December 13, 2007

Flat pitches, flatter series

Dead pitches, toothless attacks, diffident tactics - is it any wonder this India-Pakistan series ranked alongside the last one for dullness



The big sleep: Sourav Ganguly shows just what he thinks of the series © Getty Images

Don't go by the dramatic last hour, when a crumbling pitch almost contrived to produce a result: on the dullness scale, this series stood sheepishly alongside the one these rivals played out in Pakistan in 2006. Like then, the better team took the series, but save for a few individual performances, the cricket remained uninspiring almost throughout; often it was insipid.

A large amount of the blame must be assigned to the pitches, or more appropriately, those responsible for creating them. For nearly two unseemly weeks senior BCCI officials obsessed over the harm being caused to Indian cricket by the chief selector writing a column in defiance of the board's code of conduct, but not a word was heard about the dead pitch that condemned the second Test to tedium. Of course, the BCCI's constitution doesn't lay down guidelines for safeguarding trivial matters like the health of Test cricket and spectator interest.

One of the most heartening aspects about cricket in recent times is that Test cricket has become far more result-oriented, yet the last six encounters between India and Pakistan have yielded four draws, all of them on pitches designed to break the heart and will of bowlers. It would have been a travesty had India sneaked a win at Bangalore, because it would not have been earned by great bowling, but rather due to a pitch that became a minefield towards the end after staying unfair to bowlers for the most part. Anil Kumble looked deadly bowling seam-up, and Yuvraj Singh just by bowling at the stumps.

India didn't deserve to win because they had shown no intent - in fact, after lunch Kumble seemed more focused on giving Dinesh Karthik an opportunity to bat than on forcing a win - and a result would have somewhat redeemed a pitch that was just not good enough.

This said, the story of the series was also that neither team possessed a bowling attack capable of transcending the pitches. India winning 1-0 was the right result: they were the superior team; but a 2-0 scoreline would have flattered them. Pakistan will rue that one suicidal session on the fourth day in Delhi that cost them the series, but the truth is that like India in the 2006 series, they were playing catch-up all through the series. They managed to bowl India out only twice in the three Tests, and only once for under 600. At no point did they get themselves to a position from where victory could be contemplated.

But most of all, they were flat, lacking in fire, intensity and purpose. The most conspicuous personification of their diffidence was their inexperienced captain. Shoaib Malik had looked calm and controlled while leading Pakistan to the final of the World Twenty20 in South Africa, but in the longer versions of the game, in home series against South Africa and here in the one-dayers and in the first Test, he looked forlorn and bereft of inspiration. Inzamam-ul-Haq, his predecessor, often gave the impression of disengagement, but he had presence and commanded respect of his team-mates for his batting abilities.

 
It also didn't help Pakistan that in the last two Tests they had a reluctant captain in Younis Khan. A naturally combative player, Younis perhaps has his reasons for not leading Pakistan, and there are indications he didn't get a say in the selection of the playing XI for the last Test - a selection that seemed to be based on extreme diffidence
 

Granted Malik is inexperienced, but historically Pakistani cricketers have responded to strong leaders, and even if he acquires cricket savvy through exposure, he will always be disadvantaged because of his shortcomings as a batsman. Without the security of the captaincy, he would struggle to hold his place in the Test side. He may have been appointed captain for a year, but the selectors must now reconsider.

They must also seriously consider if Shoaib Akhtar is worth the trouble. The explanation "but he is a match-winner" is wearing thin because he has not won that many matches. The external problems - drugs, suspect action (watch him fire the ball in from wide of the crease and it's difficult not to squirm), misconduct and truancy - would perhaps be worth risking if the captain was confident Shoaib would turn up fit. As it stands, he now stands in the rare category of cricketers who have missed more matches than they have played, and rarely has he lasted a full series. Here, the sting went out of the Pakistani bowling attack the moment he ran out of wind.

It also didn't help Pakistan that in the last two Tests they had a reluctant captain in Younis Khan. A naturally combative player, Younis perhaps has his reasons for not leading Pakistan, and there are indications he didn't get a say in the selection of the playing XI for the last Test - a selection that seemed to be based on extreme diffidence. For a Test they had to win, Pakistan chose only four bowlers: a spearhead with a history of breaking down; to partner him, a man whose bowling average would do batsmen proud; a legspinner who averages 39 against India; and a debutant medium-pacer better suited to one-day cricket. Yuvraj Singh and Sourav Ganguly batted splendidly in a pressure situation on the first day of the last Test, but once they had played themselves in, the Pakistanis were reduced to merely fetching the ball from the boundary.



You batting beauty: Misbah-ul-Haq's form was among the few silver linings for Pakistan © Getty Images

The only positive Pakistan can carry from the series is the emergence of Misbah-ul-Haq as a serious Test batsman. For a man who made his comeback to international cricket via Twenty20, his progress has been remarkable. It was he, and Kamran Akmal, who prevented a washout. He was cool all through, and adapted his technique marvellously to counter the threat of Kumble's spearing topspinners. For someone who came from nowhere, he is now a serious candidate to lead Pakistan.

For India, the series marked a new high for Sourav Ganguly - he made more than 1000 runs in a calendar year for the first time in his career, and seemed to get better with every innings - and the emphatic return to Test cricket by Yuvraj. They now have a problem of batting riches when they sit down pick the final XI for the Boxing Day Test against Australia, but that will be offset by the uncertainty over their pace bowlers, who are carrying various injuries. Of the spinners, Kumble was resourceful and threatening as usual, but Harbhajan Singh, returning to the Test side after 18 months, was disappointing. Still, they will savour their first home win against Pakistan in nearly three decades.

Australia are the next opponents for both teams. Pakistan have three months before they face them at home. But India have less than two weeks before they take them on in Melbourne. To that end, this series has been poor preparation. The opponents have been feeble, and the pitches even less challenging.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo

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