Pakistan v India, 2nd Test, Lahore, 1st day April 5, 2004

More than talent

Umar Gul: an honest trier who delivered for Pakistan with unwavering discipline and focus © AFP
You'd think talent was the most important thing in sport, but it isn't. Players at the highest level of the game often find that what is required of them is not to express their talents to the fullest degree possible, but to circumscribe them to the situation. We saw this today when, with the glamour-boy fast bowlers of his team spraying it around, Umar Gul bowled with control and discipline, not trying to do too much with the ball, and ripped through the Indian batting line-up with 5 for 31 in 12 overs. And then, as Gul went off the field to treat a niggle, Yuvraj Singh played well within his phenomenal strokeplaying ability, and hit a mature 112 that took India to 287, after they had been struggling at 147 for 7. Yuvraj batted at a strike-rate of 88, but there was hardly any element of risk to his batting, and he left alone many balls that, if this were a practice session in Chandigarh, he would have loved to smack around.

Both Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Sami were wayward through the day, just as they had been in Multan. If they were not too short, they were too full, and when they were neither, they were wide. They did not seem to have much of a plan, and the fact that the Indians, despite the wickets that fell in a heap, played at close to four-and-a-half runs per over throughout their innings was more due to the indifferent bowling than to any calculated counterattack. Given how hyped these two men are, and how Shoaib loves to shoot his mouth off, even saying that he would like to captain Pakistan, it was a disgraceful performance. The bowling figures at the 38-over mark, when Danish Kaneria came on to bowl the first over of spin, said it all: Shoaib, 1 for 56 in 12 overs; Sami, 1 for 76 in 14 overs. Gul, no glam posterboy but an honest trier, had 5 for 31 in 12.

It is difficult to see how Gul could have bowled any better. The pitch offered some movement, had consistent bounce, and the best strategy for a medium pacer was just to land it on a good length in the corridor, relentlessly, and the wickets would come. Easier said than done, but Gul did it. Of the 44 balls he bowled before lunch (seven overs, with two no-balls; he took 3 for 14 in that time), 41 pitched just outside off stump, and two pitched on off - a McGrathesque corridor line. And what of the remaining two? Well, they were bowled to the left-hander, Yuvraj, and pitched outside leg stump and angled across him. No bad balls in that lot.

To add to his metronomic accuracy, Gul moved the ball both ways, and kept the batsmen guessing. Virender Sehwag was out to one that left him, and Sachin Tendulkar was lbw to one that came in sharply. VVS Laxman, who had been troubled by Shabbir Ahmed's incoming balls in the one-day series, was well sorted out by Gul, as a series of incutters was followed by one that went away, which Laxman followed like an ardent lover, and edged.

Well as Gul bowled, the wickets were not inevitable. Sehwag, Laxman, Rahul Dravid and Ajit Agarkar were all out to balls they need not have played at, though Agarkar, all high backlift and nervous shuffle, would probably not have survived for too long anyway. This Indian innings demonstrated the importance of a strong opening combination. For the first time in his career, Aakash Chopra made less than 25 in the first innings of a Test; and as so often in past overseas series, once the middle order was exposed to the new ball, it unravelled. Chopra is one of those players whose importance will be recognised mainly when he fails, and that is a pity. Forty from him is as important as a hundred in the middle order, in the context of India's needs when they play away from home, and it will be a pity if he is dropped soon, as may happen when Sourav Ganguly returns to the side. Asking Yuvraj to open, and dropping Chopra, may well be how the team management accommodates Ganguly in the side, and that will be hard on Chopra.

Yuvraj Singh has oodles of both talent and temperament, and will make a fine Test player for India © AFP

Yuvraj would then open with Sehwag, who, like him, is a middle-order strokeplayer once considered suited for just the one-day game. With a slight twist in fortunes, their career graphs could have been reversed. In the Coca Cola Cup, a triangular tournament in 2001 in Sri Lanka, Yuvraj was given the chance to open for India in one-dayers. He made 6 and 12 in the two innings he played, and was demoted back down the order as Sehwag got a chance at the top. Sehwag capitalised, and used that platform for his strokeplaying talents to force his way into the Test side, and eventually opened there. Maybe, in some parallel universe, Yuvraj has made 112 instead of 12 in his second game as ODI opener, and opens the batting in Tests instead of Sehwag.

Yuvraj certainly has the skills to play Test cricket. Batsmen with the natural ability of Yuvraj and Sehwag often have to temper their instinct for aggression to succeed at the highest level. They have to reduce the element of risk in their play, but not so much that their very character is straitjacketed. The balance between risk and reward, a critical one, is often difficult to master, and the key to it is in shot selection. Yuvraj, like Sehwag, has found that balance.

Yuvraj's batting in this innings was calm, not affected by the circumstances of the innings, which could have induced panic, or the uncertainty of his Test career, which could have led to excessive, and uncharacteristic, caution. He played a compact game, was content to let balls outside off stump by - unless they were of the length that he could smack for four - and was severe on anything loose. Not that he needed loose bowling to hit boundaries - one of his staple shots is the perfectly timed back-foot punch off the good-length ball that speeds towards the boundary.

Irfan Pathan's batting indicated that he can be a good allrounder for India, just like his hero from Pakistan, Wasim Akram. While he does not have Akram's flair for destruction (we're talking batting here), he does have a solidity and assurance that befits a middle-order batsman. In his innings today, he batted compactly, played the ball late, timed it crisply, and, most importantly, did not have the slightest trace of the diffidence you'd expect from a man who bats at No. 9. Pathan should bat at No. 7 from the next game onwards.

India have reached quite a few peaks in batting in recent times. Two of their three highest scores in Test history have come in the last two Tests. Four of the five highest individual scores in Tests by an Indian are by members of this side; three of them have come in the last four Tests. So was 287 a huge let-down then? Well, oddly, even today, they broke a batting record. On occasions when India have lost seven wickets for less than 150, their highest score has been 277. They bettered that today. But India look less to the past for inspiration, and more to one of the greatest Test sides ever - the current Australian team. Australia fought back from poor first-innings performances to win all three Tests against Sri Lanka recently. What can India do in this one?

Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.