phase. Umar Akmal set out to change all that, and his preferred ploy was to put the part timer off his length with a series of skips down the wicket and, when the bowler was forced to drop his length shorter, staying back to hit through the line and as straight as he possibly could. What the tactic did was to push Yuvraj out of his comfort zone and reducing him to bowl flatter and quicker -- which took the sting out of his bowling.
In the sort of move and counter move that characterizes this set-up phase of a chase, Dhoni went back to his seamers to enforce some discipline. Munaf Patel, bowling variants on the slow and slower theme, produced an excellent over in the 33rd, giving away just one run, and the cat and mouse game moved into high gear.
Harbhajan had never really looked like taking a wicket -- but off the first ball of his comeback over, he struck perhaps the most telling blow: going around the wicket, he speared one in flat and quick; Umar Akmal was taken by surprise by the pace on the arm ball, got himself hopelessly in a tangle as he first aimed to whip, then changed to a hasty defensive push, and was nailed bang in front just when the youngster, batting 29 off 24 at the time, seemed poised to play the game-breaking innings.
The ask rate had been nudged above 7, and Misbah-ul-Haq, like Younis before him, was going nowhere, fast. At the end of 35 overs, he had crawled to 10 off 30 balls faced (23 dot balls), and again as with Younis, he transferred pressure onto his partner.
With his tormentor in chief taken out of play, Yuvraj could return and settle back down into his run denying line. And at the other end, Munaf continued a dream spell that erased all memories of his previous outing; his USP was bowling shades of slow, but keeping the length just short of good, and the line tight around off with the best of the Indian fielders to back him on that side of the pitch. In the 37th, he produced a lovely leg cutter, slow as you like, that squared Razzaq up and seamed just enough to hit the top of off.
Pakistan's chase was being derailed on two fronts: wickets were falling too regularly, and the runs weren't coming quick enough. Enter Afridi, who had through his captaincy and his bowling gotten his side into a good position to win, and now found he had to do it all over with the bat.
At the 40 over mark, with Pakistan on 176/6, Afridi counter-attacking, Misbah unexpectedly signaling his intent with a reverse sweep off Yuvraj, and India taking a step back in reflexive defense, the game is perfectly poised with Pakistan needing one good over to break the game in its favor, and India needs one wicket, preferably that of the opposing captain, to seal the deal.
Pakistan innings: Overs 21-30:
This ten over phase swung the game in India's favor. In an earlier update, we had talked of how India's best chance was once the ball had become slower, forcing the batsmen to make the pace. And that phase arrived, with Yuvraj in particular present to exploit it -- and what resulted was a classic case of choking the chase down and letting pressure build till something cracked.
It was clever bowling and, from Raina and Kohli in front of the wicket on the off, committed fielding with just one intent -- keep Younis from playing his natural game of taking singles at will and rolling the strike over. With the senior Pakistan batsman becalmed, the pressure mounted on Asad Shafiq to do all the work -- and the youngster fell to a classic Yuvraj set up. The deliveries were outside off and turning away; the options for the batsmen were to cut, or let go. And once the batsman was primed, by the drying up of runs, to try and force the pace, Yuvraj slipped in the one that was quicker both in the air and off the deck, going through straight -- a delivery that he uses to get LBWs of batsmen playing for turn. This time, Shafiq stepped back to cut, playing for turn, and missed the line to be bowled.
At the other end, Younis Khan had been completely tied down (against 15 deliveries faced of Yuvraj, for instance, the senior batsman played out 10 dot balls). With Shafiq gone, the pressure redoubled, and in an attempt to somehow break out of jail, Younis threw his bat at one outside off that was going further away; the turn forced the miscue to cover, and two quick wickets pegged Pakistan back.
However, those wickets also brought the experienced Misbah and the exuberant Umar Akmal together -- and as this 10-over phase came to an end, Akmal was looking to reverse the tide, first dancing down to Yuvraj to power him over the off cordon for four, and when the bowler predictably dropped short, staying back and muscling it over the midwicket fence for a six.
At 130/4 after 30, Pakistan is now well behind the pace, needing 131 in 120. Not yet an impossible ask, but the rising run rate has given India the option of just shutting the game down, and forcing Pakistan to try and break free with risk-laden shots. Which way this game breaks will depend on two factors: Akmal's batting, and the effect of the ball change at the end of 34.
Pakistan innings: Overs 11-20:
"Nehra brings options to the table", Dhoni had said while announcing his team this afternoon -- but it has not been immediately apparent what they are. "Bajji is a big game player, and knows what to do in the big games," he said on an earlier occasion, and thus far on a track with turn to spare, it is not immediately apparent what that is either.
