India sneak a high-scoring thriller
India 349 for 7 (Dravid 99, Sehwag 79) beat Pakistan 344 for 8 (Inzamam 122, Youhana 73)
A series that the entire cricket world had been waiting for with bated breath started off with an absolutely incredible match at the National Stadium in Karachi. In a game in which the result was in the balance until the very last ball, India finally edged through by five runs after amassing 349.
For much of the match, it appeared that Pakistan would pull off an astounding run-chase, as Inzamam-ul-Haq chose this stage to showcase his genius. His innings of 122 - surely one of the greatest ever played in a one-day international - made light of a steep target, and almost handed India their second defeat in three days after scoring more than 300. Even so Pakistan's 344 was comfortably the highest total made by the side batting second in any one-day international.
It was high-octane stuff from the start, with plenty of batting stars from either side: Virender Sehwag blasted 79 from 57 balls to get India off to a blistering start, while Rahul Dravid stroked a classy 99 to ensure that the splendid start wasn't wasted. Then, Yousuf Youhana caressed 73 to revive Pakistan's hopes. But the innings of the match came from Inzamam.
No team had ever successfully chased 350 in an ODI, and that statistic didn't look likely to change when Pakistan lost two early wickets and struggled to 71 for 2 in 15 overs. The Indian seamers bowled with superb control, and with the asking rate mounting to eight early in the chase, it seemed that India would run away with it.
Inzamam and Youhana turned it all around with an outstanding partnership of 135 from a mere 20 overs. Not only did they press on the accelerator, they did so with minimum risk, tonking the slow bowlers for straight sixes, and nurdling the seamers for ones and twos. Youhana finally played one lofted shot too many, but that only allowed Inzamam to take centre stage.
Not allowing the pressure to get to him at any point, Inzamam turned it on with some scintillating batting, caressing fours to midwicket and square leg with a casual flick of the wrists, or making room to play some delectable strokes on the off side equally effortlessly. Ganguly switched the bowling around, but except for Sehwag, none of the bowlers made even a semblance of an impression. Inzamam's fourth-wicket stand with Younis Khan yielded 109 before Inzamam finally perished, nicking one from Kartik to Dravid (278 for 4).
Younis and Abdul Razzaq ensured that the momentum didn't slip away, running hard between the wickets and finding the boundary frequently. Kartik swung the match India's way again, bowling Younis for 46, while Zaheer's slower ball did for Razzaq. Then came another twist in the tale, when Mohammad Kaif pulled off an amazing running catch to dismiss Shoaib Malik, running around from long-off, diving, and clinging on to the ball even as he almost collided with Hemang Badani. That catch came off the penultimate ball of the 49th over, and Pakistan approached the last over needing nine to win.
Ashish Nehra, the man chosen for the task, did a nerveless job, bowling full and on the stumps. Naved-ul-Hasan swished and missed at the first one, but stole a single off the next. Moin Khan failed to get a yorker away, and only managed a single off the fourth ball. When Hasan took a run off the fifth, it required Moin to hit a six off the last ball. Javed Miandad was gesturing furiously from the stands - he obviously had a right to do so, having smashed a memorable last-ball six off Chetan Sharma to win a thriller at Sharjah back in 1986 - but all of that was to little effect, as Moin spooned a full-toss to Zaheer at extra cover. The match was India's.
When Pakistan look back on the match, they will probably identify their lack of discipline in the field as the primary reason for the defeat. Pakistan got the best of the bowling conditions - the pitch afforded plenty of bounce and some seam early on - but made a mess of it, sending down a shocking 20 no-balls and 10 wides. The Indians, on the other hand, bowled just two no-balls and seven wides.
The trend was set in a frenetic first over in the Indian innings. Shoaib Akhtar, visibly keyed up for the battle with Tendulkar, bowled a nine-ball first over which included a couple of wides and no-balls. He began his second over with another no-ball, off which Tendulkar was caught at square leg, and then saw insult added to injury later in that same over when Tendulkar top-edged a hook for six.
At the other end, Sehwag went on his merry way, slashing and swinging through the off side with gay abandon. Shoaib got Pakistan the breakthrough, when Tendulkar guided a drive to Hasan at backward point (69 for 1) for 28, but that only set the stage for a breathtaking onslaught by Sehwag.
Hasan, all of two ODIs old in international cricket, bowled four no-balls in his first five deliveries, and disappeared for 24 in the over, while Razzaq was smashed for three fours in his opening over. Sehwag was finally bowled by a beautifully disguised slower ball from Hasan (142 for 2), but with 143 from the first 15 overs, the platform had been laid.
Dravid and Sourav Ganguly then kept it going with a run-a-ball partnership of 72, but Pakistan had an opportunity to claw back when both Ganguly (47) and Yuvraj Singh were dismissed in quick succession. India were 220 for 4 in the 29th over, and with no VVS Laxman - a knee injury in the nets had ruled him out - a couple of further wickets would have exposed the Indian tail rather early. Dravid and Kaif ensured it didn't happen.
Dravid played another gem, continuing the rich vein of form he showed in Australia. He seldom played unorthodox strokes, but kept the runs coming with clever nudges and deflections. He didn't miss out on the boundaries either - a couple of straight-drives off Razzaq early in the innings were among the shots of the innings.
Kaif was equally composed, cutting out the risky strokes early in his innings, but putting pressure on the fielders with some blistering running between the wickets. Their vital 118-run stand ensured that India got up to 349. In the end, that turned out to be just enough.
S Rajesh is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo.