A contest between bat and bat
It is a measure of the times that India could be deemed to have done well to have restricted Pakistan to 329. Until Pakistan's 25th over, when they were 171 for 1, a score of over 350 seemed probable, but fine spells by Ashish Nehra and Yuvraj Singh pegged them back. No team had ever chased down such a high total successfully, but when India began batting, the target did not seem quite that daunting.
India's batting strength has a lot to do with this, as does the fact that Pakistan made 344 batting second in the first match of this series at Karachi. But a bigger reason is that, in recent times, benchmark scores in one-dayers have gone up dramatically - especially in the subcontinent. India's home series against West Indies in 2002-03 is a case in point. India's best chase of 325 came in the fourth match of that series, in which targets of 284, 280 and 291 were also chased down successfully. Once upon a time, 250 was a good score batting first. Nowadays, anything less than 300 seems below par.
The thrill of cricket comes in a contest between bat and ball, and one-day cricket on the subcontinent has become more a contest between the batsmen on each side. Are the pitches to blame for this? Not entirely, because Indian and Pakistani pitches have always been flat-track beauties, but batsmen of the '80s and most of the '90s were not this prolific. Maybe batsmen, in general, have developed their skills in this form of the game at a quicker pace than the bowlers, or perhaps we are just going through a phase when bowlers aren't quite what they used to be. Either way, this trend is not good for the game. It makes for exciting television, but it will devalue batting excellence in the long run, and even the viewers will eventually get bored of all these run-fests.
Having said that, India's bowling surely had to take some of the blame for Pakistan having begun so well, and Pakistan's bowlers bowled superbly at the end to thwart the run-chase. Both L Balaji and Zaheer Khan were off-colour at the start; they were rattled by Shahid Afridi's fine assault, and did not bowl to their fields. Zaheer was particularly disappointing, bowling full to Afridi, who likes nothing better than to smack a half-volley, with the long-on and long-off boundaries unmanned.
Ashish Nehra, no doubt buoyed by the plaudits bestowed upon him after that last over at Karachi, showed the way, bowling at an identical angle as Zaheer - left-arm over the wicket, across the right-hander - but pitching it constantly on a good length, and not giving the batsman room to play his shots. He gave just five in his first three overs, which came within the first 15, with Pakistan on the rampage. He went for 17 in his first spell of five, then came back to take two wickets with the first two balls of his second spell, one a perfect yorker that bowled Inzamam-ul-Haq, the other a good-length ball on leg stump that straightened and caught Moin Khan plumb in front.
Yuvraj had also bowled superbly in the middle overs, varying his pace cleverly and bowling a tight line to finish with 2 for 41. It was excellent in the circumstances, though it did little to stop the Pakistanis. Afridi made an excellent comeback to international cricket, scoring at a strike-rate of 140 despite not being at his most reckless. He even patted a few balls away safely, and was constantly encouraging and giving advice to Yasir Hameed. Afridi's audacious talent has never been in question, and if age has tempered the wild streak within him, then he will be a key player for Pakistan in the years to come. It shall be fascinating to watch how he plays over the rest of this series.
Hameed was more classical than Afridi, and paced his innings with a maturity beyond his years, until an unfortunate mix-up with Inzamam that, for once, wasn't Inzamam's fault. Pakistan's batsmen played calmly through the innings, and barring that Nehra over when Moin was out first ball, the fall of every wicket was followed by a useful partnership. There were easy pickings on offer, and the batsmen cashed in.
At Karachi, Inzamam had constructed a masterpiece in a losing cause, looking a class apart from every other batsman in a high-scoring match. Sachin Tendulkar did the same today. Some of his strokeplay had a touch of genius about it, such as the times when he stepped well across his stumps and swept balls that pitched well outside off, from first Afridi and then Shoaib Malik, fine past the wicketkeeper for four. His driving was immaculate, and he played some exquisite wristy flicks through midwicket as he settled in for the long haul. It isn't often that a batsman makes 141 only to see his team lose, but then, such are the times.
But what decided this batsman's match was a bowler's spell. Mohammad Sami, denied the new ball today with Shabbir Ahmed back in the side, bowled a magnificent spell in the slog overs, adjusting his line according to how the batsman moved, and pitching it full. He dried up the runs at a key phase of the game, got the key wicket of Rahul Dravid, and cleaned up the innings in the penultimate over when the match had suddenly opened up again, to finish with 3 for 41. It was a matchwinning performance, along with Shoaib Akhtar's 3 for 49, and showed that bowlers can still decide matches. Even if 646 runs come in a day.
Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.