Brisbane, Mar 4: In the final installment of its 29-year existence, a series that has become a nostalgic part of Australia's summer culture came to a climactic end with a fitting humdinger at the Gabba.
Twenty three years on from India's last significant limited-overs title in Australia, Sachin Tendulkar helped script another memorable chapter with an innings of skill and determination. There was to be no repeat of his twin centuries against Australia in 1998, but his 91 set up a total which, backed by Praveen Kumar's subtle-swinging accuracy, proved nine runs too much for Australia.
In a game that ebbed and flowed wonderfully, James Hopes took Australia agonizingly close to victory with his maiden fifty after Praveen returned from an 11-run 45th over to snap a threatening eight-wicket stand. In the days when Australia dominated this tournament regularly Steve Waugh earned the moniker 'Ice Man' and under starry skies Hopes and Praveen gave it a modern context.
Hopes battled on with comfortable sweeps against the spinners and some deft placement down the ground. There was not a trace of emotion on face as he raised his fifty. Similarly, having given up 11 runs in his penultimate over, Praveen displayed awesome composure to bowl a three-run 47th, cleaning up Lee.
That left Australia needing 29 from 18 balls. Sreesanth picked up a second but Hopes refused to bow down, flat-batting a six over wide long-on to cue virtual hysteria. With 13 required off the final over, Pathan came back on. A single to third man exposed Nathan Bracken, who chipped a slower ball to midwicket. Hopes crossed and drove a manic couple to long-off but could only drive the fourth ball into midwicket's diving lap. Sinking to the ground as India whooped and cried around him, Hopes cut an endearing figure, a hero on a losing side, but the entire Brisbane crowd stood to applaud a pulse-setting, nerve-wracking game.
It was a contest that would have even put Evil Knievel on a respirator and was set-up by yet another masterclass from Tendulkar. In nearly three hours of nimble-footed driving mainly to the off side, interspersed with soft on-side strokes, Tendulkar treated an appreciative crowd to a fine innings. India were steady during the Powerplays, scoring 36, 30 and 26 in three blocks, but made their best opening of the tournament. The ball didn't speed away to the ropes when the openers leaned into their drives and so they smartly adjusted gears, keeping the outfielders busy through a mixture of full-faced dabs to third man and flicks to deep square leg.
Tendulkar had a life on 7 when Ricky Ponting dropped a hard reflex catch at short cover, and he made it count. An utterly mistimed pull attempt off Nathan Bracken was the first sign of frustration but he quickly regained composure and decided to target Stuart Clark. His fifty came up from his 70th delivery and India had successfully chipped out a good start.
Some needless shots, however, allowed Australia back in. India would have preferred even 280 after this but having seized the initiative they allowed it to slip in a flurry of impetuous shots. Hopes allowed just one run in the 45th over, Bracken was accurate with his crafty mix of yorkers and slower deliveries, taking two wickets in the 48th over, and Lee kept it full as well.
At the SCG Tendulkar backed the bowlers with a sublime century and today they repaid him for his application. Especially Praveen, who for the second time in two high-pressure matches justified his new-ball promotion with the wickets of Australia's three most dangerous batsmen. Adam Gilchrist's final innings came to end with an edge and a walk but it was Ponting's horrendous attempt a pull shot that really set off the alarm bells.
Michael Clarke's ability to judge length has been his boon in the tournament but he lost his off stump, playing a crude swipe across the line, to one that stayed low. Hayden made the most of mess-up between Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Tendulkar, at first slip, when he was on 5, to keep the asking rate in control. Irfan Pathan was again the target of Hayden's ire and went for 37 from his first five overs. Hayden put on 89 with Andrew Symonds, whose eventful season continued with him shoulder charging, and Australia looked to be in the game.
At this stage Australia required another 138 and Michael Hussey showed there was fire in Australia's belly. Paddling and sweeping his way energetically in a 76-run stand with Hopes, he threatened to take the series to Adelaide. Hunting a target at over eight an over finally got to him, and he under-edged Sreesanth for a cool 44 in the 42nd over.
The rest turned into a tense harum-scarum, one which India held their nerves to triumph. India, after a long and controversial tour Down Under, head home with their heads held high. The last time Australia surrendered back-to-back series was 1983-84 and 1984-85, against West Indies, and 23 years later this loss would come as a chastening blow.