Two for the ages
The series is only two one-day matches old and already it has a titanic feel to it. For those of us bemused by the orchestrated hype around Steve Waugh's retirement, the coverage of India's tour to Pakistan has been benumbing - a newspaper that never tires of anointing itself as the leader, tastelessly led its front-page with the headline `Karachi Captured' the day after India's win - but fears that the good game will be buried in the cacophonic lust of marketing czars have been happily belied. In a matter of a mere 200 overs, cricket has taken centrestage.
For all its ability to capture eyeballs and net cash, one-day cricket has shown a worrying tendency in recent years of being unable to sustain the excitement through 100 overs. While Test cricket has grown more captivating, one-day cricket has slipped into a formulaic pattern, and barring a handful of matches where the result has gone down to the wire, games have often been decided within the first 30 overs of the chase. Some of the monotony is rooted in excess and in a lack of significance. More than half of the matches in the recent VB series featuring Australia, India and Zimbabwe were meaningless and by the time the tournament reached its finale, India had lost their intensity and the finals turned out be one-sided bores.
Two matches are too few to restore one-day cricket to good health, but the games at Karachi and Rawalpindi, by living out the full potential of this form of the game, have served as reminders of the possibilities. Every ball has resonated with meaning, every moment has crackled with tension. Players have been so charged by the occasion that occasionally they have lost their bearings. The first 15 overs of the opening match produced 143 runs for India, but the cricket bordered on the wild. Wides and no-balls were matched even by heaves and slogs, and on another day, India could have easily been reduced to 25 for 4 with a similar approach. But the players found their nerve and the match ended as a cracker.
From the large scores, and the fact that bowlers have been bludgeoned on flat pitches, similarities can be drawn to the high-scoring, but largely uninteresting seven-match one-day series between India and West Indies in India in 2002-03. There is a significant difference, though: in that series, there was an inevitability about huge scores being chased down; till West Indies defended their 315 in the last match, the side chasing won on every occasion and twice, a score of 300 or above wasn't enough to secure victory.
In Pakistan so far, the bowler has been belted, but he hasn't been driven out of the equation. At vital moments, he has stamped his authority, and provided the game with its more eye-catching and enduring moments. Ashish Nehra, who manages to put it all together every now and then despite always looking like falling apart, bowled India to victory with six nerveless balls in the final over at Karachi and served up a peach to dislodge the off stump of Inzamam-ul-Haq at Rawalpindi when Pakistan seemed on course to 370. It was a brute from Shoaib Akhtar that knocked Virender Sehwag over in Pindi, and he came back to bowl a dead-straight over at the death. Mohammed Sami got his skiddy yorkers going on a pitch that offered nothing to the fast bowlers, and his dismissal of Rahul Dravid was no less vital than that of Sachin Tendulkar.
In a sense, the matches have achieved more poignancy because, despite the orgy of runs, the bowlers have played the decisive role. The only pattern that has been established in the first two matches is that of uncertainty. That 317 has been the lowest score of the series makes it evident that no total can be considered safe, yet because the bowling side has been successful in defending, there is no inevitability to the chase yet. From here, anything and everything is possible. Rarely has a bilateral one-day series fired the imagination in such a manner. When cricket is so worthy, who needs the hype-masters?