The Pathans burn it up
India needed 57 runs from 29 deliveries when Irfan Pathan joined his brother Yusuf in the middle. Yusuf, the big hitter who bowls a bit of useful offspin, is not yet a permanent fixture in India's one-day side. Plenty has been said about Irfan - critics cite his ineffective bowling on subcontinent pitches - and it appears he is struggling to identify his predominant vocation.
What followed was stirring stuff. Irfan and Yusuf plundered 59 runs off 25 balls and India posted a rousing three-wicket win with four balls to spare.
Throughout this tour, Muttiah Muralitharan has been taunting Yusuf on and off the field. "Why don't you hit me?" has often been the central jibe. Yusuf reminded him about the IPL final, when he took on Murali but was told that the pitch didn't turn. Tonight, there was no Murali and more importantly, the team situation demanded Yusuf to hit out. And he did.
"The ball had suddenly started to turn and rotating the strike was difficult," Mahendra Singh Dhoni said about the pitch at the R Premadasa Stadium. Yusuf got a little help from Tillakaratne Dilshan who threw the ball to legspinner Malinga Bandara. Cue two sixes and a four in the 16th over, and equation had quickly changed to 40 from 24 balls.
When quizzed about those monster hits at the post-match ceremony, Yusuf said they had all been in his slot. It was as if he had no excuse. He just had to hit the cover off the ball, with no offence to Bandara. As Dhoni said, Yusuf has licence to hit: "We really don't want him to rotate the strike; we want him to look for the big shots."
It wasn't all just brute force, however. Yusuf showed that behind that expressionless exterior, there was a smart brain clicking. After that expensive over from Bandara, Dilshan didn't turn back to spin, and Yusuf coolly picked singles to hand the strike over to his younger brother. Responding to the pressure admirably, Irfan unfurled some gems of his own against Dilhara Fernando and Lasith Malinga. Irfan is a better player of seam bowling and Yusuf can murder spin. It was a perfect tango.
Since the ICC World Twenty20 in 2007, Dhoni has looked at Yusuf as a long-term prospect for the No. 7 slot in ODI cricket. "Even if he had not scored in this game," said Dhoni, "we believe in his talent and will give him chances."
In the field, Yusuf had starred with the ball too, chipping in with a tidy four overs for 2 for 23. It wasn't mesmerising bowling - Yusuf's brand of offspin isn't going to inspire a young boy to turn his arm over - but it was effective. As Dhoni said, "He is not a talented bowler in the sense that he doesn't have 100 variations. He will be a tight bowler who can be useful for four to five overs."
Yusuf does indeed fit perfectly into the new Indian way of bowling a slew of slow bowlers in the middle overs between the bowling and batting Powerplays.
If this series has been a show of trust in Yusuf by the captain, this game could be the beginning of Irfan's second innings. His batting was never in doubt; it's his bowling that has to improve, though Dhoni defended his bowler. "It gets difficult for [the] one-change bowler," he said. "The ball doesn't do anything by then on these flat tracks. There is tremendous pressure. You have to take wickets and not give too many runs."
According to Dhoni, a rate of six-an-over for a bowler is reasonable in an age of powerplays. "What Irfan does is add stability when it comes to batting. Without Harbhajan Singh, we have a long tail." On this tour, including this game, Irfan has given away 149 runs from 120 balls at 7.45 runs per over. Clearly, if he has to cement a spot, his bowling will have to improve.
It will be interesting to see how the two brothers go from here. Yusuf will find pressure from Ravindra Jadeja, who is a good batsman and can bowl tidy spin; he was the highest wicket-taker this past Ranji season. Irfan is the preferred allrounder in conditions assisting seam but has been unable to find a regular place otherwise. Both brothers have been working hard in the nets, slogging it out to improve their respective arts. But as Dhoni said, the talent has to be tempered - "International cricket is not just about talent. It's what you do with it."
Sriram Veera is a staff writer at Cricinfo