Gambhir stars after Pathan rout
Irfan Pathan enjoyed another swing-fest on the opening morning at Harare, finishing with his best figures in Tests, and flattened Zimbabwe for a paltry 161 with a devastating mix of curve, swerve and seam. Gautam Gambhir then led a ferocious Indian batting assault and helped them end the day on an imposing 195 for 1, a lead of 34. They are now just a step away from another easy triumph.
Zimbabwe knew exactly what they were up against when they had to face two left-arm seamers after Sourav Ganguly inserted them on a lively pitch. But such knowledge solved none of their problems. Pathan smacks his lips when he sees batsmen rooted to the crease, plonking their front foot down the track and failing to read the vicious dip into their pads. The Bangladesh batsmen found that out late last year, when he routed them 18 wickets in two Tests, and Zimbabwe were helpless when he treated them like sharp-shooting targets on the third afternoon at Bulawayo. Today was no different and his swerving darts had the batsmen edging, missing and finally falling.
Brendan Taylor lasted just three balls before his technique was exposed - feet rooted to the crease, bat dangling out as the ball grazed the edge. Terence Duffin received a peach of an outswinger, Hamilton Masakadza missed a similar delivery that angled in; Tatenda Taibu got a jaffa that seamed away. The tailenders were plain clueless.
Like his recent destructions, Pathan's spell today was built on simplicity: full length - he only bowled seven short deliveries in all - good rhythm and just enough variation to unnerve the batsmen. Beating the batsman comprehensively by an away cutter is as much part of the plan as delivering the knockout inswinger the next ball and Pathan set all the batsmen up without too much of a hassle.
Once he set the tone, the Indian batsmen seamlessly latched on to the momentum and pushed Zimbabwe further into a corner. Virender Sehwag kickstarted the innings with a run-a-ball 44 but he continued his mystifying trend of not making a big score against weaker teams - he has only one half-century in five Tests against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh.
However, Gambhir came into the Indian side with the reputation of being a domestic bully and he has often manhandled similar bowling attacks in first-class cricket where he averages close to 55. Today, he rarely let a loose ball go by - savagely cutting when provided with width - and spanked 17 fours in his assured effort. Unlike Sehwag, he isn't one who will intimidate bowlers at the outset but, as his 116-ball 95 showed, he is well capable of chugging along at a considerable pace himself. Gambhir should face little opposition in reaching his second Test hundred tomorrow - his first was against Bangladesh at Chittagong - but it remains to be seen if he can replicate such innings against superior bowling attacks.
One man who has done that for a number of years, Rahul Dravid, was with him for most of the innings and guided him along the way. Dravid survived a few testing overs from Heath Streak, the pick of the Zimbabwe bowlers, when he came in but overcame that phase with minimum fuss. That was probably the only time all day when India were made to sweat.
Brendan Taylor c Dravid b Pathan 4 (4 for 1)
No footwork; edged an away-swinger
Terence Duffin c Laxman b Pathan 12 (31 for 2)
Peach of an outswinger; Laxman took a beauty diving to his right
Tatenda Taibu c Karthik b Pathan 0 (31 for 3)
Pushed at pitched-up cutter and edged through
Dion Ebrahim c Karthik b Zaheer 14 (31 for 4)
Pushed at one that left him; a brilliant one-handed catch behind
Heath Streak c Gambhir b Harbhajan 14 (75 for 5)
Beaten by the extra zip and got a nick that bobbed up straight to short-leg
Hamilton Masakadza lbw Pathan 27 (83 for 6)
Undone by the swing and rapped on the pads in front
Andy Blignaut c Karthik b Pathan 13 (122 for 7)
Flashed at a wide one but only managed an edge
Charles Coventry c Dravid b Harbhajan 37 (136 for 8)
Top-edged a sweep; good catch running back from first slip
Blessing Mahwire lbw b Pathan 1 (138 for 9)
Trapped plumb on the back foot
Keith Dabengwa c Laxman b Pathan 18 (161 for 10)
Drove at a full one; the edge flew straight to second slip
Virender Sehwag c Taibu b Streak 44 (75 for 1)
Cut in half, edge richocheted through off thigh pad
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo