Honours even as Pakistan claw back
This has been a match of partnerships, right from Misbah-ul-Haq and Mohammad Sami's rearguard action to the VVS Laxman-Mahendra Singh Dhoni stand that resurrected India on Friday. On the third day an opening partnership for Pakistan, unlikely as that sounds, set the stage, but the spin pair of Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh picked up four wickets in the span of 47 runs to peg them back. And once again, it was a partnership, Misbah combining with Kamran Akmal, that restored the balance, with a rush of runs in the dying moments of the day taking Pakistan to 212 for 5, a threatening lead of 167.
The momentum has swung both ways in the course of this game, and when play began on the third day, the balance was delicately poised. Danish Kaneria decided to rudely upset it, picking three of the four wickets to fall, bringing the curtain down on the Indian innings for a lead of only 45. VVS Laxman was unbeaten on 72, the top score of the Indian innings, but he made little effort to shield the tail, and this meant a rather quick end to proceedings.
Anil Kumble, leading the side, and fresh from a Test hundred in his last match, against England at The Oval, can usually be counted on to resist. And he did not throw his wicket away. Rather Kaneria got one to bounce and turn a bit extra and the ball went off the shoulder of Kumble's defensive bat straight to first slip. The rest of the tail, however, did not even attempt to fight.
Harbhajan Singh was bowled attempting to flick Sohail Tanveer across the line, Zaheer Khan hit one six and then scooped to mid-off aiming to hit the ball out of the ground once more, and Munaf Patel swept off the stumps without having much idea where the ball was, trapped plumb in front. Laxman, through all this, was batting assuredly, but had not farmed the strike, and made 15 of the 48 runs added, pushing his own score to 72 not out as India closed on 276.
A first-innings lead of 100 and over, with so much time left in the game, would have put India in control, but their lead of 45 left the door open for Pakistan to come back into the game. Salman Butt and Yasir Hameed stormed through this door with an aggressive opening partnership. While not necessarily looking to clatter every ball out of the park, the intent was positive from both openers.
While Butt was merely translating his one-day form into Test runs, Hameed showed real promise, putting away loose deliveries almost unfailingly. Pakistan have juggled opening partnerships plenty in the recent past, but it is this combine that has looked the most likely to succeed, and even once put up 100 against Australia, the only such stand in the last three years.
On the day they were well on course to building something big, having got a good measure of the fast bowlers. When Kumble introduced himself into the attack, perhaps a touch late, things changed. There was a hesitancy in the batting, a tendency to not commit fully and the partnership was duly broken. Hameed (36) pushed firmly to off, but failed to keep the ball down and Laxman plucked the ball out of the air just inches from the ground.
The opening stand of 71 gave Younis a chance to express himself and he too looked to play aggressively, picking up boundaries against the spinners and fast bowlers. But the relentlessness of Kumble eventually won a positive result from Simon Taufel as a full ball struck Younis on the pad, getting past bat. Younis had made 23 in another mini partnership, but the pressure was beginning to tell on Pakistan, even with the score on 114 for 2.
Mohammad Yousuf then began his occupation of the crease, and just as he looked set for a long stint, the late introduction of Harbhajan brought joy for India. Yousuf looked to drive Harbhajan's first ball through leg and ballooned a catch back to the bowler. Then Kumble prised out Butt, who had made 67 vital runs. Bowling round the stumps Kumble floated in a googly that landed in the footmarks, Butt took the bait and flashed hard, edging straight to Dravid at slip.
When Harbhajan added a fortuitous wicket to his kitty - Shoaib Malik dragged one that bounced a bit extra onto his stumps via pad - Pakistan had lost four wickets for only 47 runs. But luck soon swung the other way as Misbah edged Kumble straight to forward short leg only for Wasim Jaffer to fluff the simplest of catches. Perhaps taking that as a sign, Misbah gave up the dour prodding, leaving that to Akmal, and began to counterattack. He lofted Harbhajan over the long-on and midwicket, as the shadows lengthened at the Ferozshah Kotla. Stumps were drawn not long after, with Pakistan on 212 for 5. India won't want the lead, which currently stands at 167, to swell into something much bigger, for chasing might just be tricky with Shoaib Akhtar steaming in.
Anand Vasu is an associate editor at Cricinfo