Pathan misses ton as Pakistan march on
Batsmen from both sides refused to let up on a lifeless pitch as the game settled into a monotonous rhythm on the fourth day of the second Test at Faisalabad. Plucky contributions from the lower order helped India gain a slender lead before Pakistan responded confidently, moving to 152 for 1 at stumps and all but ensuring that the teams left for Karachi with a 0-0 scoreline.
Barring the first hour, when Mahendra Singh Dhoni thumped 33 off 29, the day had a certain predictability about it. Irfan Pathan, falling ten short of his maiden hundred, calmly guided the tail before the last four batsmen eked out 74 to edge India ahead. It would have required a collapse of sorts for Pakistan to lose the plot but Younis Khan and Kamran Akmal, opening for the first timein a Test, piloted them to safety with a cheery 100-run stand. Pakistan were 137 ahead at the end of the day but by then the game had entered a point of no return. Not many fifth days have been as uninviting.
India's best chance was to prise out a few early wickets and create some sort of pressure and the new-ball bowlers did their bit early on. Pathan cranked up the pace in his first spell, consistently touching 80mph, while RP Singh asked some searching questions. Who knows what might have happened if, within the first four overs, VVS Laxman had held on to a regulation catch at second slip to dismiss Salman Butt; or if a bottom edge off Akmal's bat, against RP Singh, had not missed the stumps by a whisker; or even, if Simon Taufel had upheld a close shout for lbw against Butt. However, none of those materialised and, though Butt fell soon after, Pakistan managed to break the shackles and establish control over the bowling.
It was Akmal who set the tone, cashing in on RP Singh's short length, and pulled a flurry of boundaries to release the pressure. Cover-drives soon raced away from the middle of the bat and he displayed a certain correctness in both attack and defence. As Akmal shifted to a lower gear, Younis began to speed up. On his way to collecting his sixth 50-plus score in his last four Tests against India, Younis spanked the spinners off their length - flogging Anil Kumble for three fours in an over - and as the day ended, there was little to suggest that he was going to throw it away.
The morning period could be seen as a session of two halves: Dhoni mounted a blistering assault at the start, and Pathan consolidated soon after Dhoni fell. Beginning the day in the same vein that he began his innings, Dhoni tore apart Shoaib Akhtar in an engaging three-over period. He jammed a magnificent straight-drive in Shoaib's third over, which yielded 18 runs, and followed it up with a clanging pull in front of square. Shoaib responded with a chest-high beamer down leg side, only to concede four more. Fifty runs came in the first 10.4 overs but Dhoni's dismissal, charging down the track and trying to loft Danish Kaneria over midwicket, put the brakes on.
Pathan's purple patch with the bat continued, and the manner in which he drove through the covers had the stamp of a top-order batsman. Spin, as he showed against Sri Lanka, is hardly a threat and he confirmed it with a flowing six off Kaneria over long off. He fell just short a hundred again, beaten by an inswinger from Abdul Razzaq, but had played a vital hand in India's path to recovery. Kaneria removed Kumble - probably risking a fine with a clumsy send-off - but Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan ensured that India nudged ahead.
Like any other day in the series, it was a tough one for bowlers. Mohammad Asif, troubling the batsmen on and around the off stump, turned out to be the pick of the lot while Razzaq, despite his no-ball affliction, kept the batsmen guessing with some late swing. Kaneria and Shahid Afridi, who finished with five wickets between them, would have wished for a little more assistance from the pitch and, as their constant chattering conveyed, probably decided to vent their frustration on the batsmen instead.
How they were out
Mahendra Singh Dhoni st Akmal b Kaneria 148 (491 for 6)
Charged down the track and tried to slog over midwicket
Irfan Pathan lbw b Razzaq 90 (529 for 7)
Missed an inswinger; ball brushes pad before hitting bat
Anil Kumble st Akmal b Kaneria 15 (553 for 8)
Back foot was on the line as he missed a drive
Harbhajan Singh lbw b Afridi 38 (587 for 9)
Trapped in front by a faster one
RP Singh c and b Afridi 6 (603)
Drove in the air; superb one-handed return catch diving to his right
Salman Butt c Tendulkar b Kumble 24 (52 for 1)
Uppish drive straight to short midwicket
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo.