India v Pakistan, 3rd Test, Bangalore, 2nd day March 25, 2005

The silver lining on a cloudy day



Lakshmipathy Balaji produced the ball of the series to get rid of Inzamam-ul-Haq © Getty Images

Having been thwarted by the obduracy of Abdul Razzaq and the cavalier defiance of Kamran Akmal on the final day at Mohali, India ran into the proverbial brick wall here in the shape of the Chinnaswamy Stadium pitch. And in doing so, they learnt a little bit more about the hard yards that are yet to be traversed before they can even dream of attaining Australia's exalted status.

On a surface that had its last breath rolled out of it, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Younis Khan batted beautifully in conditions that would test a bowler's sanity, leave alone his endurance. Apart from the pancake that they had to bowl on, they had to deal with unseasonable heat and humidity, and their abject failure said much about the limitations of an attack this is still far too dependent on Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble.

Lakshmipathy Balaji bowled magnificently without having the figures to show for it, as he has done all series, yet the back-up was indifferent to put it charitably. On that final day at Mohali - India's impotence then could yet cost them a series victory - both Irfan Pathan and Zaheer Khan had spells best consigned to the dustbin, and Pathan's subsequent displays, save for the sporadic threat, have not been in keeping with his status as India's first-choice new-ball bowler.

Balaji, who was tussling with Ashish Nehra for the third seamer's slot at the start of the series, has been a study in contrast, bowling with the rhythm and verve that were instrumental in India's crushing victory at Rawalpindi a year ago. The delivery that ended Inzamam's titanic effort first thing this morning was the best bowled in this series, a superb ball that swung in and then moved away to flummox a master batsman. He pitched his deliveries in line with the stumps and frequently got extravagant swing to beat the outside edge. There was even movement off this comatose pitch, and his spells were as incisive as Pathan's failed to be.

Ultimately, fast bowling in such wretched conditions is all about nous, and unstinting effort. Michael Kasprowicz arrived in India in 1998 about as callow as Balaji is now when it came to Test-match experience, and picked up only three wickets in the first four innings that he bowled. The fifth, on a Bangalore pitch that was similarly loaded in the batsmen's favour, was a revelation as Kasprowicz's cutters wrecked an Indian batting line-up that had been immense throughout the series.

Like Kasprowicz, Balaji is a cricketer's cricketer, as opposed to some hyped-up powder-puff loved by advertising conmen. His attitude is his greatest asset, and the manner in which he turned away and swore quietly at the sky before loping back to his mark after a catch had evaded second slip said all you need to know about the absence of a prima-donna gene in his make-up.

Another whose attitude was especially impressive was Harbhajan Singh, who bowled brilliantly after a forgettable opening day. With the fate of the doosra in limbo, Harbhajan had to rely on the tried-and-tested offspin and variations in flight to deceive batsmen. Yousuf Youhana went to an undistinguished shot, but Asim Kamal, Abdul Razzaq and Kamran Akmal were undone by teasing loop and sharp turn. With Kumble struggling to bowl a decent line, it was left to Harbhajan to make inroads on an afternoon when Pakistan could have romped out of sight.

As Australia showed five months ago, wickets can be taken on pitches such as this, if you have the calibre of bowler to execute a plan. But on a surface crying out for impeccable line, changes in pace and cutters, only Balaji threatened to do a McGrath or Kasprowicz. That, however, shouldn't detract from an innings for the ages from Younis, who exhibited supreme temperament, shot selection and mind-boggling reserves of energy - one more giant stride taken by a man who had been the butt of considerable ridicule only a fortnight ago.

Speaking of pitches, this was another slap in the face for the paying spectator who comes in expecting a contest. Maybe every other ground in India needs to take pointers from the Vidarbha Cricket Association. The pitch at Nagpur may have been prepared with malice in mind, but the end result was a Test match that had something for everyone - batsmen, pace bowler and spinner alike. That's a lot more than can be said for this sleeping beauty which has the potential to induce a hundred years of slumber.

Dileep Premachandran is assistant editor of Cricinfo.