Runs, runs, runs...
It's not often that a fantastic 199 is overshadowed but three other stupendous hundreds made it a day of revelry for the Pakistan batsmen, amassing a mammoth 679 for 7 declared on the second day of the first Test at Lahore. Younis Khan was unlucky to miss out on what would have been a cracking double-hundred, but superbly-timed centuries from Mohammad Yousuf and Kamran Akmal, interspersed by a manic classic from Shahid Afridi, put even that innings in the shade.
India's riposte, in the 13 overs that were possible before the light faded, was fiery with Virender Sehwag, rattling seven fours in his 35-ball 36, leading them to 65 for no loss. Rahul Dravid, opening the innings for the second time in three Tests, gave him company as India began climbing one mighty mountain. Both staved off a peppering of short stuff from the erratic Shoaib Akhtar and Sehwag soon counterattacked with characteristic panache. Yet, with 414 still needed to avoid the follow-on, having endured a thorough battering for two days, it may turn out to be India's biggest challenge in a while and considering the forecast of rain for the next two days, they might just be tempted to keep one eye on the met department.
Controlled hundreds like Younis's, or aggressive ones like Yousuf's, or even rapid ones like Akmal's, the fastest by a wicketkeeper, can take a game away, but by virtue of its sheer rage and destructive impact, Afridi's 78-ball century probably had the most demoralising effect. It was like watching the skies on a festival night, with rockets flying off in all directions, lighting up the Gaddafi Stadium. Seven howitzered sixes, four successive ones off Harbhajan Singh in one over, the second most expensive in Tests, and seven other whiplashed fours tell a tale of its own and the fact that he scored his last 82 runs in 47 balls explains the ferocity of the scoring. But it became doubly stunning because of the manner in which it was executed. To clear the infield is one thing, to summon a primal force and lambast the bowling, despite fielders patrolling the boundary line, is quite another astonishing thing altogether.
His partnership with Akmal took Pakistan to a different strata as the game began resembling a Twenty20 played out in whites. To concede 500 would have been bad enough; to be torn apart for 179 runs in the next 20.2 overs must have been heart-rending. Though he was the more silent partner of the two, Akmal produced a sparkling gem of his own and broke Adam Gilchrist's 84-ball record for the fastest century by a wicketkeeper. He breezed along at close to a run-a-ball, reaching his fifty off 50 balls, before stepping on the pedal and joining Afridi in a clattering party.
Both these, though, came after the two overnight batsmen had set the stage. Younis and Yousuf were relentless in their pursuit this morning and seamlessly shifted gears against a withering line-up. Twenty eight off the first five overs, 47 off the first 10, 94 in the first hour, 158 before lunch. When Yousuf came in yesterday, Younis was on 60. At a certain stage this morning, he was within touching distance of overtaking him. The rollicking pace he set, with a certain unassuming calm, left India in quite a hopeless situation. The array of strokeplay, covering the entire spectrum, was stunning; the manner of execution, gorgeous; and the consistency with which he managed it, simply admirable. When he square drove, the fielders usually just watched; when he pulled, you couldn't but marvel; when he swept, even the most ambitious of sweeps, it was almost as if there was no other way.
Younis, at the other end, savaged his way to his 150 with a fine square-drive in the second over of the day. He went at a fair clip himself, charging the singles and smacking a couple of cracking hoicks, but he showed that he was equally adept at playing second fiddle. Once Yousuf got close to his score, he awoke and cashed in on large dollops of largesse from Sachin Tendulkar, whipping him for 15 runs in an over and leaving India with a double-barelled attack to contend with. He fell marginally short of his first home double-hundred, taking off for an over-ambitious single, but had provided the platform for a commanding total.
Spare a thought for the bowlers. After a harrowing start yesterday, they found themselves being ground to the dust. Agarkar's second over of the day went for 13, heralding a deluge that never appeared to end; Irfan Pathan was forced to dig it in short - hardly threatening when delivered at around 125 kph - and was soon ripped apart in the Afridi-Akmal carnage; Harbhajan was thundered high and handsome - Afridi alone clobbered him for 59 runs in 39 balls; and Anil Kumble, despite his shimmering moments, was adeptly dismantled.
On a day when shoulders dropped and helplessness set in, the one real moment of joy for India came after the dismissal of Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, brilliantly caught by Sourav Ganguly at mid-off. Back-pedalling to catch a lofted drive, he thrust out his right hand at full stretch and, despite initially mis-judging the trajectory, pulled off an absolute beauty. It was like a stunning goal being scored in the final minutes of a football game, with all remaining hope long dashed.
Mohammad Yousuf st Dhoni b Kumble 173 (455 for 3)
Danced down the track; missed a legbreak
Inzamam-ul-Haq lbw b Kumble 1 (456 for 4)
Tried sweeping a full ball; plumb in front
Younis Khan run-out (Harbhajan) 199 (477 for 5)
Pushed to mid-on and took off for a perilous single; couldn't make it back in time
Shahid Afridi c Harbhajan b Agarkar 103 (647 for 6)
Hoicked a pull straight to midwicket
Rana Naved-ul-Hasan c Ganguly b Agarkar 9 (668 for 7)
Lofted to mid-off; brilliant one-handed catch while peddling back
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo