An awe-inspiring Ricky Ponting dazzled and Sachin Tendulkar hit a delightful fifty but it was the imperious Yuvraj Singh who stole the show to lead India to an exciting semi-final encounter against Pakistan. On a dry pitch, aiding turn, India couldn't remove a wonderfully solid Ponting, but found a way around him to hold Australia to a competitive 260. Tendulkar set the base and the middle order threatened to choke, but Yuvraj played a blinder to charge India to a famous win.
Sometimes, they say, one four can change things around. That cliché came alive today, in the final ball of the 39th over, with India needing 72 from 67 deliveries, when Yuvraj spanked Shaun Tait for a stunning four over backward point. It oozed of skill, impishness and dare under fire. Until then, in the preceding few overs, India choked and spluttered badly to almost hand the game to Australia. That Yuvraj hit over point sensationally turned the game on its head.
The next over proved to be the game-breaker as Brett Lee was looted for 14 runs: Suresh Raina played the most assured pull of his life to crash the first delivery to the boundary and Yuvraj carved the final delivery over point, but it was a shot in between that really reflected the enthralling contest. It was a screaming yorker from Lee, from around the stumps, and Yuvraj crouched, opened the bat-face and stabbed it through to the third man boundary. Lee looked stunned, and you felt that was the moment when India affected the jail break.
Until Yuvraj took ownership of the chase, the pressure-cooker situation had got to India and they were beginning to choke. In five mad overs between the 32nd and 37th, just after Virat Kohli had swiped a full toss from David Hussey straight to midwicket in the 29th over, it was absolute pandemonium as India looked hell bent on self-destruction. Gautam Gambhir tried to run himself out three times and was successful on the final attempt. In the 33rd over, he ran for a non-existent run after Yuvraj had played the ball towards midwicket but Ponting missed the sticks. In the next over, he got into a yes-and-no situation with Yuvraj and would have been run out had Brad Haddin, who dashed to the short mid-on region, thrown it at the non-striker's end. Gambhir was run out next ball, again running mindlessly after Yuvraj stabbed David Hussey wide of the first slip.
India required 93 runs from 101 balls at that stage, but they slipped further into the abyss as MS Dhoni got out after looking edgy. He nearly got involved in a run out, had a big swing and a miss against Lee and perished next delivery, cutting to point to leave India needing 74 from 75 balls. It was then that Yuvraj decided to play the World Cup innings of his life.
The batting Powerplay was the final hurdle, but Raina, who gave admirable support to Yuvraj after Dhoni's exit, walloped the first ball from Lee over long-on and Australia's fight evaporated with that shot.
Before Yuvraj, India's chase revolved almost entirely around Sachin Tendulkar. It was a slow pitch, but Tendulkar played some shots that defied the nature of the track. Tait v Tendulkar in particular lived up to the billing. Tendulkar punched the first delivery he faced, and the first from Tait, through cover point and, upper cut the next legal delivery to the third man boundary. Tait sledged, Tendulkar stared, and the chase was soaked with intensity from then on. Tait was soon out off the attack but returned to silence the crowd. He gave away six runs in his first over on return, which included two wides and also saw Tendulkar getting to his fifty. He struck with the first delivery of his next over, the 19th of the innings, with a delivery released from a slightly round-armish action that held its line outside off stump. Tendulkar tried to steer it to point but edged it to Brad Haddin.
Spare a thought for the Australian captain, probably playing his last World Cup match and to Australia, who were last eliminated before the finals of a World Cup way back in 1992. Whenever Zaheer Khan threatened to push India in front, Ponting shoved Australia ahead. The knock was a microcosm of Ponting the man. It had skill, grit, bloody-mindedness, and dare; it was Ponting. It will probably be the only knock from him that won't be remembered for many scintillating shots and it will be cherished for how responsibly he curbed his natural strokeplay.
There was tremendous poise in how he dealt with the slow nature of the pitch and a great amount of skill in the way he handled spin. Ponting showed sheer grit in the way he held the Australian innings together, and admirable character to do it when he wasn't in great form, on such a big stage. When he was fresh, he had to face Harbhajan Singh, his nemesis, bowling from around the stumps.
Ponting countered him by shuffling to his right and working the ball with the turn. When he was tired, he had to face the reverse-swing from Zaheer. In the middle, he picked Ashwin's carom ball, and mixed caution and aggression against Yuvraj Singh.
Australia's slide and India's resurgence in the middle overs began with an awful shot from Michael Clarke, who top-edged a slog-sweep against Yuvraj to long-on in the 31st over. Zaheer dismissed Michael Hussey with that knuckled slower one to leave Australia wobbling at 140 for 4 in the 34th over. Ponting and David Hussey took the batting Powerplay in the 44th over and added 44 vital runs without losing a wicket. Ponting must have thought he had done all he could to ensure Australia remained in the competition but he was outdone by Yuvraj.