There is turn -- dramatic turn, when the bowler makes the effort -- on this wicket, as a succession of Pakistani bowlers showed in the first half of the game, tying up even batsmen of the calibre of Sachin Tendulkar. Harbhajan bowled his first over with all you want to look for -- slow through the air, plenty of flight, bite and turn. There were the usual oohs and aahs and a possible return catch he didn't manage to dive forward for, but from that point on, it was back to business as usual: quick through the air, flat, and straight.
What has kept India's plight from being dire, thus far, is two factors: the off side cordon of Yuvraj at point and Kohli and Raina at cover point and extra cover has been outstanding (and they clearly enjoy each other's fielding); and the propensity of Pakistan batsmen to gift wickets just when India looked unlikely to buy one for love or money.
Mohammed Hafeez, who had thus far looked untroubled by pace and spin alike, produced a shocker in the 16th over when he went on his knees to play, of all things, a paddle sweep off Munaf Patel. And he picked a full delivery outside off to do it, thus setting himself up for more than one form of dismissal. As it happened, it was the edge that did for him, going through to Dhoni and lifting India's spirits just when the fielding side was visibly wilting. That said, Munaf contributed to the wicket, bowling a maiden in the previous over and starting the 16th with two more dot balls, prompting the ill-judged attempt to break the shackles.
With the openers back in the hut, Asad Shafiq and Younis Khan buckled down to the job of consolidation; the Indians responded with run-saving fields and lines, putting the whole game in a state of equipoise. Thus far, Dhoni had used only his four main bowlers; in the 20th, he brought on Yuvraj, with the older ball. The part time lspinner who, paradoxically, has outperformed the regular spinner did get turn in his first over, but is yet to settle into any kind of rhythm.
After 20, Pakistan are 89/2. And some of the advantage the chasing side enjoyed at the end of the first ten overs has been diluted -- partly because the second wicket has forced Pakistan to slow down, and as a result, the ask has begun to inch back upwards. Another good session by the Indian bowlers, and Pakistan would have totally lost its early advantage and India will be ahead.
Pakistan innings: Overs 1-10:
Against bowling that was adequate but not attacking, Pakistan moved smoothly out of the blocks on the chase. It was not that they did anything spectacular -- in fact, the reverse. Both Akmal and Hafeez batted with no sign of being pressurized by the total; against an Indian game-plan that depended on a packed off field, the openers waited for the Indian seamers to err in line, and cashed in each time they drifted onto the stumps. It was percentage batting, and it worked a treat till the 9th over, when Akmal threw it away in a characteristic rush of blood.
The ball from Zaheer was short, angling and going wider from the right hander; Akmal threw his bat at it and got the toe end of it; at point, Yuvraj went low to hold. Another wicket had fallen, when in the next over Munaf banged one in to Asad Shafiq, but Zaheer at midwicket was caught in two minds, ended up not going for the catch in preference to staying back and saving the four -- and missed both the catch, and the ball, giving away a needless four.
52/1 after 10 overs was, from a Pakistan point of view, good. More so, when taken in context of the fact that the three seamers India rotated through were defensive, without being threatening -- and wickets, not defense, holds the key to this chase.
India Innings: Overs 41-50:
Here's a scary thought -- what if all the catches India offered today had been taken?
Pakistan started this session dropping another one: Wahab Riaz angled one across and swung it away late; MS Dhoni -- who even by his lowered batting standards in recent times has been scratchy against both seam and spin here -- poked his bat out and edged; Kamran Akmal dived, got a glove to the ball, and spilt it. In the interests of fairness, this was the most difficult of the half dozen chances that went down, but games have been turned on such takes.
Riaz papered over his colleague's fault a ball later, this time increasing the length, hitting line of leg and straightening it on middle to nail Dhoni in front before the Indian captain could capitalize on the life. Allowing for Dhoni's indifferent batting, though, the wicket was crucial coming when it did -- it meant that India could no longer think of taking the power play and using the presence of two recognized batsmen to produce a spurt.
Afridi, whose captaincy has been the unnoticed, but impressive, facet of Pakistan's smooth progress into the semis, swung into flat out attack, with Ajmal being brought back on, and given a slip and gully against Harbhajan Singh, the herald of the Indian tail.
