Strangling the opponent
The stadia in Pakistan may have been virtually empty* for the Tests so far, but that has not been due to the quality of the cricket. This Lahore Test has showcased Test cricket at its best. Unlike at Multan, this was a contest, with both teams playing with discipline and gumption to try to win the game. There were passages of play filled with aggression, with attack and counterattack; there were sessions which were all about attrition, with each side displaying plenty of patience. Unlike what you would normally expect on a subcontinent pitch, the bowlers had as much to cheer, if not more, than the batsmen. At the end of the third day, Pakistan seem likely to win, levelling the series in the process. But for once, a battle between these two sides would have been decided not by the ineptness of the loser, as in the first Test, but by the excellence of the winner.
Pakistan began the day 68 ahead, and with seven wickets still in hand. India, when faced with such situations, have tended, historically, to give up hope and fall apart. Their captains of the past would look around listlessly, their bowlers and fielders would go through the motions, and they would be hoping less to win the Test than to save it when they batted a second time. But this Indian team, as we have seen over the last few months, has a steel that goes rather well with the velvet flair India have often been known for. Australia, the team that India hope to emulate, conceded a first-innings lead seven times in their 57 Tests under Steve Waugh - and lost not a single one of those games, winning three and drawing four. "Throw in the towel?" one can imagine them sneering, "We'd much rather strangle our opponent with it."
Irfan Pathan and Lakshmipathy Balaji bowled magnificent spells in the morning, and they were superbly backed by their fielders. Both of yesterday's wickets - those of Imran Farhat and Yasir Hameed - could be attributed to impetuous strokes by the batsmen, but today's were all earned. Pathan, who has plenty of heart to go with his fine cricketing brain, had bowled excellently on the second day for no wickets, but he was fired up rather than discouraged by that lack of reward. Bowling with a ball that was 23 overs old, he got plenty of inswing, troubling the right-hand batsmen in particular. Balaji, as Umar Gul had done on the first day, stuck to a metronomic line and length, getting the ball to move both ways. Like Gul, Balaji has been in the shadow of his more glamorous team-mates for a while now, but his performance in Pakistan should help him secure a regular place, even when all of India's fast bowlers are fit.
Between them, Pathan and Balaji picked up four wickets in the first hour, but Pakistan fought back strongly after that. Part of the reason for that was the change in bowling. Anil Kumble did not get much help from the pitch, and Ajit Agarkar bowled woefully below his best. Like Zaheer Khan at Multan, Agarkar, returning from injury, did not appear match-fit. He cannot survive much longer on the basis of promise, and India, thankfully, have enough bench strength to look beyond the merely talented.
But Pakistan's fightback wasn't merely because the intensity in India's bowling dropped, but because of the continued application from their batsmen, especially Asim Kamal. Put yourself in Kamal's shoes: you're 27 years old, you played first-class cricket for years before getting your big break, you made 99 on debut two Tests ago, and this could be your last chance, with Pakistan's selectors having enough choices to replace you. Add to this context the match situation - you are batting with the tail, and on your shoulders rests the onerous responsibility of making sure that the fine platform that your captain built with his senior batsman doesn't go to waste. What is that vibrating there? Ah, your nerves.
But Kamal played a nerveless innings, showing perfect shot selection and a calm demeanour, even as wickets fell around him. Pakistan's last three wickets added a crucial 103 runs, as Kamal shepherded the tail with Waughesque nonchalance, going for his strokes as the end of the innings approached, and, even then, choosing the right balls to hit, and not panicking. It is too early to say that he is a batsman for the future - he has the temperament, but his ability is yet to be tested outside Pakistan. But Pakistan should keep giving him chances, and not let him drift away, as they have done to so many of their fine young talents over the years - whatever happened to Hasan Raza and Faisal Iqbal, to name just two recent examples?
The only jarring part of the day came at the start of the Indian innings, when the course of play was altered not by the players of either side, but by the incompetence of an umpire. Steve Bucknor was appalling during India's tour of Australia, and consistently so, through first the Tests and then the one-dayers. I had argued then that Bucknor's powers seem to have diminished with age - for umpiring relies on physical faculties that only get worse as the years go by - and that umpires should be regularly tested by the ICC to see if their abilities are still intact.
It is scandolous that despite the Indian team's complaints about him, based on an entire series and not a handful of stray understandable mistakes, the ICC has taken no action on this matter. John Wright, India's coach, reportedly complained to the match referee yesterday about the poor umpiring, and Bucknor gave India more reason for anguish today. After not upholding a number of good appeals during Pakistan's innings, he gave Aakash Chopra out lbw, after Chopra had inside-edged the ball. Given that Rahul Dravid was out immediately afterwards, run out without facing a ball, Bucknor's mistake had a huge impact on the game. It is unfair to Bucknor that his legacy as an umpire should be tarnished by his performance when he is clearly past the peak of his powers, and it is unfair on the players as well. (It is also unfair that he should be judged by technology that is available to everyone but him. Click here for a debate in Wisden Asia Cricket on the use of technology in umpiring.)
Having said that, though, Pakistan bowled magnificently. Sachin Tendulkar and Yuvraj Singh were out to wonderful balls from Mohammad Sami, and VVS Laxman fell to a jaffa from Gul that would have flummoxed any batsman in the world. Parthiv Patel kept an end up fiestily, as Virender Sehwag, displaying his unique blend of flamboyance and solidity, raced to 86 from 119 balls. India were 53 runs behind with five wickets still in hand, and at the rate at which Sehwag scores, India could yet erase the deficit and build up a lead. The last three wickets of the Indian first innings had added 140; if the last five here can add 200 more, Pakistan would need around 150 to win, not the easiest of tasks on a wicket which is showing signs of deterioration, with the ball keeping low on occasion. This contest could still go down to the wire - but even that, it is safe to say, won't get the crowds flooding in.
Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.
*Three of my colleagues are in Pakistan following this Test series, and they have all been astonished by the low turnouts. Osman Samiuddin describes in "Ghost stadiums" how "there was scarcely a soul present at the Multan Cricket Stadium to witness what turned out to be a historic moment [Virender Sehwag's 309]". Dileep Premachandran proposes a solution: "Bring on the Milo Men". Anand Vasu, finding the attendence at Lahore just as low, examines why this is so in his piece, "All for a good cause". (Back to article)