India repeats miracle as triumphant against Australia in Sharjah 1998 Highlights | Win + Celebration
Is sport at its best when it throws up the unpredictable? Or does it reach its heights when a genius shows up and makes the improbable look utterly predictable? It would be the cheesiest of movie scripts: our hero bats out of his skin against the world's best team to drag his struggling side into the final of a tournament where they meet the same opponents, and beat them thanks to another masterful effort from our hero, who, hang on, happens to be celebrating his 25th birthday.
Two days on from his 143 amid swirling sands, Sachin Tendulkar scored another majestic hundred in a tall chase, to almost singlehandedly put the Sharjah tri-nations cup in India's hands. More than that, the quality of his batting ensured that this tournament - a cola-flavoured tri-series in an ocean of cola-flavoured tri-series - will transcend its immediate context and live in the memory well beyond the careers of those involved in it.
Decades from now, highlights of this tournament will fill our TV screens whenever April 24 comes along, bringing us the gleeful faces, fated never to age, of the fans who - as Tony Greig put it two days ago - danced in the aisles. We'll still be talking about Shane Warne going round the wicket, and Tendulkar greeting the move by jumping out of his crease, exposing all three stumps, and launching the ball out of the footmarks and over long-on for six. The cover drives, the back-foot punches, the paddle-sweeps, the straight drives off Damien Fleming and Warne, respectively, that left Sourav Ganguly and Steve Bucknor, respectively, on their backsides; these will remain seared in our memories.
But for all that, Tendulkar has scored - and will score - hundreds far more challenging than this 25th birthday bash. Australia's attack contained only three frontline bowlers, leaving batting allrounders Tom Moody, Mark Waugh and Steve Waugh to fill at least two-fifths of their bowling quota. During certain stretches of Tendulkar's innings, all he had to do was milk these lesser bowlers for singles to the deep fielders, singles that Australia were happy to give away in the low-intensity waiting game that the middle overs of ODI innings often are.
Australia's lack of genuine wicket-takers, apart from Warne and Fleming - who, incidentally, was celebrating his 28th birthday - forced them to play this waiting game and hope for India to crumble under scoreboard pressure. This could have happened had India lost a couple of early wickets, or - as they did in the last round-robin game two days ago - a couple of quick wickets midway through their chase, but they didn't, as Ganguly, Nayan Mongia - once again promoted to No. 3 - and Mohammad Azharuddin all played useful hands around Tendulkar. Without those wickets, the target Australia set - 273 - was challenging but not nearly enough given their bowling resources, and given Tendulkar's astonishing form.
Australia could have set a bigger target had they not lost clumps of wickets at inopportune moments. There were three within the first six overs of their innings, when the naggingly accurate Venkatesh Prasad and the nippy but far more erratic Ajit Agarkar got the ball to nibble around off a surface with a bit of moisture in it. There were two more following a 59-run fourth-wicket partnership between Adam Gilchrist and Michael Bevan, both against the run of play. Gilchrist top-edged a loose cut off the part-time offspinner Hrishikesh Kanitkar, Bevan was run-out after a mix-up that left him and Steve Waugh at the same end.
Being five down with 23 overs remaining didn't hurt Australia immediately, as Steve Waugh and the brilliantly inventive Darren Lehmann put on 103 off just 96 balls, clinically milking the part-timers and taking toll whenever Agarkar - who still showed signs of the groin strain that kept him out of India's previous game - erred in line or length. But even the exaggerated depth of Australia's batting - the flip side of playing only three frontline bowlers - was tested when Waugh holed out in the 43rd over. Lehmann pressed on - the highlight of his innings a pair of back-to-back boundaries off Anil Kumble, a muscular leg-side six that he followed up by making room to carve a middle-stump ball through point.
India overturned the form of the past week to win the final at a canter. They began well: by the fifth over both Mark Waugh and Ponting had been caught behind. When Moody was given out in similar fashion, Australia were 26 for three. The third umpire confirmed that the ball had indeed carried; the fact that it had not struck Moody's bat was outside his remit. Australia rallied and, thanks to Steve Waugh and Lehmann, who added 103 from 96 balls, set a stiff target. But, to the delight of the partisan spectators, Tendulkar celebrated his 25th birthday by hitting a second successive century, his 15th in one-day internationals. Earlier, Prasad took his 100th one-day international wicket when he dismissed Kasprowicz.
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