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April 15, 2004
For Pakistan, it must have felt worse than Chinese water torture. Patient stroke after patient stroke, drop by drop, for 740 minutes until both bowlers and fielders must have feared for their sanity. Like the truly great boxers, Rahul Dravid rarely knocks you out with the heavy shot, preferring instead to pummel you into a stupor with repeated deft jabs.
Coaches at every level instruct players to play each ball on its merit. Yet, for most, it's little more than a cliché to pay lip service to at press conferences. For Dravid though, it appears to be the First Commandment. And regardless of whether he's on 2 or 200, he rarely wavers from it. Time after time during the course of this epic 270, you saw him pat the ball back to the bowler, or shoulder arms, moments after stroking a boundary - an approach that has helped make him the most dependable batsman of his era.
Yesterday, he had drawn on admirable reserves of patience, and a small reservoir of luck, to cobble together 134 from 314 balls. But in five more hours at the crease today, he rattled off 136 from 181 against an attack that had been left enfeebled by the withdrawal of Shoaib Akhtar. Patient and stolid in the early part of the day, content to leave the flashy strokes to Sourav Ganguly and Yuvraj Singh, he opened up with some gorgeous shots of his own as the bowlers wilted in the oppressive afternoon heat.
Shoaib's injury, a muscle tear in his lower back, was the latest in a catalogue that would put the England footballer Darren "Sicknote" Anderton to shame. Since making his debut against West Indies in 1997, Shoaib has played just 32 Tests, missing out on as many as 29. And it's not as though the injuries have come from bowling himself into the ground either. Where the greatest fast bowlers of the modern era bowled an average of more than 36 overs a match - Dennis Lillee managed an astonishing 44 - Shoaib has averaged just 30, with spells lasting more than five overs rarer than a Bangladesh victory.
The attrition rate among Pakistan's fast bowlers in this series has been a damning indictment of the team's fitness regime, or lack of it. If there is a trainer working behind the scenes, either he's clueless or the players pay scant regard to what he says. Shoaib himself gets bulkier by the day, but behind the He-Man physique lies the endurance of a 12-year-old. Imran Khan, perhaps the greatest cricketer the subcontinent has produced, bowled 223 overs - and one ball - in ten innings against the Indians in 1982-83, picking up a scarcely believable 40 wickets at 13.95. Until Shoaib can back up the self-promotional hype with similar figures - and that level of intense effort - tags of greatness aren't worth the paper they're printed on.
On the stamina front, he could take a few tips from his new-ball partner, Mohammad Sami, who led a paper-thin attack with considerable spirit in the morning, bowling 13 overs on the trot. But where Shoaib had troubled the batsmen with a combination of pace and bounce, Sami's skiddy style - an unrefined version of Malcolm Marshall's - was ill-suited to this placid surface. And it must worry the Pakistan think-tank that even after 16 Tests, his bowling average (47) and strike rate (84) are comparable to Ajit Agarkar, rather than Wasim Akram or Waqar Younis.
It's impossible to overstate just how much Umar Gul has been missed here. Of all the Pakistan bowlers on show in this series, he appeared the least likely to be seduced by the speed-gun, which Akram suggested recently had destroyed the art of swing bowling. Imran was frighteningly quick in 1982-83, but he combined that with pronounced swing, and it made little difference to him whether the ball was new or old. But Pakistan's bowlers just haven't swung it in this series, save for a remarkable Shoaib delivery that left VVS Laxman looking flummoxed yesterday.
Gul would have got subtle movement off the seam, like he did at Lahore, and like Lakshmipathy Balaji did when Pakistan batted. Fazl-e-Akbar tried gamely, without ever suggesting that he had the nous or the skill to combat a batting line-up that is the envy of every nation except Australia. There's something to be said for sheer pace, but without other attributes to supplement it, you'll only shoot blanks. Pakistan have learnt that the hard way in this series.
Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the Urdu poet, has a street named after him in Islamabad. But one of his most beautiful stanzas will give little joy to Inzamam-ul-Haq and Javed Miandad tomorrow as they attempt to salvage some pride from the rubble of this performance. What matters it o breeze if now has come the spring, When I have lost both my garden and my nest ...
A look at some of cricket's most memorable strokes - and their makers