India opted for the batting power play in the 44th over -- not perhaps what the batting side had originally planned, but better taken with at least Raina, and the combative Harbhajan, at the crease. And it worked, initially, when Ajmal went for eight and Gul, slipping back into his waking nightmare, went for 14 in an over laden with full tosses.
Ajmal pulled it back for Pakistan in the 47th, beating Harbhajan's blind foray down the track to get him stumped. At the other end, Gul (and while on that, Razzaq not being used despite Gul's horror show was a bit surprising) gave away whatever Ajmal had pulled back, and then some -- if only 10 runs came in the 49th over, the credit went not to the bowler but to some stunning ground fielding, first by Wahab Riaz at short square and then by Younis Khan patrolling the long boundary.
The last over, by Riaz, was typical late over mindlessness -- Zaheer preferred to swipe rather than turn the strike over to Raina; Nehra got the idea right but at his ponderous pace, his attempt to sneak a bye to the keeper ended in a run out, and India in sum scrambled to 260/9 at the end of the allotted overs.
For Pakistan, it is hard to think beyond Wahab Riaz, whose spell of 5/46 in his ten made all the difference, and ensured that his side wouldn't have to pay too dearly for shockingly profligate catching. Backing him was Saeed Ajmal and Shahid Afridi while, on the other end of the performance scale, Umar Gul had a shocker and Abdur Razzaq was a passenger.
The target is tantalizing -- on the face of it, not enough on this track, with the bowling attack India has. What is unquantifiable is the impact of nerves as Pakistan comes out to chase. On balance, at the halfway mark, Pakistan has a fractional edge -- it is now down to Munaf and Ashish Nehra to justify their inclusion, and back Zaheer.
India Innings: Overs 31-40:
Okay let's get the hard part over with first: off the last ball of the 35th over, Sachin Tendulkar was dropped. Again. This time, off Hafeez who the batsman tried to half-whip, half-pull off a ball shortish around off. The hit went straight to Umar Akmal who, with Younis Khan, is one of the better fielders in the side. Umar palmed the ball up at midwicket, and tipped it back over his head goal-keeper style. A wit on Twitter said Tendulkar was now batting on 84/6 at the time.
Disproving the 'nine lives' myth, though, Sachin's incredible spree ended at 6. In the 37th over, the batsman aimed another hit at Ajmal and, as so often in the innings, wasn't quite in control. The ball went off the toe of the bat, low and hard, to cover -- and Afridi, who had seen Sachin dropped thrice off his bowling, went low and held a sharp chance to finally end arguably the most bizarre innings the master batsman has played, in any form, in his 22+ years at the top.
This was a period of Pakistan ascendancy, of the bowling side getting a stranglehold on the innings. Here's the story: The 31st over, by Hafeez, produced two; the 32nd, by Gul, produced just one run, and underlined the point we were making in the previous update about how Riaz had rehabilitated the lead seamer; the 33rd by Hafeez was worth two; the 34th by Gul went for 4; the 35th by Hafeez produced 5 runs; the 36th by Afridi was worth 3; the 37th by Ajmal produced two runs and the end of Tendulkar; the 38th by Afridi was worth two; the 39th by Ajmal produced six; and the 40th by Afridi produced 5.
MS Dhoni, Sachin and after him, Raina, were shackled as Pakistan slipped into a style of play the team is familiar with -- rotating rapidly through overs, hustling the batsmen with the speed with which the bowlers wheeled through their gigs, tightening the field with more men in the ring and buzzing around, making a lot of noise...
All of that said, a score of 200/5 at the end of 40 is not exactly something to sneeze at. It would in fact have been a winner if India had batting left in the hut; absent that, MS Dhoni and Suresh Raina need to bat through most, if not all, of the final ten overs, leaving the acceleration to as late as possible, and revising their original plans downwards, looking for a minimum of 60 in this final phase.
India Innings: Overs 21-30:
If the first ten overs was about India rocketing off the blocks, this phase was about Pakistan catching up around the bend, and possibly pulling ahead -- and the weapon of choice was swing, conventional and reverse, in the hands of Wahab Riaz.
Unnoticed in all the excitement is Afridi's captaincy. He was bowling in tandem with Hafeez, but switched Riaz on in his own slot, and the left arm seamer cranked it up. He began getting swing in his first over, but it was only in his second of the spell, and 26th of the Indian innings, that he got all his bowling ducks in a row.
What followed was magic (or carnage, depends where you stand). Virat Kohli got one that slanted across him and landed on length on off; the batsman jabbed at it and seemed taken aback by late away movement -- in the event, he got the edge and for once, the catch was taken (Umar Akmal, at point).
In walked Yuvraj Singh, India's man for all seasons this tournament -- and out he walked, bowled first ball by one of the most scorching yorkers we've seen in a long time. Riaz bowled it fast, got dramatic movement through the air, beat Yuvraj through the air and jumped in delight as the ball crashed into the base of middle stump. Two wickets in two nearly was three in three, with MS Dhoni walking blindly out at the next delivery, his bat held uncertainly in front of him -- the Indian captain was lucky the ball veered marginally past the edge.
If Virender Sehwag's opening blast set the game up for his mates, Riaz's spell with the old ball has done the reverse. Not only did it peg India back and get rid of two big wickets, thus putting a crimp in the ability of the batting side to preserve wickets for a late assault, he has rehabilitated the likes of Umar Gul, who has been away from the attack ever since 41 runs were lashed off his first four overs. With India now forced onto the defensive, the likes of Gul can return with less pressure, knowing India now cannot afford to attack too hard even if he were to bowl long hops. And as we head into the business end of the innings, a mentally rehabilitated Gul with his ability to bowl fast and full at the death could well make the difference.
PostScript: Just to prove nothing much has changed, Sachin got an edge. Again. And Akmal spilt one -- admittedly tough, but catchable. Again. And Afridi suffered. Again. And Sachin, again, mixed up a shocker with an absolutely stunning on the up cover drive for four, just to rub it in to the bowler. At the end of that over, the 30th, India was 169/4, having managed 50 runs for 2 wickets in this period.
India Innings: Overs 11-20:
Despite the pounding, Afridi opted to get the bowling power play over and done with, and teamed himself up with Saeed Ajmal. The 11th over of the Indian innings packed more thrills than Kingda Ka -- and threw up a few moments of potentially game-changing impact. Saeed Ajmal came on to bowl and immediately got sharp turn and some bounce -- which in and of itself raised some questions about India's 3-seam plan.
The second ball of the over landed off and seemed to be straightening on middle and leg; the appeal was ferocious, the umpire was quick to say yes and Sachin Tendulkar -- whose opposition has been the biggest stumbling block to India accepting the DRS -- called for a review after consulting with his batting partner. On replay, the decision looked good -- but HawkEye's predictive path showed the ball slipping past leg stump with an inch to spare.
The next ball was even better -- same line, but going through straight. Sachin played for turn, was beaten, and Kamran Akmal took the bails off in a flash. This time, it was the umpires who wanted a review by the man in the box -- and in a photo finish, it was ruled that it was too close to tell if the toe had been grounded before the bails came off.
Two close shaves in two deliveries can play on even nerves hardened by two decades at the top of world cricket. In the 14th over, Tendulkar pulled the first ball hard to midwicket, and the bowler Afridi clutched his head in despair as Misbah ul Haq fluffed the chance. It was deja vu all over again -- on a famous occasion in a previous World Cup, then skipper Wasim Akram was moved to ask 'Do you know whose catch you've dropped?'. Another World Cup, another catch dropped off Sachin, and Afridi asked the question -- with one eloquent look. When Tendulkar edged the last ball of the 15th over, this time from Ajmal, to the third man boundary just past Kamran Akmal's glove, Pakistan could well have begun to believe in omens -- none of them particularly favorable to the bowling side.
The pace of run-scoring appeared to fall off during this period of uncertain play -- but the perception is relative. 26 runs came in the bowling power play at a tick over 5 rpo -- not electric, but given the start, it didn't have to be.
Both Gambhir and Tendulkar seemed, for a space, to visibly throttle back and try to come to grips with the turn the bowlers were getting. Pakistan meanwhile gave Ajmal -- who by then must have been imagining himself Fortune's favorite fool -- a rest and brought Hafeez back; Gambhir played a cut exquisitely late and, at the other end, Sachin began consciously watching the ball onto the middle of the bat, not bothering too much with offense.
For the second time, a wicket fell just when it seemed unlikely. Gambhir appeared to have sussed out the turn and was playing the double spin attack well, but in the 19th over, he made a mess of something he is otherwise so good at: the down the track shimmy to spin. Mohammad Hafeez beat him in flight, and a panicky Gambhir tried to jab the ball out of the way but failed. Akmal, for the second time, carried out an efficient stumping -- and this time, there was no need for a review, with Gambhir well short of his ground.
It appeared during this session that no one was prepared for this degree of turn -- not the bowlers, who did a surprised double take and took to tweaking it more; not the batsmen, who suddenly found more than the normal number of edges on their bats as the ball spun sharply off length. That left the fielders -- and judging by Pakistan's performance in the field, they are yet to get over the early pummeling and get their minds back on the job.
Illustrative of that last: In the 20th over, Sachin cracked Afridi hard off the front foot, the ball went flat and hard to extra cover and Younis Khan, a safe fielder and, you would think, impervious to pressure, juggled and dropped.
After 20, India has moved to 119/2, with 46 runs coming during this phase for the loss of Gambhir (and of at least four of Sachin's nine lives). Both teams are clearly feeling the pressure of the occasion -- and not for the first time in an India-Pak game, it is increasingly boiling down to which set of players has the stronger mind.
India Innings: Overs 1-10:
In games where the nerve is almost as important as the skill sets, landing the first punch is vital -- and against Pakistan, Virender Sehwag came out with knuckle-dusters. There was a heart-stopping play and miss off the first ball of Umar Gul's opening over and a couple of less risky skirmishes in the subsequent deliveries -- but then he unfurled one of those arrogant on the up drives through covers, and from that point on, Pakistan was about as helpless as a punching bag, and as battered.
Pakistan's ploy was to pack the off side: two slips, plus four more in the cordon on the off to choke Sehwag down and get him making a mistake. Umar Gul was perhaps the best to make that trick work, since accuracy has been a key weapon for him thus far. What followed was a demonstration of just how big a part nerve plays in a game of this kind. Despite the field, Viru blasted a drive, that was just stopped at extra cover. Gul looked to adjust, bringing the line closer to middle -- and in the course of one frenetic over, Sehwag whipped the bowler for three fours through the arc between square leg and midwicket; waited for the bowler to change his line, jumped on the predictable one outside off and blasted it through point -- long story short, five fours streamed off the bat in the 3rd over of the innings.
With the adrenalin flowing freely, Sehwag then went after Razzaq with a flat forehand thump back over the bowler's head, to underline the point that at his pace, with the harder ball, Pakistan's second seamer would be met with contempt. Sachin Tendulkar, watching the fireworks from the best seat in the house, bookended that shot with a flowing square drive for three at the start of that over, and the creamiest of on the up cover drives at the end of the over; India raced to 36 at the end of four and 47 after 5 overs (Umar Gul, who prior to the game had talked of how much he loved the prospect of bowling to Sachin and Sehwag, conceded 33 of those runs in three overs, thanks to 8 fours from Sehwag).
Afridi removed Razzaq from the attack and brought on Wahab Riaz -- and the move worked, with the left arm seamer first banging one down to push Sehwag back, then bowling the fuller length on leg, straightening on leg and middle, to nail Sehwag in front (38 off 25 balls). Sachin, then batting on 8 off 11, promptly took over, replacing Sehwag's bludgeon with his own silken rapier, driving with fluency and grace and whipping off his pads when the bowlers tried to adjust.
After 10, India had moved to 73/1. The real value of that frenetic period powered by Sehwag lies in the amount of pressure he has lifted off his mates -- with this kind of explosive start, the rest can now play pragmatic cricket and still maintain a very healthy rate.
Like we said in a previous post, it's just a game -- but hey, what a game it is. Two teams balanced so evenly, the strengths of the one are the frailties of the other -- and they match up in a cauldron of excitement with a place in the final of cricket's quadrennial showpiece at stake.
We'll be bringing you updates on the progress of the game, every 10 overs, once play begins -- and we will pack each update with information, analysis, the works. (Our live scoreboard, complete with Live Chat, is here. Oh, and I'll be jabbering away on Twitter; my colleagues are updating the Yahoo Facebook page with all sorts of good stuff).
While you wait, some links:
Aakash Chopa on how India versus Pak is a battle of minds
Bikash Singh on two teams that have one thing in common -- they had to topple the reigning champions to get to this point
Video: Zaheer Khan on what an India-Pak contest is all about
Video: Shahid Afridi on what's at stake in an India-Pak match-up
Video: MS Dhoni on the big game, his own form, and other issues
Video: Umar Gul on the thrills of playing India, and bowling to its top ranked batsmen
Video: Mohammad Hafeez on how Afridi has brought this team together
Video: Misbah-ul-Haq on how Pakistan is peaking at the right moment
Update: India wins the toss and will bat first. India also makes one surprising change -- Ravichandran Ashwin, who can bowl tight and field well, has been put back on the bench in favor of Ashish Nehra, who hasn't played enough to be in match form, and is among the worst fielders in the squad.