If there's one person who would have delighted in the opening hour of the game at the Sawai Man Singh Stadium at Jaipur, it would have to be Mehdi Sheikh, head coach at the Baroda Sports Club. Sometime in 2001, within a span of six months, two young men - a swinging prodigy called Irfan and a pacy seamer called Munaf - caught his fancy. Sheikh remembers the duo opening the bowling for his club and wished that they would one day go on to share the new ball for Baroda.
Both went a step further and their combined effort today (16 - 5 - 38 - 5) would have thrilled him no end. Both kept up the pressure from the word go, both cranked up a more-than-decent pace and both, immaculately, kept it straight. Munaf was rewarded with his first Man-of-the-Match award and Pathan was rewarded with large dollops of confidence that had temporarily deserted him.
When looked at purely from a bowling angle, Munaf's was probably the better performance but it was Pathan, not even a certainty in the side today, who proved the revelation. The faith that Rahul Dravid reposed in him was paid back, handsomely. "I mulled over the decision for a while," said Dravid at the end of the day. "In the end I went in with who I thought could, when playing well, make a genuine difference.
"The number of Man-of-the-Matches that Irfan's won is testimony to the fact that he's a proven matchwinner for us. He takes wickets early, contributes with the bat, is good in the field. I wanted to go with someone who's capable of doing it for me on the big occasion. It also gave us the opportunity to play the second spinner, which I knew was important in these conditions."
That second spinner was crucial in India keeping up the pressure after the early tourniquet. Ramesh Powar, who'd been tonked around in West Indies and hadn't got a chance thereafter, turned in a fine spell that undid the lower-order. Again, it was an inspired decision because it meant leaving out Dinesh Mongia, who'd done impressively in his only outing in Kuala Lumpur. "The wickets in Malaysia were a bit different and it suited the seamers more," said Dravid when asked about Powar coming in after a mini-break. "We knew he'll be a big player in these wickets, credit to him that he came out and bowled beautifully. In fact, he set the game up for us.
"Dinesh was unfortunate to miss out. Leading into the World Cup, he'll get his opportunities. I had to ask myself several questions when I made the decision. Is he a better bowler than Powar? Who was the better bowler on this wicket? Who's given England more trouble in the last series? On these wickets Powar can really be a handful."
The one thing India failed to do in this game was to win convincingly, even after dismissing the opposition for just 125. Sehwag fell early - he hasn't crossed 10 in his last five innings - and Pathan, who was sent at No.3, can be only a temporary solution. Dravid didn't worry too much about the former - "When in form, he can win us the World Cup" - while explaining the reason for the latter. "I realised that on a wicket like this which is slow and low, getting off to a good start is important," he said when asked about Pathan's promotion. "The ball started spinning and keeping low. Sometimes you need the hardness of the ball and a batsman like Irfan can go out there and get us to a good start. Even though it was a low score, I wanted to get off to a good start."
But surely, there must be some concern about losing six wickets with such a meager target? "There's a lot of quality in that batting line-up," Dravid added, "and it looks like we're struggling because two or three players in the line-up are not getting the kind of runs that they should. There is some class in that batting line-up. It's not as if we've been struggling for a hell of a long time. Just last season, the same guys were getting a lot of runs. So we are going through a little bit of a tough time but I don't see that as a problem. We have a few days off, gives the guys some time to go back and practice and I'm pretty confident our batting will come good."
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo