Frittering away a perfect start
If India-Pakistan cricket needed an advertisement, this was it. For ten days, the batsmen had spoken, so often and so loudly that it turned tedious. Unlike at Lahore, the weather at Karachi wasn't expected to be a let down; unlike in the opening two Tests, the surface promised was supposed to be a "cracker"; unlike other games, the venue hadn't staged an India Test for more than 16 years. The opening day had much to live up to. What one got was fourteen wickets, one terrific spell of new-ball bowling, one breathtaking hundred, an uproarious crowd, several tense periods and one heck of a scrap. So much happened in the day that it took a while to realise that India actually ended it wallowing in quicksand.
The legendary Ian Chappell once said that a team which picks up three wickets in the morning session of a Test, having chosen to field on the first day, would very rarely go on to lose it. India actually snapped up three in the first over, and threatened mayhem with three more within the first hour, but ran into a dazzler of such incandescent skill, such counterattacking brilliance that the scales rose, evened and soon tilted against them. The fact that the sheer pugnacity of one innings marginally overshadowed the first-ever first-over hat-trick in Tests is a reflection on how well Pakistan fought back. It's also an indication of how carried away India probably got.
For those lucky to hear - and understand - Shahid Afridi's creative verbal barrage against Irfan Pathan at Faisalabad, it would come as no surprise if that moment acted as a spur-on. Having combined figures of 1 for 219 in the first two innings of the series, Pathan, who was told a few harsh truths about his bowling ability, rediscovered some extra pace, found the right areas and asked some surprisingly searching questions on a concrete-like pitch. Rahul Dravid had spoken specifically about the improvement, saying that Pathan had concentrated on correcting the basics, hitting the right areas and not focusing too much on the results. Only one wicket materialised, with a catch being dropped and several deliveries missing the bat, but the processes were in place, all it needed was that little inspiration.
The pitch at the National Stadium was a delicious prospect, very much one where Pathan was bound to thrive. Add moisture in the air and alarming movement off the surface to the equation, and all he required to do was pull the trigger. When he gets it going, Pathan's curl can be plain devastating - swerving in from around the right-handers' off stump and going on to rattle middle and leg. The angle often varies and the disturbing geometry of the delivery has batsmen wafting away from the body. It took three balls for the ignition to warm up; the fourth curled and snicked Butt's edge; the fifth curled and trapped Younis in front; and the sixth, that magical sixth, started outside off, curled, pitched, almost spun across Yousuf as if it was a googly, sneaked through bat and pad and rattled the stumps. In five minutes, he had decapitated the Pakistan batting line-up and once and for all proven that he was not just a weak-team bully. He ended with his first five-for outside Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, and showed that his bowling effectiveness could in fact rival his batting.
It's tough to fault India's bowlers on a day when Kamran Akmal played, considering the conditions and the situation, the innings of the series, but they probably missed a trick at the other end. To allow Shoaib Akhtar to survive 54 balls on a dead Faisalabad track is one thing, to permit him a similar luxury here quite another. When full-length deliveries had accounted for all the previous batsmen, wouldn't it have been enough to follow the same route? Instead they dug it in, expended truckloads of energy, went back to their mark, charged in and bounced again. Shoaib played the occasional loose stroke, as would any tailender, but a fuller length might have cleaned him up much earlier. It might not have worked either but it's strange they changed track when one plan was working like clockwork.
They probably didn't realise then, but those runs proved to be the difference between winning and losing the day. The manner in which India's batsmen groped, having been turned inside out by Mohammad Asif and pale-faced by Shoaib, suggested that the new ball was always bound to wreck some havoc. Asif's jaffas to Dravid and VVS Laxman might have needed divine intervention to not get wickets and Shoaib was just too fast for comfort - luring Sehwag into dangling his bat, smashing Sachin Tendulkar flush on the helmet.
In what was an unexpected transformation, India found themselves on a slippery slope at the end of the day and may now need some counterattacking belligerence of their own. Could it come from Sourav Ganguly, who now finds himself in an almost now-or-never situation? Is there actually going to be a romantic twist to his fascinating tale? It sets up a mouth-watering contest on the second day. All first sessions are important, but some are far more important than the others.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo