Pakistan's death wish
It's been a tense few days around Pakistan with Danish cartoons instigating heated reactions in various parts. Multan, officially at least, was on strike today and speculation was rife about whether this match will take place at all. An India-Pakistan cricket match, though, brought with it a certain vibrancy and nobody who saw the ocean of people make their way to the ground, bringing traffic to a standstill and overwhelming policemen by their sheer numbers, could believe that this was actually a day of protest.
A moot point, though, might have been Pakistan's spectacular implosion. It was a game they had to win, their chance to make amends for some loose batting in the previous two games, a chance to take the series into the decider. Considering their improvement in the one-day format over the last 15 months, they were bizarrely defensive, absurdly suicidal and, often, shockingly reckless. India's bowling was tight - nothing more, nothing less - and their fielding was quite exceptional, but none of this can account for 29 for 4 and 161 all out.
The danger signals were there for all to see - rashness at Rawalpindi had reduced them to 68 for 4, sloppiness at Lahore had them struggling at 82 for 4 - but there's only so much Shoaib Malik can do. Salman Butt might have avoided Irfan Pathan's first-over horrors, by preferring to start at the non-striker's end, but the poke away from the body wasn't too far away. And one also needs to investigate what Imran Farhat was thinking when, coming on as a Supersub with Inzamam-ul-Haq well ensconced at the other end, he succumbed to an ambitious pull, finished up using just one hand and ballooned a simple catch to mid-on.
India's tactics wouldn't have been too tough to predict (win toss, field, bowl accurately and catch everything within range) and they had often induced Sri Lanka to switch on the self-destruct mode during the recent home series (debacles at Mohali and Rajkot ran on similar lines). And their batting performance at Lahore would inevitably have created a few demons in the Pakistan batsmen's minds, knowing that no target might be safe and eagerly trying for too many runs too early.
Rahul Dravid continued to strangle Pakistan with some innovative fields - for the second time in this series Kamran Akmal uppishly cut to a fielder at short point - and he led an inspired catching effort that further tightened the noose. In Suresh Raina, Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif, India have an offside cordon to rival any and the catching powers of Dravid, at slip, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, behind the stumps, and Pathan, at square leg, contributed to an outstanding effort.
India's bowling attack, their biggest concern before the series, has gone from pop-gun to semi-dangerous and the gradual evolution of Sreesanth must be a heartening sign. His superb opening spell at Lahore went unrewarded, with three catches being fluffed, and he carried on with another methodical display today, hardly giving any four-balls and controlling his pace impressively. Their only blemish, a plague that India has avoided in recent months, was the 17 wides that they conceded but it was never going to make too much difference in the eventual outcome.
India were never going to break too much sweat chasing 162 but unlike at Rawalpindi, when Pakistan appeared listless on the field, they faced a sterner test. The enigmatic Mohammad Sami justified his selection with fine bursts, accounting for the top three with swing, bounce and pace respectively. But neither this, nor Mohammad Asif's large-hearted effort, was going to make too much of a difference with Dravid controlling the chase and Raina blazing to the finish. It was the first time the floodlights were being used at Multan but the unfortunate part for the locals was that they were hardly required.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo