The flags were out in full force, the music blaring, and the atmosphere electric. The cricket, sadly, didn't live up to the billing as India overwhelmed Pakistan by eight wickets to haul their campaign at the ICC World Twenty20 2012 back on track at the R Premadasa Stadium on Sunday (September 30) night.
Beaten out of sight in their first Group 2 Super Eights clash against Australia on Friday (September 28) night, India raised their game several notches, with ball first and then with the bat, to continue their hegemony over Pakistan in ICC events. A victory fashioned by the slower bowlers was completed in grand style by Virat Kohli, who again batted like a dream as India opened their tally, though Pakistan continued to occupy second place in the group standings behind Australia, the runaway leader. (Also read: The dynamics of qualifying)
Pakistan's 128 was never going to seriously test India, not even given the potency and versatility of their bowling attack. With Kohli in complete control and Virender Sehwag celebrating his return with a handy knock, India knocked off the runs with three overs to spare, reaching 129 for 2 in 17 overs.
Pakistan must have believed they stood a real chance when Raza Hasan, the left-arm spinner, elicited a return catch from Gautam Gambhir in the second over of the chase, but once Kohli found his feet, there was only one way this contest was headed.
Kohli began nervily, edging Hasan to third man for a fortuitous boundary, but as he got the measure of the pitch, he treated the bowling with scant respect. Saeed Ajmal, expected to be the biggest threat, was systematically dismantled through clever use of the feet - both in dancing down the track or using the depth of the crease - while the pacers were driven on the up or over the top with tremendous elan and regularity.
Sehwag was subdued only in comparison, though there were a few signs that the confidence was slowly returning. There was one rasping cut off Umar Gul but otherwise he was content to play second fiddle during the second-wicket stand of 74 that took India closer to victory.
Kohli and Yuvraj Singh, who had played a key role with the ball earlier in the evening, hastened the end with beefy blows, although they were helped along by shoddy Pakistani ground fielding and catching. Sehwag was put down once by Shahid Afridi, while Kohli was let off twice, by Umar Akmal and Imran Nazir. He made them pay with a punishing unbeaten 78, and his highest Twenty20 International score won him the Man of the Match award.
Pakistan had begun like a house on fire after Hafeez chose to bat, helped in no small measure by a terrible first over from Zaheer Khan that evoked memories of his horror start in the ICC Cricket World Cup 2003 final against Australia. It was a nine-ball over which yielded 13 runs, including eight off wides, and to make matters worse, Hafeez was put down off the last ball by Sehwag, flying to his right at slip.
When Nazir inside-edged Irfan Pathan's first ball of the second over to fine-leg, it appeared as if all the luck was running Pakistan's way. However, all that was to change dramatically.
Pathan won a shout for leg before off the very next delivery and, almost inexplicably, Pakistan pushed Afridi up the order to No. 3. Admittedly, Afridi has had success against India in the past, but he has been in atrocious batting form. Nasir Jamshed, the regular No. 3, has not only been among the runs but made a hundred in his last game against India, at the Asia Cup in Dhaka in March.
Afridi began in the only manner he knows, smashing Pathan over his head first ball for a scorching boundary, but it didn't take Dhoni too long to suss up that the best way to go on this track was to take the pace off the ball. Between them, Zaheer and Pathan bowled only six overs; L Balaji was given a fourth and final over mainly because of the changes in pace he is so good at, while the remaining overs were filled in, brilliantly, by R Ashwin, Yuvraj and Kohli.
There had been some question marks over Yuvraj's match fitness coming into this game, and he allayed all fears emphatically. Not only did he bowl his four overs tidily, and for the wickets of Jamshed and Kamran Akmal, but he also scored a direct hit from point, showing great alacrity to swoop on the ball and line up his throw to account for Yasir Arafat.
Kohli's dismissal of Hafeez was a bit of a bonus but India wasn't complaining. It meant despite the roaring start, Pakistan had lost half the side with just 59 on the board. But it also meant that they had Shoaib Malik and Umar Akmal to contend with.
Malik has always feasted on the Indian bowling, and once he hit his stride with a four over cover off a Kohli free-hit full toss, Pakistan threatened briefly. Malik continued to play his strokes with impunity while Akmal was more industrious, running hard between the wickets as the sixth-wicket pair added 47 in just 34 deliveries.
With five overs left, Pakistan had set themselves up nicely for a final assault when Ashwin came to the party, dismissing both batsmen by foxing them with his subtle changes of angle. With that went any hope of Pakistan posting a competitive total. It was almost game, set and match India even at that stage.