A day for fast bowlers
It was supposed to be a day when the Feroz Shah Kotla track would wear and tear, when the ball would spin alarmingly; it turned into one when the only bowlers taking wickets were those bowling fast, extracting whatever life there was on a surface dying a slow death. The two spearheads, Zaheer Khan and Shoaib Akhtar, made emphatic statements, and another, Mohammad Sami, bowled well with little luck. There was even a crucial, if brief, spell from Sourav Ganguly which tilted the scales. India's batsmen all but ensured victory but it was the quick bowlers, from both sides, who set up the contest.
To India's batsmen goes the credit for thwarting Shoaib, a bowler capable of producing the remarkable. To Shoaib goes the credit for delivering a scorching spell either side of tea, one that was furious enough to try to pull off the improbable. Before tea, he revived Pakistan with a breakthrough, luring Wasim Jaffer into an airy pull. After the break, he delivered the ball of the match, breaching Rahul Dravid's defences and knocking back leg stump. There was speed and movement; the line was spot on and the length impeccable. The crowd, in the midst of a Mexican wave, was silenced as Shoaib set off on his airplane celebration.
He has been a menace throughout this Test but his hell-raising quality had been supressed till now. He has been used only in short bursts, leaving everyone yearning for a bit more. He has come on, bowled a couple of threatening overs, experimented with bouncers, yorkers and slower ones, yelled out a few appeals and walked off. He has not really been allowed time to work into a spell, one that allows him to gradually set batsmen up. For all that, his 7-2-16-2 today had enough drama to grip a packed house.
"He's their main bowler and we all knew we had to play him out," said Jaffer when asked about the ferocity of Shoaib's spell. "We knew it was important to get past those overs." He played down the threat of the spell - "as an opening batsmen I have faced many such" - and was happy with the way he handled Shoaib. "It's good that I've come out well... [he] was bowling around 140 kmph."
His ability to punch off the back-foot came of use, as did his positive approach against the new ball. "When the Pakistan innings ended, we went into a huddle and Anil said, 'Let's just think positive. Don't bring negative thoughts into your mind.' That was what we all wanted to do."
What Shoaib couldn't do, though, was turn the Test. That was up to Zaheer. He nullified Pakistan's advantage early in the day with two strikes and Sohail Tanvir, one of the victims, went on to term the spell "the day's turning point". The time was ripe for Zaheer to exploit the conditions and wrest back the advantage India had surrendered earlier in the game. The early-morning juice on the surface allowed him seam movement and, with the wickets of Kamran Akmal and Tanvir, he put India on course.
There was a surprise package too. Anil Kumble decided to take the new ball midway through Ganguly's first over of the day. It seemed to unnerve Misbah-ul-Haq, who attempted a wild loft and holed out to midwicket. Mohammad Sami, who took 21 balls to get off the mark, then attempted a pull, top-edging to square leg, and Ganguly was left smiling in disbelief.
Nobody should be surprised with his superbly assured 48 later in the day - after all he's been one of the most impressive batsmen over the past three series - but he might have just had one of his best Tests with the ball.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is an assistant editor at Cricinfo