At last, the genuine article
When Flintoff and Geraint Jones walked to the crease this morning, a stalemate was very much a possibility, on a pitch that showed few signs of wear. Kumble and Harbhajan Singh had managed some sharp turn and disconcerting bounce at times on the fourth evening, but by no stretch of imagination was it an unplayable surface. Flintoff's batting, alternately watchful and aggressive, suggested as much. But with all eyes on the slow bowlers, it was Munaf that struck the telling blows, reverse-swinging the ball at pace to do unto England what they had done to Australia during the Ashes series.
In the space of 4.4 overs this morning, he took his match tally to seven, while pushing England closer to the precipice. On any surface, innings figures of 4 for 26 would be impressive, but on a pitch that was nowhere near as pace-friendly as the Gabba or Headingley, it was little short of sensational. Jones was undone by lift and inward movement, while both Liam Plunkett and Matthew Hoggard succumbed to the quick bowler's most effective weapon against the tail, the perfectly directed yorker that arcs unerringly towards the base of middle and leg stumps.
This wasn't your typical Indian pitch, where pace bowlers become redundant once the new ball loses its shine, and Rahul Dravid will take great heart from the fact that Munaf was the pick of the fast men on view. Flintoff was magnificent in patches when India batted, but the failure to pitch it up and work on reverse cost England the game on the fourth morning, when India rattled along from 200 to 300 in just 111 balls.
As for Munaf, the challenge is now to ensure that the promising start is not squandered. Kapil Dev managed only 1 for 96 on a Faisalabad featherbed in his first outing, and while Javagal Srinath impressed with 3 for 65 at the Gabba in 1991-92, it had little influence on the eventual outcome. You have to trawl through dusty archives to find the last instance of an Indian pace bowler making such an impact at the first time of asking.
Mohammad Nissar bowled Percy Holmes, Herbert Sutcliffe and Les Ames on his way to figures of 5 for 93 at Lord's - 6 for 135 in the match - in India's inaugural Test. More than three decades later, Abid Ali outdid him with 6 for 55 in Brisbane, albeit while bowling at much more sedate pace. Still only 22, and with the ability to bowl consistently around 140 kmph, Munaf will target far more than the 72 wickets that the duo managed in 35 appearances.
His dazzling debut leaves the team management with a pleasing headache for the Mumbai game. Piyush Chawla bowled only 14.1 overs in his role as third spinner, and the experiment is unlikely to be repeated at the Wankhede. With S Sreesanth also having impressed on debut in Nagpur, it should be a toss up between a three-man pace attack and the extra batsman. After the bitter disappointments of Pakistan, when taking 20 wickets seemed as likely as Ricky Ponting being serenaded at the Wanderers, it's a dilemma that will be contemplated with a smile.
Virender Sehwag's welcome return to run-scoring ways may yet tempt the team to stick with five bowlers. With whispers growing about his form since that 254 on a somnolent pitch at Lahore, Sehwag ensured that the pursuit of 144 wouldn't be derailed by any carelessness on his part. Frequently accused of being casual, he bucked the trend of horrendous second-innings performances - before this game, he averaged 22 in the second innings, stark contrast to a staggering figure of 71.3 in the first innings - with an effort that was higher on application than it was on hair-raising strokeplay. Only towards the end, with victory certain, was the cloak of circumspection shed, and the few booming drives that ensued could be an ominous warning for England.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo