India's men in form deliver again
In the end India's victory over Pakistan at Kochi was a surprisingly resounding one, considering that they would have rated their chances at no more than even at the interval after a somewhat sloppy batting performance in which two men did all the work in heat so sapping that it demanded a greater collective effort. But Pakistan batted in an even more slapdash manner after the break and gave away their wickets on a platter, and the double-hundred partnership put up by Virender Sehwag and Rahul Dravid earlier in the day found its just reward in a comprehensive victory.
In fact, the first 35 overs of the Indian innings seemed to offer up some portents of the immediate future of the Indian team in one-day cricket. Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly, who were dismissed off successive balls in the second over of the day, used to be India's best ODI batsmen but are no longer so. And Dravid and Sehwag, who delivered India to safety from 4 for 2, are in line to take over that mantle.
Sehwag had a very poor year in one-dayers in 2004, averaging just 25.80 and making only five fities in 27 games, something which had an adverse effect on the team's performance. But here, after a lucky escape before he had scored, he successfully applied the method he used with such success in the recent Test series, in which his shot selection was better than it has ever been and he was willing to bide his time for short periods and give good bowling its due. The bowlers have to earn his wicket now, and it is proving to be very hard work. It is possible, then, that this innings from Sehwag will signal a resurrection in India's form in the ODIs, which has been woeful since the series victory on the tour of Pakistan last April.
And as for Dravid, he has, to use a phrase that carries some resonance in an Indian cricketing context, taken the staircase rather than the elevator in working out his game in one-dayers, but there is no doubt that he is now easily equal to its demands. With VVS Laxman's departure from the team he has gone one place higher up the order, and now that he is no longer keeping wicket he is perfectly suited to controlling the second half of the innings from No. 4.
What was most laudable about Dravid's innings was his masterful placement and his rotation of the strike. He is not a natural striker of the ball like Sehwag and cannot dismiss bowling from his presence in quite the same manner, but by deft touches and placements he managed to keep both his own score ticking along as well as give Sehwag plenty of the strike. Some of the purest moments of pleasure in the day came when, in one over from Abdul Razzaq, he first dropped the ball at his feet on the off side and ran a short single, then again dropped the ball well short of midwicket and ran another single, and then, off the last ball of the over, deflected the ball just wide of point's left hand for two. These things can be as for bowlers as a shower of fours and sixes.
The other big contribution of the day came from Sachin Tendulkar, who replicated his five-for at Kochi in a game against Australia in 1998 with another spell of clever legspin liberally laced with appalling full-tosses and long-hops. Tendulkar's bowling from round the wicket - which he first perfected in the Asia Cup last year, in which he took plenty of wickets - is so useful that it might be true to say (though it sounds like a massive heresy) that he is worth his place in the side in one-day cricket for his bowling alone. Especially crucial was the wicket of Inzamam-ul-Haq, who was looking as he if was thinking of bigger things. Tendulkar, who was dimissed three times by Shahid Afridi in the recent Test series, showed that he had learnt a thing or two from Afridi by firing in a quicker ball that beat Inzamam all ends up and clipped his off bail. Now both sides possess a bowler whose change of pace is up rather than down.
Pakistan did not help their cause with a couple of perplexing decisions that they should rethink for the next game at Vishakapatnam. One, they did an injustice to Danish Kaneria, who took 19 wickets in the Test series and can land it on a spot as well as any other spinner in world cricket, by picking Mohammad Hafeez ahead of him, and this had its effect when there was nobody to seriously test Sehwag and Dravid after the opening bowlers had gone off. And two, after the damage that Afridi did in the Test series - especially the psychological stronghold he gained with his fifty in the second innings at Bangalore, the fastest by a Pakistani batsman in Tests - it was a huge error to make Kamran Akmal open the batting, and leave Afridi as low down as No. 8. It is no use having good cards if one will not play them properly.
One selection decision made by India also seemed to go against all common sense, and yet inexplicably worked. It seemed foolish to play three fast bowlers in the furnace-like environment of Kochi, and Pakistan began so comfortably against the new-ball attack that it looked like India might rue this move. But then the seamers struck three times in three overs, and when Zaheer Khan pulled off an outstanding return catch to dismiss Yousuf Youhana it was the beginning of the end for Pakistan. Sourav Ganguly cannot at the moment find a run to save his life, but his instincts as captain still seem to be in pretty good shape, and they have brought him a result that will give him a little breathing space as he looks to work his way out of his batting woes.
Chandrahas Choudhury is a staff writer with Wisden Asia Cricket.