India v Pakistan, 1st Test, Mohali, 1st day March 8, 2005

A worthy beginning



Tireless and disciplined, Lakshmipathy Balaji justified his selection with a five-for © Getty Images

There was little to fault with the way the Indians played today. Sourav Ganguly, a pragmatic man who values winning over everything else, made the expected decision of playing Lakshmipathy Balaji instead of Harbhajan Singh. There was a thin layer of soft grass on the pitch, and the new SG ball has a more prominent seam, which helps the quick men early on. There is a school of thought that mandates picking your best team, regardless of the conditions. Yet, the effectiveness of a player can vary with the conditions, and Ganguly picked the XI he felt would do the job the best. Did he make the right decision? We shall only know for sure in hindsight, when the Test is over, but it looks pretty good so far.

Once Ganguly had won the toss and chosen to field, the pressure was on his bowlers. Irfan Pathan certainly felt it, and was wayward in his first spell, although he got the ball to move around a lot. He had his moments, especially in that phase of the innings when he earned the crucial wicket of Yousuf Youhana, but was disappointing otherwise, if only by the standards he had set for himself during India's tour of Pakistan last year which earned comparisons with Wasim Akram. The series has just begun, of course.

Zaheer Khan's figures do not indicate it, but he was the best of the bowlers on view. His first spell was outstanding; he was accurate, he moved the ball both ways, and he showed guile and deception by varying the pace of the ball. He was less effective later in the day, but deserved more wickets than he got. He had said in an interview recently with Wisden Asia Cricket: "The Pakistan series will be mine!" If today was any indication, he can walk that talk.

Balaji was more disciplined than incisive, but played the role any captain would expect from a third seamer, bowling tirelessly and accurately through the day. He lifted his game wonderfully in the last session, with the delectable deliveries that bowled Mohammad Sami and Asim Kamal evoking memories from last year's tour. He could have been carrying the drinks, but instead, he carried his captain's expectations extremely well, ending with a well-deserved five-for, his first in Tests.

Pakistan's batsmen did commit many indiscretions, but the credit for inducing those must go to the Indian bowlers, who bowled well, and had a plan for every batsman. For example, Salman Butt, who loves the cut and the square-drive, hardly got a ball wide enough to play those strokes. The Indians concentrated on frustrating the Pakistanis by cutting off opportunities, and only two Pakistanis, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Kamal, showed the patience and application to cope with it.

Despite all this, there is one fault that can be found with Ganguly's captaincy: he was, once again, slow on the over-rate. Time and again he has erred in this area, and it seems like he does not care anymore. India have shown the desire and intensity they need to win, but they must also show the urgency they need to stay within the guidelines set by the ICC. It will be an unnecessary blot on Ganguly's fine record as a captain if he does not get his act together in this regard.

Amit Varma is contributing editor of Cricinfo. He writes the independent blogs, India Uncut and The Middle Stage.

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