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Sublime Tendulkar powers India to victory

India 260 for 4 (Tendulkar 97, Yuvraj 53*, Dhoni 45*) beat Pakistan 255 for 6 (Yousuf 99*, Younis 68, Zaheer 2-40) by six wickets

Sachin Tendulkar fell within tantalising distance of a first match-winning century in a run chase since July 2001, but India weren't to be denied as they romped to a six-wicket victory [with 21 balls remaining] that wrapped up the series with a match to spare. As in 2006, when India won 4-1 in Pakistan, there was a considerable gulf between the two sides, best exemplified by Tendulkar's sublime batting as India set about their pursuit of 256. Pakistan's total owed much to their own 90s man - Mohammad Yousuf finished the innings on 99 not out - but ultimately, they paid the price for their diffidence in the Powerplay, when only 79 runs were scored.

On a pitch where most other batsmen were restricted in their shot-making, Tendulkar played with the fluency and confidence of old, finding gaps with effortless ease. To compound Pakistan's problems, Shoaib Akhtar, who bowled with genuine menace for three overs, went off with what looked like a shin injury after completing his fourth. He returned only in the 25th over, by which time India were well past half-way. In his absence, Tendulkar unveiled some stunning drives, including a couple of pushes through the covers off the back foot that brought back memories of the halcyon years.

Sourav Ganguly and Gautam Gambhir didn't make much of an impression. Ganguly poked one into the slip cordon off Shoaib, and Gambhir pulled a poor delivery from Rao Iftikhar Anjum straight to Sohail Tanvir at midwicket. That brought Virender Sehwag to the crease, and though he was scratchy early on, Tendulkar's punched drives and measured clips off the pads gave him the time to play himself into form. A chop behind point set the tone, and a withering cover drive then suggested that Redemption Road wasn't too far away.

After Shahid Afridi had stemmed the tide for a couple of overs, it was Sehwag who once again unleashed mayhem with a huge six over midwicket. Tendulkar followed suit with three magnificent drives through cover, each timed better than the previous one. By the time the second drinks break arrived, he was on 97, a deft swish away from that elusive 42nd century.

Instead, the first delivery from Umar Gul on resumption was dragged back on to the stumps. Tendulkar stayed hunched over his bat in disbelief for a few moments before trudging off to muted applause from a crowd frozen with shock. It was his sixth score in the 90s in his last 21 innings, and it was evident the jinx has preyed on his mind.

It didn't matter in the larger scheme of things though. Yuvraj Singh had been magnificent all series, and his favourite drives and flicks were in evidence as the target was whittled down. Mahendra Singh Dhoni chipped in with some meaty blows of his own as Shoaib Malik looked on, bereft of answers. Shoaib had once again asked probing questions, but the rest had been powerless to stem the relentless Indian tide.

Yousuf's splendid innings earlier in the afternoon was almost as eye-catching, with some glorious drives through the covers and a lofted six over midwicket off Harbhajan Singh. As ever, he was immensely strong off the pads, and with Misbah-ul-Haq ticking along at a run a ball, the run-rate crept towards five in the final stages of the innings.

India didn't let things drift though. The bowlers, both pace and spin, were fairly accurate, and the fielding a marked improvement on the previous games. Even Ganguly played his part, with his 100th ODI wicket being Afridi, unfortunate to be given leg-before after being struck just outside the line of off stump.

At that stage, Pakistan were in disarray at 131 for 4, with Younis having looped a return catch to Yuvraj Singh off the leading edge. He had anchored the innings, scoring 68, and adding 78 with Malik for the second wicket.

Malik surely wouldn't have bargained for Salman Butt lasting only two balls. RP Singh, taking the new ball, shaped the ball from leg to middle to trap him plumb in front, 129 short of what he had scored on Sunday. Left to consolidate, he and Younis did so mainly in singles, and even those didn't come along frequently.

It took 14 overs for the 50 to be raised, and there was a moment of controversy as the Indians claimed a catch behind off Younis. Amiesh Saheba made the right decision though, with the ball having bounced before nestling in Dhoni's gloves. Pakistan were just beginning to shed the shackles when Zaheer Khan picked up his 200th ODI wicket. Malik's heave against the line was an ugly one, and it got what it deserved - an inside edge on to the stumps.

With the run-rate still below four after the last of the Powerplays, acceleration was required and, though Yousuf signalled his intent with a loft down to long-on off Yuvraj Singh, India refused to loosen the grip. Younis was given a reprieve on 48, when Dhoni missed a tough stumping chance off the pads, and it was left to him and Yousuf to ensure India would have a tricky target to chase under lights. That a potential ordeal became a stroll owed much to the genius of one man. That he still hasn't figured out the answer [42] to the Ultimate Question shouldn't detract from the majesty of his effort.



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