With one last effort from Zaheer Khan, the entire country went wild. India's Cricket World Cup might just become theirs to keep on Saturday if they can topple the ominously well-performed Sri Lankans. If India were indeed to emerge victorious in Mumbai, it's almost impossible to imagine the celebrations being more deafening or rapturous than they were on a balmy Wednesday evening. From the stadium in Mohali, to the many streets of Mumbai, to my sleepy tourist town in south Kerala, firecrackers exploded, music blasted, and people... well, people did just about anything they could think of to express their excitement.
This wasn't a run-of-the-mill World Cup semi-final, however, like the previous day between Sri Lanka and New Zealand. This was India v Pakistan, or WAR as a disappointingly large proportion of India's TV channels hyped it, and a face-off between two monumentally passionate rivals both on and off the pitch. You may have heard about how fierce this Indo-Pak rivalry is, but only being here at such a time can really make you understand. Cricket is more than a game here, and the Indian national cricket team is the one religion that has more followers than Hinduism and Islam combined; that said, if the Muslim green of Pakistan stands in opposition, the nation's fervour doubles or triples beyond normal levels. The small matter of it being a vital knockout match remained relevant – but only just.
Everyone talked about this match, from the moment India closed out their match against Sri Lanka to the moment Misbah-ul-Haq finally skied the penultimate ball of Pakistan's allotment. In-between, the merits of seamers Munaf Patel and Ashish Nehra were debated alongside the zest of young spinner Ravichandran Ashwin. (Patel and Nehra surprisingly won selection, and made vital contributions.) Pakistan's power hitters, the all-action captain Shahid Afridi and the sullen Abdul Razzaq, were rubbished from all quarters.
And if there was nobody else to talk about, one could always talk about Sachin.
Thank God India won, because if they hadn't... well, that's a thought best left unimagined. On top of India's present #2 ranking in ODI cricket, on top of the Pakistan factor, and even on top of the fact that they are senior co-hosts of this World Cup: this is to be Sachin Tendulkar's last tilt at the trophy. He's the greatest cricketer of the last twenty years and one of the greatest of all time – perhaps the most revered after Don Bradman – and at 36, he isn't likely to be back. What better way to close out his international career than with a World Cup win for India, a team he's carried on his back for so long that his delight at being suddenly surrounded by fellow matchwinners has manifested in a run of form so exquisite that it almost seems predestined.
India did win, of course, and they won in a similar manner to that of their Sri Lankan counterparts the previous day against NZ: comfortably on paper, but not without struggle and a few mistakes. The infallible Sachin was, for once, fallible as he gave five clear chances for his wicket before finally going. (He still made 85.) The opening bowlers, Zaheer and Nehra, were smacked around by the Pakistani openers before some loose shots opened the game back up. That India managed to triumph by nearly 30 runs is a testament both to some solid bowling and some typically strange batting by Pakistan.
The other semi-final was, as stated, much the same, but with somewhat lower margins. The passion of the Kiwis came through in a way we haven't really seen before – with constant, occasionally vicious sledging of the type more associated with late 90s Australia – and this effectively created a game out of nothing, with the Sri Lankans batting themselves into a great position and then threatening to throw it all away with a rash of silly strokes. Sri Lanka's passage to the final was, however, effectively assured by their remarkable bowlers. They were marshalled by the legendary Muttiah Muralitharan – perhaps the one contemporary of Sachin whose stature is comparable – and the fresh talent of Ajantha Mendis.
The story of the final is likely to be told in the battle between that varied Sri Lankan bowling attack and India's much-vaunted batting lineup. Or the match could just as easily be won or lost in how well India's bowlers cope with Sri Lanka's first four, one of the most in-form top orders of all time – all of whom are in excellent form. All that matters over here is an Indian victory, for then those deafening and rapturous celebrations of Wednesday will scale the greatest heights and contribute to surely one of the proudest moments in the life of any Indian who witnesses it.
Oh, I almost forgot – here's the draw for the final (my prediction in bold):
India v Sri Lanka