Pakistan v India, 1st Test, Multan, 5th day

Aspiring to greatness

The Wisden Verdict by Sambit Bal

April 1, 2004

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Irfan Pathan: was a threat every time he came on to bowl © Getty Images
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History is already a much-abused term in the context of this series, so let's borrow a phrase from Sanjay Manjrekar, now the face of Ten Sports. Manjrekar was part of a good Indian batting line-up that was humiliated in Australia, South Africa and West Indies and nearly came to grief against Zimbabwe. Manjrekar's batting was instrumental in securing a draw for his team in India's last tour to Pakistan in 1989, and that it was considered almost a victory then speaks of the way the current Indian team have redefined perceptions. Watching the victorious Indian team pose for photographs in the players' balcony, Manjrekar said with wistful candidness, "this is a scene that we only fantasised about".

This is an Indian team that is beginning to live out the collective fantasy of an irrationally cricket-crazy nation. Countries who haven't known the misery of barrenness might find it hard to comprehend the fuss over one Test win, but 50 years is a long wait, and even though Test cricket can no longer compete with one-day cricket in the passion stakes, India will savour and celebrate this win with fervour.

Apart from the apparent chasm in the application of skills in this Test, as the series unfolds, it is becoming increasingly evident that India are able make vital moments their own. Cricket matches can turn in split-seconds and great teams, as Australia have shown in the recent past, are disposed towards grabbing these seconds. Without a Test-series win abroad, India can't claim greatness yet, but increasingly they have shown signs. Starting from Mohammad Kaif's wondrous catch at long-off in the Karachi one-dayer, the Indians have conjured up more such moments than Pakistan. In this Test alone, there were a few.

Pakistan gave Virender Sehwag three clear chances and two difficult ones. India created two dismissals on the fourth day. Inzamam-ul-Haq was run out as much to his own lethargy as a burst of electric athleticism from Yuvraj Singh, who swooped down on the ball and made the throw off balance, beating Inzamam by a fraction of a second. A little later, Aakash Chopra pulled off a catch at forward short leg from a stroke that Abdul Razzaq would have hoped to obtain a couple of runs. Two wickets claimed from nowhere on a pitch that did no favours to the bowlers. That Yuvraj and Chopra have performed similar acts before points not to chance but to growing ability. Add to these two moments that magic ball from Sachin Tendulkar on the stroke of the third-day close that turned Moin Khan into a bumbling novice, and you get a perspective on the match.

Pakistan have inflicted some heavy defeats on India. In scale, this win is nearly as resounding as Pakistan's at Hyderabad in 1982-83, when Javed Miandad and Mudassar Nazar ran up a world-record partnership of 451 to help Pakistan post 581 for 3, after which India were bowled out for 189 and 273. For Miandad, the memory of that match must now be wrenching.

For Anil Kumble, this performance must bring a sense of fulfilment. He contributed handsomely to India's overseas Test wins at Headingley and Adelaide, but the failure to land the decisive blow on the last day in the Sydney Test this January rankled. Despite a lack of match practice, he bowled like a man who has never been away. In the first innings, he bowled well within himself, dropping the ball on a length and sticking to it. With overs behind him and the opposition on the mat, he was more versatile in the second innings, cutting down the pace and bringing the googly into use.

Irfan Pathan had only two wickets to show in the second innings, but throughout the match, he was the best pace bowler on show, and every new day has brought fresh evidence of his growing stature in international cricket. Television montages have shown how similar his wrist-work is to Wasim Akram's, and Pathan has lost no time in seeking out the great Imran Khan. On this heartbreaker of a pitch, he was a threat every time he ran in to bowl, and claimed three wickets with bouncers that had more brain than brawn. Only three Tests old, Pathan has backed his talent with an enormous hunger to absorb new lessons.

Since 2001, India have won six away Tests in as many countries, and given their dismal record, that can be called substantial progress. The next fortnight provides them with the opportunity to make the leap that will put them among the big boys in the Test circuit. Only then will the word "historic" have real significance.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine, and of Wisden Cricinfo in India.

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Sambit Bal Editor-in-chief Sambit Bal took to journalism at the age of 19 after realising that he wasn't fit for anything else, and to cricket journalism 14 years later when it dawned on him that it provided the perfect excuse to watch cricket in the office. Among other things he has bowled legspin, occasionally landing the ball in front of the batsman; laid out the comics page of a newspaper; covered crime, urban development and politics; and edited Gentleman, a monthly features magazine. He joined Wisden in 2001 and edited Wisden Asia Cricket and Cricinfo Magazine. He still spends his spare time watching cricket.
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