On this red-letter day, with both bat and ball Irfan Pathan couldn't do much wrong
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The cricketing world may soon remember December 12 as Irfan Pathan's day. Exactly two years after he made his Test debut
, and exactly one year after his first ten-wicket haul
, Pathan, opening the batting for the first time in a Test, produced a triumphant career-best 93 to propel India to a dominant position in the Delhi Test, with a lead of 297 with two days to play.
As a young colt sparkled in a new role, two old warhorses played their part admirably: Anil Kumble, ending with a six-wicket haul, extended his astonishing record at Delhi - he now has 44 in nine innings - while Rahul Dravid, displaying a silken flourish, produced his highest score as captain. There was a landmark moment for another battle-scarred campaigner - Chaminda Vaas snapped up his 300th Test wicket - but Sri Lanka, playing catch-up for most of the day, will now have to score more than any other team to win a Test at the Feroz Shah Kotla.
Just as he had done in the one-day series, Pathan responded brilliantly to the challenge of batting at the top of the order and attacked the bowling with gusto. He spanked Muttiah Muralitharan for a lofted six in his first over, ensured he always countered him with a straight bat, and also backed himself to pull the faster bowlers. Dilhara Fernando's bouncers were daringly pulled away - some off the meat of the bat, others off the edge - and Vaas and Murali weren't allowed to cast their pressure net. Batsmen came and went at the other end - Gautam Gambhir overbalanced and missed a cutter, VVS Laxman feathered one to the wicketkeeper, and Sachin Tendulkar missed a flipper - but Pathan, showing great poise at a critical juncture, motored along at a fair clip.
In Dravid, he had an ally who read the situation to a nicety. Knowing that they couldn't afford to get bogged down, as they had done in Chennai and in the first innings here, the duo rotated the strike amid dispatching the loose ones. Dravid, as Tendulkar had done before him, came out with a positive approach and was always on the look out for runs. There was hardly any risk in his half-century, with a few glorious boundaries struck with minimum fuss, and it was only an because of an error in judgement, taking off for a single after tapping one to mid-on, that he had to go back.
Pathan had fallen a little earlier, pushing tentatively at a wide one from Fernando, and a hushed silence was followed by rousing applause as he walked off the ground. India have a history of makeshift openers coming off - Nayan Mongia in 1996 and Parthiv Patel in 2003 - and despite missing out on a well-deserved century, Pathan's effort will be hard to forget. Sourav Ganguly and Yuvraj Singh added 47 assured runs in the fading light, both particularly impressive in the off side, and stretched the lead close to the 300-mark.
All this might have been much harder if not for the 60-run cushion that Kumble had created. After a masterful display last evening, he continued to torment Sri Lanka with a series of googlies and flippers and it was just a matter of time before the tail gave in. Vaas had no clue against one googly after another while Murali, who swung his bat with characteristic abandon, had no chance when he charged down the track to a faster one.
At the other end, Pathan, who was unlucky to not have more than two wickets yesterday, managed to swing the ball both ways and hassle the batsmen. He cleverly set up Malinga Bandara's downfall - moving one away before getting one to jag back in and rattle the bails - and ended with an impressive 3 for 34, his best figures in a Test in India. On the twelfth day of the twelfth month, as if there were some celestial forces involved, he couldn't do much wrong.
Chaminda Vaas c Harbhajan b Kumble 2 (200 for 7)
Chipped a full ball straight to short midwicket
Malinga Bandara b Pathan 1 (204 for 8)
Comprehensively beaten by one that jagged back in and clipped the bails
Muttiah Muralitharan b Kumble 9 (219 for 9)
Charged down the track and missed a flipper
Dilhara Fernando c Ganguly b Harbhajan 0 (230 all out)
Mistimed a lofted drive straight to mid-on
Gautam Gambhir lbw b Vaas 3 (12 for 1)
Overbalanced and missed a cutter
VVS Laxman c Sangakkara b Vaas 11 (42 for 2)
Pushed hesitantly at an away-going delivery
Sachin Tendulkar lbw b Bandara 16 (86 for 3)
Lunged forward to a flipper; trapped in front
Irfan Pathan c Sangakkara b Fernando 93 (178 for 4)
Pokes at a wide one and feathered an edge
Rahul Dravid run-out (Jayawardene) 53 (190 for 5)
Couldn't beat a direct hit from mid-on
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo.