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February 1, 2006
On the fourth day of the Mohali Test last year, when Pakistan stumbled to 10 for 3 on a dead pitch and defeat circled, it felt pertinent to talk of the rich tradition of Indian batsmanship and particularly compare it to the relative paucity of Pakistan's own. As they bowled out India twice for under 300 less than a year later, on a Karachi pitch on which they made 599 in their second innings, the time is right to look at the hearty heritage of Pakistani bowling and the lack thereof in India.
The question isn't just of bowlers, but of wicket-taking ones. When India bowled yesterday, the pitch played possum. Irfan Pathan got some swing and a little cut with the new ball but thereafter Pakistan batted and India bowled as if the pitches of Lahore and Faisalabad had resurfaced. India's triumvirate of left-arm seamers, all utterly medium, extracted nothing out of the pitch.
In just over four hours today, Pakistan bowled out a formidable batting lineup on the same pitch. And they were a bowler short. Obviously, it helps to have Shoaib Akhtar and serious pace, on any pitch, is still serious pace. As Sourav Ganguly and Yuvraj Singh silkily halted Pakistan's charge in the afternoon, Shoaib hurtled in for a brief three-over spell in which he didn't take a wicket. But by finally pitching it up and using the surprise bouncer, he rattled an imperious Yuvraj in particular; after having middled everything, Yuvraj edged Danish Kaneria twice in quick succession. His inherent quality allowed him to overcome it but he was never as fluent. This is what a fast bowler can do.
But it's not just about pace. Abdul Razzaq has lost plenty of it since he began his career and also his ability to take wickets. But slowly, very slowly, if not his pace, his ability to eke out wickets is returning. He messed around with lines, twiddled angles, pitched short but tight into the body and cut the ball somehow, whether off the pitch or through his own work. He was rewarded with seven wickets for the match. His inclusion at Faisalabad and here was questionable, especially as it came at the expense of a specialist bowler, but with 45 and 90 (although numerically his second-innings was double his first, in true value it was the other way round), his claim as a candidate for the Man of the Match was strong.
As was that of Mohammad Asif, who bowls at a pace Pathan once used to. In both innings he used the new ball exceptionally well, but he used his head even better. The gaps he found between the pads of VVS Laxman and Virender Sehwag with balls that cut back (actually they spun) were as much spatial as technical. In each of his spells, he found ways to move the ball off the pitch, at a healthy pace. With seven, mainly elite, wickets he evoked some of the spirit of Umar Gul in Lahore two years ago and it says much of his emergence that Gul, fully fit, is still on the fringe. Combined, on these pitches, each offered exactly the opposite to India's left-arm sameness and sealed the match.
That there was even a match to seal was surprising enough. In the depths of 0 for three and then 39 for six, only the company of despair is to be expected. To pull away from that, and in such a manner, and register your biggest-ever win in terms of runs, is nothing short of sensational. The Mohali Test, with Akmal and Razzaq, incidentally was one of the first celebrated instances of the deep well of fight Pakistan has nestling in their squad. As recently as Multan, against England, they dipped into it in overcoming a first-innings deficit of 144 and to Akmal again they must offer thanks. Even without the result, his 113 will be forever remembered by those who saw it. Crucially, the spirit remained even without the presence of Inzamam, from whom it has come previously. Younis Khan led the side, as he has done in short periods, with energy, from the front and with no little thought. For the future, that can only bode well.
Any longer term assessment of Pakistan's second series win in succession will have to be balanced with some considerations, emanating from an ostensibly defensive approach to the series. In the first hour, it threatened to backfire comically on a green-top and yet another seemingly negative ploy of playing a bowler short came up trumps, magnificently. All that is for another day: for now, Pakistan rightly celebrate an immense and significant achievement. Their last two opponents came ranked second in the ICC Test table and both left vanquished, eventually, in comprehensive fashion. They now have only delicious dilemmas to ponder: how to give Faisal Iqbal more exposure, what permutation from Asif, Rana, Gul and even Sami to play, how to best use Razzaq and Afridi together? England was a landmark. This is another.
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Bide your time, put your body behind each delivery, and play with the batsman's mind