India in Pakistan 2005-06 February 1, 2006

India's frailties exposed by pace

Virender Sehwag: immense at Lahore, but brought low in Karachi © AFP
A series that began with much hullabaloo over green-tops was finally decided on one, with Pakistan romping to an emphatic 341-run victory. The identity of the destroyers hurt India even more, however, with a much-vaunted batting line-up utterly embarrassed by a 23-year-old playing his third Test, and an experienced campaigner who rediscovered the edge that once made him such an exciting prospect. Mohammad Asif and Abdul Razzaq shared 14 wickets in Karachi, as India's batsmen imploded in just 112.5 overs over the two innings.

Pakistan's belated decision to go with the green-top strategy looked to have backfired spectacularly on the first morning at the National Stadium, with Irfan Pathan's first-over hat-trick setting the game up for India. Seven years earlier in Kolkata, Moin Khan had come to the crease with Pakistan 26 for 6 and made a painstaking 70 to lead the side first to respectability, and then to eventual triumph. In Karachi, his successor as jack-in-the-box behind the stumps went a step further, slamming a hundred that will never be forgotten by those that witnessed it. Where Moin had gritted it out, Akmal socked India so hard in the gut that they were barely breathing for the rest of the match. Razzaq, recently reviled as a spent force, did his bit in a crucial partnership, and there was also Shoaib Akhtar batting with the composure of one to whom it all comes so easily.

And though the figures tell you that Shoaib took only four wickets at 63.25, they say nothing about the fearsome pace at which he bowled, or the menace of the deliveries that tonked Sachin Tendulkar on the helmet and bruised Anil Kumble's rib-cage. And if nothing else, the dismissals of Sehwag in the first innings and Dravid in the second were the pivotal moments of the Test, depriving India of the turbo-charged start that they had got in Lahore.

Shoaib did the softening job, and Asif and Razzaq stepped up to deliver the knockout punches. Asif was simply sensational, moving the ball at lively pace and generally sticking to an impeccable line and length. With Shoaib still operating in short bursts, he also bore the burden of long spells. Razzaq, probably to his bemusement and everyone else's, finished with a George Lohmann-like strike-rate - 41.7 - while reviving his happy knack of picking up crucial wickets at opportune moments.

India had little to take away from Karachi, save for Pathan's initial burst and a boy-on-burning-deck century from Yuvraj Singh. The bowling line-up had a mind-numbing sameness to it, and lacked the ability to make the ball talk as Asif did to such telling effect. And on pitches of such flatness that you half-accepted Ptolemy's view of the Earth being non-spherical, Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh - wicketless in 81 overs over two Tests - were not even peripheral factors, treated with disdain by Younis Khan, Mohammad Yousuf and Shahid Afridi.

Faisal Iqbal: a worthy stand-in for Inzamam-ul-Haq © AFP

Those three had played stellar roles in the opening two Tests, stockpiling runs for fun in conditions that were no more challenging than an extended net session. Afridi's huge hitting and baiting of the Indian batsmen and fielders - the humorous asides rather than the abuse - offered at least something by way of entertainment, as did Virender Sehwag's rollicking 254 at the Gaddafi Stadium.

Sehwag's subsequent lack of impact did nothing for India's chances of repeating their 2004 success here, and they were also let down by the inability of Sourav Ganguly and Tendulkar to convert starts. Even VVS Laxman, after a superb 90 at Faisalabad, did little when it mattered at Karachi, looking good in both innings before being cleaned up by Asif. And the Ganguly issue didn't help either, with team tactics held hostage by the whims and fancies of a few. When he did get a chance, he didn't disgrace himself, looking more composed than many of his compatriots, but his inclusion came at a heavy price, as Dravid made just five runs while opening in Karachi. With Sehwag, India's other Test-match lodestone, contributing just 9, Indian chances were dead in the water even before the new ball lost its shine.

Pakistan could also take immense heart from the allround excellence of Akmal, and the re-emergence of Faisal Iqbal. Replacing a living legend like Inzamam-ul-Haq is never easy at the best of times, and after failing in the first innings, Iqbal had everything to lose when he walked out a second time. There were nervous moments and plenty of fidgeting during his passage to three figures, but at times he also unveiled the thrilling strokeplay and cockiness that had marked him out as ineffably special during his 85-ball 83 against Australia at Colombo over three years ago.

Ultimately though, Pakistan beat India in the manner that had been promised, with the bowling exposing an Indian line-up that has seldom done the business in pressure situations. It may still have been different though, if not for the Akmal special which may one day be mentioned in the same breath as Kim Hughes' Boxing-Day century at the MCG.

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo