| Sachin Tendulkar drives en route to his 98 at Centurion on Saturday. (Reuters) n See Sport
Centurion, March 1: It had become an annual ritual for Wasim Akram to taunt the Indians. “The fear factor keeps them away from Pakistan,” he would say with unfailing regularity. Now, Akram will have to re-think his lines: The renewal game, billed as the hottest in World Cup 2003, ended in a josh-generating six-wicket win for India.
Chasing Pakistan's 273 for seven, India finished on 276 for four in the 46th over, an effort which left captain Sourav Ganguly speechless. "I don't have words to describe our happiness... Everybody at home must have been glued to the TV and we've given them something to smile about," he said.
The victory, first over Pakistan since March 2000 (Sharjah), gave India the second spot in Pool A and their Super Six matches will be in Cape Town (March 7), Johannesburg (March 10) and the SuperSport Park here (March 14). Barring Kenya, the other Pool B qualifiers are yet to be identified.
Shoaib Akhtar, of course, was nowhere to be seen. The other day, accent and all, he vowed to target all 11 Indians. This afternoon, he went for 72 in ten overs and must now shut up. Even if he wished to say something, from some corner of the dressing room, the patakas --- yes, it was a throwback to Diwali --- must have silenced him.
Pakistan's hope of making the next stage is dependant on Pool A toppers Australia bea- ting England tomorrow and they themselves putting it across Zimbabwe on Tuesday. Should Pool A end that way, the NRR will determine the third qualifier.
"There's a chance, through the back door... Bottomline is our bowling just wasn't dis- ciplined... We bowled on both sides and paid the price," lamented a shattered Waqar Younis. He may himself eventually pay the heaviest price: Being stripped of the captaincy.
Losing to India is bad enough. It's worse if that defeat sends the team out of the World Cup.
Today's game was preceded by an extraordinary gesture --- both teams shaking hands and the captains exchanging the team tie --- but was pretty hard fought throughout. To top it all, there were brilliant performances from Man of the Match Sachin Tendulkar (scintillating 98) and Saeed Anwar (composed 101).
Moreover, at the finish (in the presence of around 10,000 emotional Indian fans), unb- eaten were the consistent Rahul Dravid (44) and the quickly maturing young turk Yuvraj Singh (50). Their 99-run partnership is what nailed Pakistan after Sachin's whirlwind start.
There are times a 98 is worth a 298. This afternoon was one such occasion. "I took guard with my mind blank... Only, if I picked the line early, I would go for my shots... That's what happened," explained a grinning Sachin, who has already collected three MoM awards.
Not surprisingly, Sachin ranked his innings with the very best and added: "Ever since the schedule was announced, almost a year-and-half back, people would keep telling me that our date with Pakistan was on March 1... Well, my wife (Anjali) just called to say that ce- lebrations have begun in a big way. I hope that continues."
Aware that the opening over itself could set the tone, Sachin decided to take first strike, though he prefers the No.2 slot on the scoreboard. "It was a big game and we had a big total to surpass... That's why I chose to face Akram," he remarked, confirming that his discomfort was only due to cramps.
"He's a champion," is how Sourav saluted his numero uno player. He couldn't have chos-
en a better adjective, not after Sachin (who crossed 12,000 runs in ODIs) propelled India to an amazing 120 for two in the opening 15 overs.
Actually, Pakistan shot themselves in the foot even before the match when they omitted Saqlain Mushtaq. It's an understatement that Waqar missed him as never before.
Significantly, the Indians have taken their (all-win) World Cup record versus Pakistan to four: Sydney (1992), Bangalore (1996), Manchester (1999) and, now, Centurion. In the tournament that matters, they have been unbeatable, with Sachin featuring in the XI all four times.