India v Pakistan, 1st ODI, DLF Cup, Abu Dhabi April 18, 2006

Similar contest, dissimilar roles



Pakistan got their spring back, putting one across India at Abu Dhabi © Getty Images

In many ways, this was like watching a re-run of the final four one-day matches between these sides in Pakistan two months ago. One team was disciplined with the ball, sharp in the field and unruffled while chasing a potential banana-skin target. The other batted poorly, appeared to lack a bit of zest in the field, and were well beaten. But where it was India in the ascendancy then, it was Pakistan's turn today, with a thoroughly professional display sealing a comfortable victory.

On a sluggish pitch, India's challenge fizzled out before the second Power Play had come to an end. With Virender Sehwag and Mohammad Kaif still on the sidelines after enduring prolonged run-droughts, it was imperative that Rahul Dravid or Yuvraj Singh kick on and make a big score. But Dravid's half-hearted attempt at a second run, and Yuvraj's nibble at a fine delivery from Iftikhar Anjum meant that Suresh Raina and Venugopal Rao had to spend the vast part of the innings resuscitating it.

Their efforts weren't helped by a Pakistan team that gave nothing away. The same side that had gifted extras India's way when they last met now bowled just five wides and not a single no-ball, quite an achievement given the fact that the likes of Rana Naved-ul-Hasan are habitual offenders. Though he went wicketless, it was Mohammad Asif that set the standard for the rest, with an impeccable opening spell of six overs for a mere 11 runs.

Raina, a natural shot-maker, and Rao both struggled to work the ball away on a turgid surface but their 64-run partnership was central to the revival. Shoaib Malik and Shahid Afridi conceded just one four between them in 10 overs, and the desperate heaves essayed by Raina and Ramesh Powar were indicative of the vice-like grip from which India could never really wriggle out.

For some, this may have been an outing to raise funds for a worthwhile cause, but for a fringe player like Rao, there was plenty at stake. A tally of 146 runs from nine previous innings, at a none-too-impressive strike-rate, really wasn't the stuff that lengthy one-day careers are made of, and the determination that he showed today in nurdling his way to 61 was commendable. His calm temperament and compact technique might ultimately flourish best in the Test arena, but the manner in which he was able to inject some urgency in the closing stages vindicated his selection.

After a career that has now encompassed 132 caps, it's strange to think of Younis Khan as an individual on the periphery of the one-day outfit. For a long time now, Imran Khan has spoken out about the need to play him at No.3 in the limited-overs games. It was a plea based more on hope than numbers. In 29 previous matches in that pivotal slot, Younis had averaged a dismal 22.75, and done nothing to suggest that he was a better option than Malik.

Today, though, he played an innings of substance, commandeering the chase with the same assurance that characterised his batting in the Tests against India. Once again, his fluency again the spinners came to the fore, and Harbhajan Singh was a flustered man by the end of his spell, with Younis having deposited a doosra into the stands at deep square leg.

Despite incisive probing spells from Sreesanth and Ajit Agarkar - the pick of India's bowlers - Younis's partnership with Inzamam-ul-Haq was to prove decisive. Even after Inzamam departed, closely followed by the out-of-sorts Mohammad Yousuf, there were no undue alarms. Right to the end, Younis's penchant for the tap and scampered single meant that the inner ring were never allowed to apply concerted pressure.

They had their chance. A brilliant stop by Yuvraj, diving to his left, had caught Younis halfway up the pitch and hopelessly marooned, with the score on 70 for 2. But Yuvraj's throw was slightly awry, and after gathering it, Pathan's off-balance shy at the stumps missed. It summed up India's match - a fair effort that lacked a cutting edge. Tomorrow's match, the third in five days for a team that has played almost non-stop since going to Pakistan, could revive all the old clich├ęs about straws and camels' backs.

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo