Stepping out of the shadows
It wasn't the high-scoring slugfest that most of Edgbaston was looking for, but there was still enough excitement to ensure that a full-house crowd - basking in surprisingly clear weather for most of the day - got its money's worth.
The conditions for batsmen were much better than the totals suggested, but in a game where runs were at a premium, the efforts of the No. 5s from both sides stood out. Both Rahul Dravid and Yousuf Youhana have, for much of their career, played in the shadows of their more illustrious team-mates, but while Dravid has carved a niche for himself distinct from Sachin Tendulkar's, Youhana is still seen as Inzamam-ul-Haq's understudy. In terms of strokes, technique and elegance, Youhana is among the best, but he has seldom played a matchwinning innings, and has thrown away starts far too often. But today's knock was an indication of what he is capable of.
Dravid's was a valuable innings too, but in terms of sheer class and quality of batsmanship, Youhana's was the greater. From the outset, he stroked the ball with a languid grace and exquisite timing which was a sheer joy to behold. Whether it be pulling and driving against the fast bowlers, or executing those oh-so-delicate late-cuts against spin, there was a surety in his approach which spoke of abundant skill and temperament. And there were touches of Dravid too in the way he shepherded the lower order, taking singles and allowing Shahid Afridi to fire away at the finish, exactly the approach Dravid uses with Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif. Just for Youhana's innings today, Pakistan deserved to win.
It's only been a few months since Bob Woolmer took charge, but already there are clear indications of his influence on the Pakistan team. A couple of years back, it would have been unthinkable - given the hero-worship culture so prevalent in their cricket - for Naved-ul-Hasan to be given the new ball ahead of Shoaib Akhtar. Shoaib himself has been known to voice his displeasure whenever the idea of such a move has been voiced in the past, but it was clear that this was the correct decision in the conditions. With the pitch showing a tinge of green and some moisture, Naved's wicket-to-wicket line and his ability to hit the seam made life uncomfortable for the Indian openers early on, and ensured that Pakistan wouldn't concede runs in a flurry as they often do when Shoaib bowls first up. Morever, it also allowed Shoaib to be held back for the later overs, a move which paid off quite spectacularly when he nailed both Kaif and Yuvraj in one over.
In the past, Pakistan have mostly relied on the tactic of blasting the opposition out, sometimes to amazing effect, sometimes to a woeful one. Now, they seem to be realising the benefits of a horses-for-courses approach. Naved and Abdul Razzaq, both strictly medium pace, utilised the conditions magnificently. On flat wickets in the subcontinent, they may be little more than buffet bowlers, but here, they returned combined figures of 5 for 52 from 19 overs. Woolmer has openly stated his liking for Azhar Mahmood, another bowler of similar ilk. Expect him to play a more significant role as well in the near future.
India's problem, once again, lay in their batting. Attributing the recent spell of defeats to Tendulkar's absence is the easy way out. Sourav Ganguly and John Wright will be the first to admit that India should have put up more runs on the board, with or without Tendulkar. Inzamam won an important toss, but the first three Indian dismissals were entirely the batsmen's doing. Once India had slumped to 28 for 3, it was mostly a damage-control exercise.
It's not easy when the same batsmen who had looked invincible through most of the last two seasons suddenly struggle all at once, but most of India's top six have all been matchwinners in the recent past, and it's unlikely that the collective slump will last much longer. What does need a rethink is slotting Rohan Gavaskar in at No. 7. Not only did Gavaskar struggle for runs, he was shockingly late on his strokes against Shoaib and even the lesser pace of Razzaq. Gavaskar was a success in Australia, but on current evidence, it's time to send him back to the rigours of domestic cricket.
In the end, there wasn't much to separate the two teams, but Pakistan's greater resolve just allowed them to edge through. West Indies may have held their nerve for a famous win over South Africa earlier today, but with their batting depth and discipline in the field, Pakistan should still take the favourites tag in the semi-final clash on Wednesday.
S Rajesh is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.