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Test matches (3): Pakistan 1, India 0
One-day internationals (5): Pakistan 1, India 4
India's second tour to Pakistan in three years was always going to struggle to match the sense of occasion of the March 2004 visit, their first for 14 years. The political and socio-cultural resonances, against a continual thaw in relations and growing interaction among the people of the two countries, were less audible than before. Pakistan's government still saw fit to issue 10,000 visas to Indian fans, but the hype that preceded the previous tour had died down.
It was hardly surprising. Pakistan had paid a return visit in the meantime, and the two sides' paths had crossed in various one-day tournaments: by the time this tour ended in February 2006, they had played nine Tests and 20 one-day internationals in 23 months. India-Pakistan fatigue was setting in, and both boards acknowledged it. During the First Test in Lahore, the PCB chairman, Shaharyar Khan, and BCCI president, Sharad Pawar, announced measures intended to control the glut - though they apparently did the opposite. Full tours were to take place every two seasons, and in intervening years one-day series would be played at neutral venues with a large subcontinental population, such as Abu Dhabi, where two further one-day internationals were played in April. These plans excluded meetings in triangulars and ICC tournaments.
For purists, the tour represented a chance to concentrate on cricket rather than the broader cultural exchange. Pakistan had just defeated England, India had overwhelmed Sri Lanka, and a quality contest was awaited. It was fitting, in the context of the peace process, that both sides finished happy about something: Pakistan took the Test series by winning the final match, while India came from behind to win the one-day games 4-1. It was just a shame that, for the first half of the tour, the contest was almost non-existent. A wonky itinerary was to blame. In principle, it had been agreed a month before India arrived, but, predictably, it was finalised at the last minute, with uncertainty over whether Karachi would stage a Test until two days before they landed. Belatedly, an Indian security delegation deemed Karachi safe and it was awarded the final Test. Here lay the problem.
By scheduling the first two Tests in Lahore and Faisalabad, both in northern Punjab, the PCB overlooked the weather. Mid-December to early February is problematic for cricket in Punjab, with rain and thick fog. In December 1998, a whole Test at Faisalabad was fogged off, and the previous Test, in Lahore, lost more than 200 overs. Neither was an isolated incident. The First Test duly saw fewer than 65 overs bowled over the final three days. Starting in the warmer, clearer climate of Karachi would have been more sensible; the PCB claimed the BCCI had rejected it, which they denied. Someone was fibbing and, given their history, probably both. Pakistan has hosted Tests in every month of the year except June and July, but scheduling a series in January and February was dictated by financial rather than cricketing impulses.
The weather affected more than the hours played: an abnormally severe winter disrupted pitch preparation, too. On the flat pitches of Lahore and Faisalabad, the teams scored 2,791 runs and 12 hundreds (several at a run a ball) and lost only 36 wickets, an average of nearly 78 runs per wicket. Numerous batting records were broken. The imbalance between bat and ball rendered the cricket as flavourless as the pointless, fear-ridden draws between these two in earlier decades, except that these Tests were played out at speed. Agha Zahid, the PCB's head groundsman, briefly became the most soughtafter character in this saga. Before the Faisalabad Test, he gave numerous interviews, reiterating the vagaries of season and venues, but no one listened. The Daily Times wrote a tongue-in-cheek editorial, calling for him to be flogged for providing such low-grade entertainment. Whether the home team were implicated remained cloudy, though there was enough innuendo, suspicion and outright blame for Inzamam-ul-Haq to remind everyone that he was "a captain, not a groundsman".
By the time a reasonable cricket wicket appeared, in Karachi, the Test series was effectively reduced to a one-off shoot-out. The residents of Karachi did not mind at all: they had seen little Test cricket in the five years of security alarms since 2001, and they turned out in force. Test attendances were healthy at Faisalabad too. Barren stands had provided a mute backdrop to the series two years earlier. Then, tickets were half-price; this time, the PCB made up to 70% of the seats free for the Tests. Despite the dull cricket, Faisalabad's Iqbal Stadium remained packed until Shahid Afridi was out on the last afternoon, whereupon everyone went home.
Unsurprisingly, the Karachi greentop exposed batting frailties in both sides, allowing bowlers some overdue revenge. Younis Khan and Mohammad Yousuf, whose average partnership in this Test series was 215, went for nought in successive balls as Irfan Pathan claimed a first-over hat-trick; Virender Sehwag, who scored Test cricket's second-fastest double-century at Lahore, lasted nine balls for nine runs in two innings here.
Pathan exploited conditions wonderfully at the start, but Mohammad Asif and Abdul Razzaq sustained seam movement and extravagant cut over both innings. India's celebrated batting, which had plundered 1,034 for 11 wickets in two Tests, meekly surrendered 20 for 503. Sachin Tendulkar betrayed evidence of mortality, never more so than in the face of a blistering short spell from Shoaib Akhtar at Faisalabad. Such was his form before the one-day series that the Times of India asked, in blasphemously large type on its front page, "Endulkar?" Tendulkar, not yet 33, revived in the one-day games. But it was a significant moment in the career of a cricketing god.
That spell in Faisalabad also re-ignited whispers about Akhtar's action. Greg Chappell, India's coach, raised tentative doubts, describing it as "seriously different", and the increasingly shrill Indian media pounced. Within hours, rumours flew as sources anonymous and otherwise chirped. When Akhtar pulled out of the one-day series, ostensibly with an ankle injury, they became frenzied. Chris Broad, no icon on the subcontinent, was the ICC referee for the one-day games; given his history of reporting illegal actions, speculation had Akhtar withdrawing to avoid being called. The fact that Indian spinner Harbhajan Singh, another bowler whose action had been fingered, was also declared unfit fuelled the gossip.
During the Test leg of the tour, the Indian media were preoccupied with ex-captain Sourav Ganguly, a controversial selection after his well-publicised spat with Chappell a few months earlier. The eve of each Test became Ganguly-watch: would he play, where would he bat, was there another squabble? He was selected, allegedly under external pressure, but didn't bat at Lahore; was axed at Faisalabad; and produced two cussed but ultimately middling innings at Karachi. Did his presence hamper India? One billion people back home had their own answers.
India's one-day team had no problems playing without Ganguly, and provided their best moments of the tour. A resounding series win was broadly patterned on putting the opposition in and letting the batsmen hunt the target down. Inzamam nearly derailed the teams' good relations in the first oneday international: correctly given out for obstructing the field, he argued with the umpires and then accused his opposite number, Rahul Dravid, of unsportsmanlike behaviour for appealing. He was wrong on all counts, and it soon blew over.
Pakistan's Test victory allowed them to complete an unusually busy home season with unexpected success: two series wins over strong opposition, England having lost 2-0. India showed they were not as savvy in Test cricket as in the shorter game, which they were to prove again when they too hosted England a few weeks later. The broader picture, with all three vying for the right to be called (deflatingly) the second-best in the world, remained intriguingly unclear.
Match reports for
Tour Match: Pakistan A v Indians at Lahore, Jan 7-9, 2006