India v Pakistan, 5th ODI, Kanpur April 15, 2005

Blown away



Naved-ul-Hasan has towered over every other bowler in this series, and turned in another classy performance today © Getty Images

Sachin Tendulkar, the only survivor from the October 1997 team, could probably remember what it had been like that evening at the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore when Ijaz Ahmed - who would have been a natural as a woodcutter or axe-murderer - savaged India's water-pistol attack to the tune of 139 runs from just 84 balls as a fighting total of 216 was surpassed with a whopping 142 balls to spare. The other destroyer on that occasion was a familiar face, a free-stroking young man seemingly unencumbered by self-doubt or technique. Shahid Afridi smacked 47 from 23 balls that evening before leaving the stage to Ijaz, who pulverised whatever came his way.

Today, he outdid Ijaz, scampering to a 45-ball century on a surface where India would have fancied their chances of defending 249. Like Virender Sehwag, Afridi is immune to vagaries such as the condition of the pitch and the state of play. Unlike Sehwag, his "have bat, will hit" philosophy hasn't been tempered by even the slightest degree of circumspection - the most apt comparison would perhaps be haring around an F1 track without using the brakes.

This match was won and lost in the first ten overs of either innings. India spluttered to 38 for 3, and were on resurrection road for all but the final ten overs, while Pakistan careered to 93 from the first 60 balls bowled. By then, the asking rate was a paltry 3.93, and the remaining batsmen could play out Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh without having to resort to unnecessary risks.

In a game obsessed with batting feats, Pakistan's magnificent efforts with the willow over the past three games have also had the effect of stealing the limelight from a man who perhaps deserves it more than any other. While most would scoff at the official records that would have you believe that Naved-ul-Hasan is a sprightly 27-year-old, there's no doubting the enthusiasm that he brings to the bowling crease. He has the eagerness of a teenager, and the urge to succeed that can be found in those who have trekked back from the wilderness the hard way.

Shoaib Akhtar is a far more intimidating prospect, make no mistake, but he lacks even a smidgen of the commitment that has made Naved tower over every other bowler in this one-day series. But for the Ahmedabad game, where the Indians went after him in a big way, he has managed a stunning haul of 14 wickets on pitches designed specifically to break the hearts of his fast-bowling tribe.

And he hasn't done it with buffet bowling that induces the careless mistake, but with subtle changes in pace and canny use of swing and seam. The credit has to go to Bob Woolmer, who has stuck by Naved and given him the new ball in blatant violation of the machismo code that has held Pakistan cricket back for so many years. This unwritten tradition elevates pace to near-mythical status, while not being unduly bothered with niceties such as line, length and control of swing.

If some of Woolmer's critics - and they're more obtuse than most in a country where a leading correspondent once labelled the coach part of a Zionist conspiracy - had their way, some untested slinger like Mohammad Irshad, who has nothing to commend him but pace, would have been playing in place of an unfashionable worker ant like Naved. Glamour and image are, after all, more important than the winning of matches.

Not that Naved is any slouch in the pace department. When he gets the odd one to hasten off the pitch, he can touch 90mph and trouble the very best, as Sachin Tendulkar found out when going for a pull in the opening game at Kochi. The fact that a couple of Indians have bemoaned Shoaib's absence tells you all you need to know about how effective Naved has been in this series. Given his propensity to break down, and the inhuman conditions under which this series has been played, it's doubtful whether Shoaib would even have made it as far as Kanpur.

For India, Delhi will now offer a final chance at redemption, in a series where they have done scant justice to their ability. The purpose and freedom with which Mohammad Kaif and Yuvraj Singh batted should have made up a few selectors' minds. The days of tampering with the batting order to make concessions to an individual or two have to end, otherwise talk of grooming a team for the 2007 World Cup will just be crass and hollow.

Rahul Dravid also played beautifully, proving a point to those who reckon the captaincy could take away from his batting. As for his leadership, the jury will have to return an inconclusive verdict. After all, bowling changes and field placements become superfluous when Afridi's in the mood. An astute brain can do many things. It can't, however, stop something as primal as a force of nature.

Dileep Premachandran is assistant editor of Cricinfo.

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