A riveting contest at Gaddafi April 8, 2004

The capricious world of Test cricket

Of all the reasons why we love Test cricket, the most compelling one is the way it reveals itself and yet holds back so much

Umar Gul wasn't in Pakistan's original plans, but it was his seven-over spell that rocked India © AFP

Of all the reasons why we love Test cricket, the most compelling one is the way it reveals itself and yet holds back so much. The past is more than relevant, but it is never a pointer to the future. Pakistan looked dead and buried at Multan, yet, in a matter of a week, they are in a position from where they can fancy themselves to win the series.

There will be some who will attribute India's demise to the tinge of green on the pitch at the Gaddafi Stadium, but it was a seven-over spell from a young fast bowler, one not originally in the plans of the Pakistan team management, that did India in. Shabbir Ahmed's injury is still a thing of mystery to many, but there is no telling how this match would have gone had Umar Gul, who leaves his bowling mark like Jason Gillespie and ends up delivering the ball in a manner that is entirely his own, been sitting on the bench.

There will be recriminations about the failure of the Indian top order twice in the same match, and theories will be spun around Sachin Tendulkar's inability to stand the heat. Barring the New Zealand tour in late 2002, the Indian top order hasn't failed the team as abysmally as it did at Lahore since Lord's in 2002. India lost the Test at Melbourne last year, but there was Virender Sehwag's 195 in the first innings and fighting knocks from Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly in the second. But just as it was premature to write off the Pakistani fast bowlers after Multan, it would be immature to start calling the Indian batsmen flat-track bullies.

We witnessed a wonderful game of Test cricket at Lahore. The bowlers have made a comeback, the series has come alive, and that calls for celebration. Multan ceased to be a contest after the first day - some might say after the first two hours. Even though Pakistan held the whip hand for much of the Lahore Test, India kept staging mini-comebacks throughout the match, and kept the interest alive.

The first day's play was among the most riveting in recent times. Young performers announcing themselves is always stirring and Gul, an unheralded fast bowler, and Yuvraj Singh, a batsman of immense promise, enlivened that first day with contrasting performances. Gul's was a return to fundamentals, Yuvraj's was an explosion of individual expression, and both delivered what their teams needed. Without Gul's adherence to the basics - an off-stump line, just short of a good length -- Pakistan looked doomed to waste the advantage of bowling first on a pitch that gave fast bowlers hope, because Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Sami were profligate once again. And without Yuvraj's stroke-filled hundred, India would have been bowled out for under 200 after choosing to bat.

Yuvraj Singh's explosion of individual expression was a treat to the eye © AFP

India batted poorly in both innings. Tendulkar, after scoring 495 runs without being dismissed this year, was leg-before twice, and it is not the first time that he has been trapped early in his innings by the ball that jags back sharply. Dravid threw away his wicket in both innings, and if one adds Multan to it, it is three in three. VVS Laxman played an atrocious stroke in the first and was done in by a beauty in the second. Irfan Pathan earned a promotion to No. 8 with a classy 49 in the first, only to be reduced to a bumbling novice by Shoaib in the second. In such capriciousness lies the beauty of Test cricket.

All through this series, Shoaib has been a sorry shadow of himself. Fired up by Sehwag's wicket this morning, he set out to dismantle Pathan with four electrifying bouncers. The first hit Pathan on the gloves, the second just below it, the third he managed to evade before fending the fourth to backward point. Pathan is only a No. 8, but Shoaib's precision in those minutes would have troubled anyone. If he can carry the memory of this over to Rawalpindi, he will be a handful there.

If anything, the results at Multan and Lahore have shown that there is little to separate these teams. The series is following the pattern of the last encounter between the two. In 1999, Pakistan beat India in the first Test at Chennai and lost the second one at Delhi before winning at Kolkata. But since the last Test was part of the Asian Test Championship, the series was declared a draw. There is no such diversion this time. There will be all to play for at Rawalpindi. The series deserves a decider.

Sambit Bal is editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India, and of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine.