Pakistan rattle India after Akmal special
After ten days of bat humiliating ball, and not a result in sight, this blue-riband series exploded to life on an enthralling opening day at the National Stadium in Karachi. Irfan Pathan's first-over hat-trick put India in charge, but a glorious counterattacking 113 from Kamran Akmal, ably supported by Abdul Razzaq and Shoaib Akhtar, took Pakistan all the way from 39 for 6 and the depths of despair to the relatively rude health of 245 all out. And the value of those lower-order contributions was underlined when Pakistan's pace attack blew away the Indian top order, with Mohammad Asif producing two magnificent deliveries to account for Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman.
Laxman had accompanied Dravid after Virender Sehwag had spent some time off the field during the Pakistan innings. The new combination didn't click, however, as Dravid was undone by a beautiful delivery that pitched in line and forced him to play. It was Sehwag that emerged then, but after a nonchalant flail for four down to third man, he had no answer to an express delivery from Shoaib that bounced and took the outside edge.
With the crowd pumping up the volume and Shoaib charged up, Tendulkar walked out onto the ground where he had made his debut 16 long years earlier. Moments later, he was fortunate to be still in one piece, as a Shoaib bouncer measured at a fearsome 151 kmph thudded into his helmet. Though Tendulkar brushed it off, Laxman then took it upon himself to see off Shoaib's threat, leaving Tendulkar to clip two boundaries to midwicket off Asif.
Shoaib, who had batted for 107 minutes for his entertaining 45, went off after five blistering quick overs, and Tendulkar greeted Razzaq with two superb fours, a back-foot punch down the ground and a sweetly struck square-drive. The partnership was worth 42, and India were eyeing the comfort of stumps when Asif came up with the ball of the day, one that jagged back appreciably to take Laxman's off stump. Moments later, Pakistan were completely in the ascendancy as Tendulkar misjudged a Razzaq delivery that seamed in a touch. That left Sourav Ganguly - on his way back home after this Test - and Yuvraj Singh to see off a tricky passage of play when another wicket lost could have been potentially fatal to Indian hopes.
It had been all so different in the morning. With a back injury keeping out Inzamam-ul-Haq and the pitch distinctly green, it was a great toss to win for Dravid, and his bowlers didn't let him down. After taking three balls to find his moorings, Pathan produced three magnificent deliveries to have Pakistan reeling. Salman Butt was undone by appreciable away movement, with Dravid taking a low catch at first slip, and Younis Khan and Mohammad Yousuf - with four centuries between them in this series - had no answer to Pathan's stock ball, the one that swings into the right-hander and nips back off the pitch. Younis was plumb in front to a full delivery, while Yousuf played around one that darted back between bat and pad. Suddenly, on a pitch that actually had something for the bowlers, the series had come alive. After the Wanderers in 1999-2000, when Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock reduced England to 2 for 4, no major Test match had produced such a riveting start. Faisal Iqbal, who had the onerous task of replacing Inzamam, made just five before he made the mistake of shouldering arms to a Zaheer delivery that pitched in line, and the sparse crowd was further shell-shocked when Shahid Afridi, who had spanked a magnificent straight-drive earlier in the over, had his leg stump sent cartwheeling by one that nipped back.
While wickets fell like ninepins at the other end, Imran Farhat had refused to take a backward step, straight-driving Zaheer for four and playing a couple of sublime off-drives off Pathan. But when Rudra Pratap came on to bowl, his impetuous streak got the better of him. The wild slash at a ball outside off stump would have been ill-advised in a limited-overs game, but with the team on 39 for 5, it was almost unforgivable.
With the innings in such disarray, Akmal came out to commence the rescue act. He cut the ball with immense power and square-drove beautifully as Pakistan went past their previous lowest total of 53, against Australia in October 2002. Razzaq was an apt foil, with some lovely drives interspersed by both inside and outside edges. He also enjoyed a moment of good fortune when Daryl Harper refused to lift the finger after Zaheer had caught him palpably in front with a ball that shaped back into the pads.
After lunch, with the pitch easing out and positive strokes fetching maximum value, the association between the two men started to get under India's skin. Having saved the Mohali Test for Pakistan last year with an epic final-day partnership, the two unveiled some glorious shots, with Akmal driving Zaheer for three fours in an over. It was left to Rudra Pratap to affect the breakthrough, but Shoaib then came out and showed that there was still life in the tail. India's cause wasn't helped by Dhoni fluffing a stumping when Akmal had made 80, and Anil Kumble's angst was intensified by Shoaib's huge slog-sweep for six over midwicket.
Akmal's classy defiance, punctuated by 18 beautifully struck boundaries, ended with an edge behind to Dhoni, and after Asif had given Rudra Pratap Singh a third wicket, Shoaib's attempt to reach 50 in grand fashion only found Yuvraj. Akmal's century, his fourth in Tests, was one to savour, easily comparable to Adam Gilchrist at his coruscating best in a crisis situation. It may also just have set the stage for a famous triumph.
How they were out
Salman Butt c Dravid b Pathan 0 (0 for 1)
Edged an away-going delivery, superbly caught low to the left of first slip
Younis Khan lbw Pathan 0 (0 for 2)
Trapped in front by a full delivery as he moved across
Mohammad Yousuf b Pathan 0 (0 for 3)
Undone by movement in the air and off the pitch, bowled through the gate
Faisal Iqbal lbw Zaheer 5 (13 for 4)
Offered no shot to one that nipped back and would have clipped off stump
Shahid Afridi b Zaheer 10 (37 for 5)
Appreciable movement into the right-hander, through pad and pad to knock out leg stump.
Imran Farhat c Dhoni b RP Singh 22 (39 for 6)
Flashed at a delivery well outside off stump, thick edge behind
Abdul Razzaq lbw RP Singh 45 (154 for 7)
Trapped in front by one that shaped back towards leg stump
Kamran Akmal c Dhoni b Pathan 113 (235 for 8)
Reached for one that slanted across him, thin edge behind
Mohammad Asif c Laxman b RP Singh (245 for 9)
Edged low to second slip
Shoaib Akhtar c Yuvraj b Pathan 45 (245 all out)
Slogged to deep midwicket, caught just inside the rope
Rahul Dravid c Akmal b Asif 3 (9 for 1)
Edged a delivery that pitched on off stump and moved away a touch
Virender Sehwag c Akmal b Akhtar 5 (14 for 2)
Gets the edge to a short delivery
VVS Laxman b Asif 19 (56 for 3)
Unplayable delivery that jagged back to take off stump
Sachin Tendulkar b Razzaq 23 (56 for 4)
Delivery that angled in and went via inside edge and pad on to the stumps
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo