Finally, the series catches fire
The Kotla Test is alive and well. There was a fear, especially after Pakistan's insipid showing over the last few weeks, that this series was going to be consigned to the cricketing dustbin. It took a combination of factors to make the second day a riveting spectacle, none more so than the revival of the one dominant theme surrounding this rivalry: Indian batsmen v Pakistani bowlers.
Turn the clock back and you have series after series hyped thus. Very often it's been about India's masterful wrists taking on Pakistan's exotic brand of pace and legspin. It's often simply trotted out as an overused cliché but the fact remains, and today was an example, that the battle is still being furiously fought.
It was a day when red-hot pace (Shoaib Akhtar) met rock-solid defence (Rahul Dravid); when outlandish wrong-footed medium-pace (Sohail Tanvir) ran into willowy wrist-work (VVS Laxman); and when the artful legspin of Danish Kaneria jousted with Mahendra Singh Dhoni's unconventional shot-manufacturing. It was also a day for two run-outs, umpteen raucous appeals, several verbal confrontations and an atmosphere that matched the quality of cricket on show. Heck, even the sun stayed out for most of the day.
Tanvir has to be one of the most freakish cricketers around - not only with respect to his action but also his rapid rise. Six months back he was a nobody, in June he was one of the many young prospects attending Wasim Akram's bowling camp, by September he was part of a side that reached the ICC World Twenty20 final, in October he broke into the one-day side (yet there were many still calling him "limited").
Today he snared two of the biggest wickets at hand. One came into the left-hander, sneaking through the gate that Sourav Ganguly opened; the other did the same to the right-hander, castling the technically superior Rahul Dravid. Stranger still, he reacted in stoic manner, without the hint of a smile. Here is someone whose arms, head and legs defy the laws of mechanics ball after ball. Yet he often appeared the most morose man on the field. At the media session early on in the tour he thought it best to introduce himself before answering questions - "Ladies and gentlemen, I am Sohail Tanvir, [the] left-arm fast bowler ..." - but few will need any introductions now.
Here is someone whose arms, head and legs defy the laws of mechanics ball after ball. Yet he often appeared the most morose man on the field
Up against him was Laxman, a far more languid character whose smile can light up an entire room. Unlike Tanvir, there is no real effort in Laxman's game, no jerky movements, no awkwardness. He walked in amid a mini-crisis but was soon executing flicks from his magical repertoire. In typically humble fashion he later dismissed all those gorgeous strokes, saying he "just played according to the merit of the ball".
The tough bit would have been handling Tanvir, occasionally swinging the ball both ways, but Laxman picked it off as delicately as if he were peeling an egg. "Tanvir is a very different kind of bowler so it is very important to get used to his style of bowling," said Laxman, "and getting used to his style was challenging. Yet I thought Shoaib was the best bowler for them."
For sheer adrenalin-fuelled pace Shoaib has few equals. His run-up appeared shorter than usual but the strange bit was the manner in which he marked it - setting a mark on the ground and starting ten feet behind. He was used in short bursts and clocked around 145kph whenever given the ball. He was greeted by "Indy, Pindi, Rawalpindi" when fielding near the boundary-line but laughed it all away with one of those "What do you know about the donkey work" laughs.
Dhoni was the most innovative one on view. He danced down the track to Tanvir, in an attempt to negate the swing, and brought out a few agricultural pulls down the ground against Danish Kaneria. He ran hard, fidgeted and didn't hesitate giving the bowlers some lip. His free-flowing style eased the pressure on Laxman, one who has tended to be bogged down when batting with the tail. In contrasting styles they ensured that India's batsmen ended the day with a slight edge over the Pakistan bowlers. Both sets can take a bow: it was the absorbing contest that - finally - ignited the series.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is an assistant editor at Cricinfo