India's players run on to the field to greet Zaheer Khan and Mohammad Kaif
Martyn Hayhow / © AFP/Getty Images

20 Greatest ODIs: No. 7

The two-man heist

When Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif did their team proud in a tall chase in England

Sharda Ugra  |  

England vs India, NatWest Series final, Lord's, 2002

India won by 2 wickets

We call this ODI NatWest. Just NatWest - which covers not one match but a passage of history whirling with emotion. Indian cricket's love for the word NatWest should please the sponsor bank, except, to us, so sorry, NatWest has nothing to do with them, their loans or interest rates.

NatWest stands for outrageousness, 146 for 5, Bob Willis' nasal doomsday dirge ("might be the death knell for India"), India's gum-chewing Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid, one pillar, one wire, drawn differently but driven together. Bold strokes being splashed all over Lord's, Nasser's frown going deeper into his visage, a frozen dressing room, a scrambled two, sunlit dust flying at Lord's, whirling shirts on the balcony, Devdas, a visiting horde marauding their way through the Long Room and out into the light.

Hold on. Devdas, you say? Yes, the movie Devdas. Made for the gazillionth time, in opulent HD - Shahrukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai, tsunamis of tears. Its connection with the game was so wonderfully wacko that it didn't have to be true, but said connection was confirmed by Mohammad Kaif himself.

NatWest stands for outrageousness, 146 for 5, Bob Willis' nasal doomsday dirge, India's gum-chewing Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid

We're getting ahead of things here. Let's set this up properly.

From the start of 1999, India played nine finals of multi-team series before this one and lost eight; the ninth was abandoned. Of those eight, they chased in five. The closest of those defeats was by 16 runs, to West Indies in Harare, in the Coca Cola Cup. In early 2002, when England toured India for a six-match ODI series, India led 3-1 four games in, but allowed England to draw level; all the defeats in that series came when chasing 250-plus targets.

India might have been leading contenders for the title of clutch-game pushovers back then, but they breezed through the three-team NatWest Series without a care, losing only one match out of six completed ones, beating England once in three matches (one was washed out) and Sri Lanka three in three. After three weeks of form and promise it was the final at Lord's and they were chasing 326. Except, India had never successfully chased 300-plus outside Asia ever in ODIs. You didn't get too many 300-plus scores outside Asia in any case - there were 57 from 1855 ODIs then.

England had two centuries from their ranks in the final: Marcus Trescothick and Nasser Hussain in a 185-run partnership. After Tresco left, Hussain and Andrew Flintoff put up 80, and upon reaching his century, Hussain signalled energetically to the press-box TV commentators who had been moaning about whether he deserved his No. 3 spot.

In reply, it was game on. India's openers were rocket boys - they went past 100 off the first ball of the 14th over; 225 balls left, 224 to get. Inside ten deliveries, the rockets had crash-landed, Sourav Ganguly and Virender Sehwag gone to Alex Tudor and Ashley Giles, the fireworks followed by fizzle. Inside another five overs, Dinesh Mongia, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid were all gone, to produce the doomsday score from where magic would be wrought: 146 for 5.

Read my back: Nasser Hussain directs the press box to get a load of the No. 3 on his shirt

Read my back: Nasser Hussain directs the press box to get a load of the No. 3 on his shirt Tom Shaw / © Getty Images

When Butch and Sundance got together at that score, some Indian fans were seen leaving, which was just rude. Yuvraj Singh had showed off his electric talent at the ICC Knock Out in 2000, shredding Australia in the quarter-final. Kaif had played first-class cricket for Uttar Pradesh before captaining India's first Under-19 World Cup-winning team in Sri Lanka. Tudor was to confirm: "Not many had heard about Yuvraj then, and Kaif was just another one of those from the conveyor belt."

Kaif, at No. 7, left a dressing room where it felt "too difficult for us to win from there. Everyone just looked like having given up when Sachin got out." He thought England believed the match was as good as won. "Aisa koi faaltu player aaya hain [Some useless player has come in to bat]," he imagined them thinking. What they didn't realise was that this was a more modern kind of conveyor belt, with cricketers of physicality, fitness and self-belief, free of 1990s baggage.

Yuvraj and Kaif had been U-19 buddies who did fielding drills together, competed and egged each other on in the infield at point and cover.

Inside nine overs, India added 50 without risk, as if the two were just continuing from where they had left off in junior cricket, moving the score along, hitting boundaries when they could. When they looked at each other, Kaif said, "both of us realised we were hungry - to score runs and to win".

The ball being changed with 15 overs left marked a confident acceleration. Hello fast-moving spherical object, goodbye reverse swing. When it came down to 69 off ten, hope and anxiety had begun to switch sides. The Indian dressing room realised the kids had it under control - Yuvraj was cleaning up Flintoff and Kaif was sending Tudor into the square-leg stands. Nobody moved.

Adrenaline, relief, triumph had Kaif run bat aloft, madly, in the wrong direction, as if he was trying to take over Buckingham Palace

One last twist came when Yuvraj, star of the show, fell with 59 needed off 50, leaving Kaif and the tail. Harbhajan Singh's one-handed six off Paul Collingwood was a sign that India refused to lose. Eight down with 12 runs needed off 13 balls brought another kid, Zaheer Khan, to the crease, focused on turning over the strike over to Kaif.

A wild edge for four by Kaif to end the 49th over simplified things but it complicated them too - India only needed two to win but Zaheer had the strike. Even with the field up, it was always going to be tip and run, and two dot balls later, Zaheer nudged ball with bat and took off. An overthrow had Kaif diving into the crease to save himself from being run-out while completing the first run, then jumping onto his feet, spinning around and haring down the track for the winning second. Adrenaline, relief, triumph had him run bat aloft, madly, in the wrong direction, as if he was trying to take over Buckingham Palace.

Cut to Ganguly on the balcony. He ripped off his shirt and swung it around his head, eyes blazing, neckchains, taveezes and whatnot awhirl. His shouting could easily be lip-read. It was his riposte to Andrew Flintoff, who had run around the Wankhede shirtless six months earlier, when England levelled the ODI series.

I was watching this in Delhi with my aunt and her grandson, no more than seven. Eyes fixed to the TV, he began to let off sparks himself. Instantly his T-shirt came off, and in solidarity with Ganguly, he waved it over his head. "Masi, what is Ganguly saying?" Never mind, kid, just enjoy it. You will remember this day.

By itself, winning the NatWest Series was merely India ending up being the best of three teams that English summer. But it was the manner in which it was won, by whom and how on earth, that makes the result resonate across time.

The kids did it: Mohammad Kaif and Yuvraj Singh were both not yet 21 when they pulled off the win

The kids did it: Mohammad Kaif and Yuvraj Singh were both not yet 21 when they pulled off the win Matthew Fearn / © PA Photos/Getty Images

After losing nine finals, the tenth was won from a most unlikely position, by a bunch of kids not known outside India. After the match, India coach John Wright tried to make sense of the heist. "When Yuvraj and Kaif got together, there were no rules," he said. "They said, 'We're not supposed to lose these games.' They were not conditioned to failure." The win marked the arrival of India's new-millennium cricketers, who turned up among the big boys and turned on the big lights themselves.

Over the seasons that followed, they had epic careers for India - within a year, they were the core of the first Indian team to make a World Cup final after 20 years. Within the next ten, Yuvraj was instrumental in India winning two pieces of ICC silverware. Harbhajan, Zaheer and Ashish Nehra would be there on those nights. Sehwag went on to redraw the contours of Test match opening batsmanship.

But how does Devdas fit in?

This was a Hindi film, a remake of a classic about an unrequited, perennially drunk and weepy lover. The film was airing at Allahabad's Vishwamitra cinema hall, and at 146 for 5, Kaif's parents and brother Saif decided to forego the match and catch the movie. Oldest brother Asif chose a Saturday-night stroll around the neighbourhood instead, and during his perambulations, noticed crowds gathering, noise building around TV screens, in teashops and next to paan stalls. Then more shouting, clapping, cheering, clamour rising, wild festivities on the street, mithais being passed around. Asif was noticed and sucked into the epicentre. Along with friends and random folk in a state of joyous bedlam, he rushed towards Vishwamitra, burst into the hall and found his family. Enough with Devdas and this bloody weeping. You won't believe what has happened.

The most wondrous bit - 326 is still the highest successful chase in the final of any multi-team ODI event.

Sharda Ugra is a sportswriter