India v Pakistan, 1st Test, Delhi, 3rd day November 24, 2007

A tale of missed chances

We've seen plenty of pendulum swings over the last three days but that's only because when you expect a team to take the bull by the horns, they wave the red rag instead.

After Anil Kumble's spell gave India the edge Pakistan clawed their way back © AFP

Several years from now, when memories fade and mainly highlights packages remain, this match will probably be recounted as a classic. In terms of gripping the spectator it could, by the end, sit alongside the 1999 Chennai classic. Just when there was talk about India v Pakistan lacking the usual spice, we have a potential humdinger.

What is different, though, is the nature of the contest. Several factors go into making a Test match exciting and the one big reason why this game has been allowed to veer into thrilling territory is this: both sides have given up the advantage far too often, far too easily.

The pitch hasn't thrown up a single demon - its lethargic nature continues to confound. The bowling attacks have been hardworking but not menacing enough to merit scores of 231, 276 and 212 for 5. The pendulum has swung wildly over the last three days but that's only because a team positioned to take the bull by the horns waves the red rag instead.

India's batting approach this morning summed it up. They began the day three runs behind Pakistan and soon saw their position firm up. VVS Laxman swished his wrists, batting with no sign of discomfort, and Anil Kumble provided support. They overcame the early threat, saw the overcast conditions clear, and got themselves into a solid position. Shoaib Akhtar's grunts were getting louder, Sohail Tanvir was trying slower balls, Danish Kaneria was regularly looking up to the heavens, and Shoaib Malik spent time between overs chewing his finger-nails. Only one team was ahead and it had the chance to drive home that advantage.

... one must wonder if Laxman is a misfit at No. 6. Unlike Misbah-ul-Haq, he isn't an improviser, unlike Andrew Symonds, he isn't a big hitter, and unlike Chamara Silva, isn't a hare between wickets

That was precisely when India dropped the baton. It's difficult to fault anyone at this point - Kumble got a fine legbreak that kicked from a length - but what happened after was recklessness. The last year has shown India's tailenders can be relied on - Laxman and Zaheer Khan added 70 at the Wanderers, Laxman and Sreesanth added 52 at Durban, and the tail played a big part in drawing the Lord's Test in June.

Today's effort, though, was tragic-comic in comparison. Harbhajan Singh moved across and left his leg stump exposed and Zaheer slashed wildly at a ball after depositing Kaneria for a six. Laxman faced just six balls after Kumble fell and Munaf didn't last longer than one.

Somewhere along the line one must wonder if Laxman is a misfit at No. 6. Unlike Misbah-ul-Haq, he isn't an improviser, unlike Andrew Symonds he isn't a big hitter, and, unlike Chamara Silva, isn't a hare between wickets. Neither does he farm the strike. He seems to belong to Steve Waugh's trust-your-partner school of tail-end batting and doesn't seem to change his game according to who is at the other end. It would be harsh to blame him here, especially after playing a potentially match-winning knock, but India need to ponder this question. Is he being kept for too late? Can Sourav Ganguly, a more aggressive batsman who's left-handedness can work well with the right-handed tail, work better there?

Pakistan played their part later in the day, letting slip the advantage provided by a solid opening stand, but India were to have the last word. It's 161 for 5, Pakistan effectively 116 ahead, and India have their chance to pick up their sixth wicket. Misbah has been foxed by a Kumble faster one, poking tentatively to short leg, offering India a chance to wrap it all up.

But sorry. India can't be bad hosts. Wasim Jaffer muffs up the catch, sees the ball rebound off his chest and muffs it up again. It's not the first time India's close-in fielding has let them down recently and is unlikely to be the last. It set up an exciting Test for the neutral but squandered a golden position for India.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is an assistant editor at Cricinfo