India unearthed a new hero on Wednesday in Ashish Nehra. During his outstanding 6 for 23 against England in the World Cup, he reminded me of a young Wasim Akram with his pace and swing. If he is half as successful as Wasim has been for Pakistan, India will have made a golden discovery.
His performance was also reminiscent of Gary Gilmour's six for 14 at Leeds that blew England out of the 1975 World Cup. If this hasn't blown England away, it has seriously put the skids under its campaign for 2003. On the evidence of its performance against England, spirit and confidence is returning to this Indian side. The batting was disciplined and key players are running into good form at the right time, while the fielding and bowling was high on intensity and enthusiasm.
India could yet have a big part to play in the business end of this campaign. While it is important to have the associate countries involved at the World Cup, there is something extra about the excitement generated when the big boys meet. Kingsmead Stadium was buzzing and the tension was palpable as the starting time approached. This was going to be an important toss to win. Batting is always more difficult under lights but even more so in the humidity of Durban. As the sun sets a heavy dew descends and the batting conditions are as different as night is to day.
India got the advantage at the toss and set about making the most of it. Sachin Tendulkar batted with his usual high intensity but, importantly, with a freedom seldom seen lately. He had a good look at the first few overs from Caddick and Anderson with the new ball. Both sides tested each other's resolve. England pushed first then Tendulkar pushed back. The first hour was intriguing cricket. It was overs eight and nine before the Indian openers changed the complexion of the proceedings.
First Virender Sehwag picked James Anderson off for three fours in the eighth over, then Tendulkar unleashed his pent up fury on Andy Caddick. First a four, then a six as Caddick adjusted his length and the Indian juggernaut seemed to switch up a gear or two. The England bowlers were now put under pressure as the run rate accelerated. Anderson was struggling into the wind and Caddick was losing the psychological battle. Hussain was forced into his first bowling change and with Flintoff coming on to replace Anderson, a sudden change came over the game.
Flintoff instantly hit a beguiling line and length and Sehwag fell to a return catch from a leading edge. Sehwag was trying to force a ball he should have been gliding to leg. Tendulkar then flowed into top gear. He is hard to bowl to in this mood and in the eleventh over he hit Caddick for three fours. The second of these was the shot of the day in my book. Having just hit Caddick for four to the onside of the bowler's stumps he was forced to adjust to a variation of pace around off stump.
Tendulkar waited a fraction of a second as he walked into position then punched what was a good delivery straight back past the bowler. This was an example of a master daubing the canvas with brilliant colour and some subtle texture. Drinks came and went, closely followed by Tendulkar. Flintoff tiptoed in and bowled a ball of excellent length, not too full but not quite short enough for the forcing shot attempted by Tendulkar. Tendulkar, looking to come forward, was forced back to attention and the extra bounce carried the ball from a thick edge to Collingwood on a deep gully line.
The whole of India took a deep breath as the game took a not so subtle shift to England. Flintoff continued to bowl brilliantly. Dinesh Mongia struggled to make an impact but the captain showed signs of a resurrection in confidence. Saurav Ganguly seemed well aware that another wicket or two would expose a sizeable tail. With Ganguly and Mongia removed, Dravid became the pivotal player. He has been much maligned as a One-day player but now that a role has been found for him as wicket- keeper he needed to repay the faith. On Wednesday he made a hefty deposit.
Along with Yuvraj Singh, Dravid ensured that India set a reasonable target. While Tendulkar had been there, a heady 300 seemed possible but Flintoff exploded that dream. In fact, it appeared that Flintoff may have done enough to set the foundation for a man of the match award and a win for a revitalized England. Nehra's heroics and a brittle England batting line-up put paid to both of those hopes. One of the questions that should be asked at the highest level is whether World Cup matches should be played at night. I think not.