Laxman and Pathan star in emphatic Indian win
India 293 for 7 (Laxman 107, Ganguly 45) beat Pakistan 253 (Moin 72, Malik 65, Pathan 3-32) by 40 runs
In keeping with the rest of the games, the last match of the series produced another enthralling contest, but in the end India pulled off a comfortable 40-run win at Lahore to wrest the series 3-2. In a curious twist, India were put in and scored 293, exactly as many as Pakistan had in the previous match, at the same venue. Then, India had chased down the target with ease; here, Pakistan lost early wickets, and despite a spirited rear-guard effort, fell short.
The Indian victory was set up by two players - VVS Laxman, who caressed a glorious 107 off just 104 balls to ensure a competitive total, and Irfan Pathan, who came up with a superb performance of swing bowling to snare three early wickets. He finished with excellent figures of 3 for 32. Pakistan had their moments too - Shoaib Akhtar bowled with plenty of venom early on, while Moin Khan (72) and Shoaib Malik (65) retrieved a near lost cause, and made a match of it, but in the end, the target was just beyond their lower order.
After the ease with which India overhauled the same target three days back, Pakistan would have fancied their chances, but they were rocked early by Pathan, who took three of the first four wickets to reduce Pakistan to 58 for 4.
Pathan got into the act after Lakshmipathy Balaji got through Yasir Hameed's defences for 2 (8 for 1). Yousuf Youhana was trapped in front by one that straightened (9 for 2) - though replays suggested a thin inside edge - Taufeeq Umar paid the price for leaving his leg stump unguarded (25 for 3), while Younis Khan slapped a wide half-volley straight to Yuvraj Singh at point.
Inzamam was in glorious touch again, driving and pulling anything even fractionally off target with effortless ease. To add to India's worries, Sourav Ganguly was forced to leave the field after injuring his back while diving in the outfield. He was stretchered off the field, and Rahul Dravid took over the reins.
Inzamam had motored along to 38 off 50 balls, when he charged down the track to Murali Kartik, bowling over the wicket. The flat hit seemed to have just enough strength to clear long-on, but Tendulkar, skirting dangerously close to the boundary, hung on to the ball even as he ensured that he didn't step on the rope (87 for 5).
Abdul Razzaq's dismissal seemed to have sealed Pakistan's fate, but Malik and Moin then began the revival, first with singles and twos, and then, as their confidence grew, tonking a regular dose of boundaries as well. The asking rate kept mounting, but both batsmen ensured that it didn't spiral beyond manageable proportions. Malik finally holed out to Mohammad Kaif (195 for 7), ending the 99-run partnership, but Moin continued the fight, in the company of Mohammad Sami. Balaji and Virender Sehwag were both struck for sixes, as 27 came from two overs, and an asking rate of ten didn't seem completely unachievable.
However, sustaining that rate, with only three wickets in hand, proved to be the problem. Zaheer, so listless for most of the evening, produced a couple of splendid overs, defeating Sami's slog (248 for 8). Akhtar was run-out trying to evade the ball as Yuvraj hit the stumps, and Moin's spirited resistance was finally ended by Balaji. The match, and the series, was India's.
Earlier, Laxman was the star for India. Unlike in the previous games when he struggled for fluency early, here he found his groove from the start, timing the ball exquisitely on either side of the wicket. Sehwag fell an early victim to his own impetuosity, moving away to leg and trying to force a ball which was perfectly pitched in the corridor (34 for 1), but Laxman and Tendulkar motored along, feasting on some loose stuff from Sami. Tendulkar's 37 included some gorgeous drives through the off side, but an innings which promised much more ended in anticlimactic fashion, when he edged an attempted dab to the keeper (79 for 2).
Ganguly then joined Laxman, and while the singles - and the odd boundary - came along, the run-rate continued to hover at just more than five. Ganguly's 45 took 64 balls before he fell in a familiar manner, angling his bat and nicking one off Akhtar (171 for 3). The platform was perfect - India were 162 for 2 from 30 - but the launch didn't quite take off as expected, as Dravid and Yuvraj fell in quick succession, reducing India to 227 for 5.
All the while, Laxman moved along smoothly towards his hundred. His shots were seldom anything other than orthodox cricket strokes, but his immaculate timing and placement ensured that even a gentle caress found its way to the boundary. He found the gaps regularly even when the field was spread out - a couple of cover-drives late in the innings were wonderfully sublime, as were a two delicate late-cuts off Malik.
However, Pakistan's bowlers kept their heads, conceding only five wides and an equal number of no-balls, an enormous improvement from their effort on Sunday. Laxman finally fell to Malik, and only some late slogging from Pathan and Balaji took India close to 293. Before this match, every century-maker in this series had finished up on the losing side; Pathan's new-ball spell helped break that jinx.
S Rajesh is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo.