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January 23, 2006
Until the afternoon, nearly halfway through this series, Test cricket had been at its most hateful. In any case, batting practices an unhealthy hold over modern day cricket, but in Lahore and Faisalabad, it has become a deathly choke. Between ball and bat there is such gross imbalance that the tumbling of records, the blitzy pace of scoring, actually demeans batting itself.
Until India commenced their first innings here, 1677 runs had come at the exorbitant rates of over 93 runs for each of the 23 wickets that had fallen (no haggling on rates allowed here), eight hundreds had been scored, many of them at more than a run-a-ball. Pakistan had taken the wicket only of Virender Sehwag twice in this series and the leading wicket-takers had four wickets each. Halfway through their first innings, two more hundreds had been added and 441 more runs. We love a scapegoat so take your pick. Should we blame the curator for making such pitches? Or the weather for not allowing them to be prepared properly and chopping of time in Lahore? The management of the home team is always good to blame in these situations. But the best bet is to lay the blame fully at the door of the Pakistan board for a geographically lopsided itinerary at precisely the time of year when it is least advisable to play cricket.
We should be grateful at least that for about fifteen overs a cricket match interrupted the proceedings. Although Danish Kaneria sparked the minor collapse, it was Shoaib Akhtar, the only man on either side, capable of even attempting to redress such imbalance on these tracks, who sustained it. His solitary wicket in a six-over burst was a prized one, but around it, he bowled as if he really believed himself to be the lone, crocked saviour for the pride of bowlers the world over. He banged the ball short with dual purpose; to trouble batsmen and beat up on the pitch for being so selfish and uncharitable. The first he accomplished, the second not so and how everyone wished he could have sustained it for a further two overs when Mahendra Dhoni and Irfan Pathan were still settling. With Shoaib around, four wickets fell swiftly and the series briefly flickered.
His support came predominantly and persistently from Mohammad Asif who was admirably ignorant of the benignity of the surface he was using. The pace was healthy, one medium-pacers might aspire to and tearaways loosen up with, but it was where he pitched the ball to various batsmen that was even more notable. On this surface and against a different level of batting than any he has faced, he has never looked out of his depth. And as the sun sank, when no one was particularly interested, he bowled a neat three-over spell with a ball nearly 40 overs old, in which a fuller length was rewarded with some late swing. Had any of Kamran Akmal, Younis Khan or Mohammad Sami longer reaches, he would have ended with three wickets and his side with a wider peek at victory than they have now.
On a scale of ennui, so far this series resides comfortably alongside the direness of contests in the fifties and sixties, four-fifths of the1986-87 series and all four Tests in 1989-90. Once the gleam went off the new ball in that brief period, so too did the glint in bowlers' eyes and batting redressed the balance. Shahid Afridi's incessant chattering at any one who held a bat was more to combat the apathy of his circumstance as bowler rather than confrontational and at least some fun was had from it.
Ironically, thanks to the pace of runs scored and to the bluster of Dhoni - his hundred at least, for the pressure of the situation he faced when he came in, should not be forgotten among the glut we have seen so far - a little life remains in the match. It would help if somehow, overnight, this pitch becomes a dusty crumbler or that we see some decidedly braindead batting. India have a headstart for Pakistan's batting is two men short - as Inzamam is one of the absent, the loss is greater than just two. Otherwise we should all pack our bags and pray that it rains because this imbalance is swiftly becoming unbearable.
A look back at five high-profile exhibition matches
Bide your time, put your body behind each delivery, and play with the batsman's mind