More fizzle, less fizz from two old rivals

The last time Pakistan visited Guwahati was midway through their 1979-80 tour, a series that was drawn out over two-and-a-half months. It involved six Tests, as many warm-up matches, and plenty of relaxation time. So easy was their match against East Zone, an innings victory completed in two days, that the visitors had a chance to soak in the local flavour.

Twenty-eight years on, in an age when cricket tours are nothing but one whistle stop after another, Shoaib Malik's side touched down in Guwahati, warmed up, went straight into the first match of the ODI series and prepare to leave. A week ago they were in Lahore preparing for the series decider against South Africa. Now they're thinking of the second game of another series in another country. Throw in a practice game in Delhi and political upheaval back home, and it gives you an idea of the frenetic phases modern cricketers endure.

Malik preferred humour over complaints - "It's good in a way. If you lose one you have a chance to quickly win another" - but Pakistan were expectedly undercooked. They gave away a good start, froze in the middle overs, dropped vital catches, and simply didn't possess the intensity. It was a tired, dull effort on a sluggish surface. The day demanded a pumped-up, street-smart, shrewd brand of cricket. It required Pakistan to be at their Pakistani best, assessing conditions and out-manoeuvring the opposition sensibly.

India didn't hit their straps either. For large parts of the day, the battle was one between two middling sides. It wasn't a case of 'may the best team win'; rather it was a situation where the inferior side lost. Mahendra Singh Dhoni admitted as much while comparing India's last opponents to the current ones. "Australia are the best team. The kind of cricket they are playing is totally different from what we are playing now or any other team. So when you play against a good team, and then come back and play against team of equal talent [like Pakistan] you have a certain upper hand."

The pitch didn't help. A bowler-friendly surface makes for excitement but this was a slow, unpredictable deck with variable bounce and turn. Some deliveries turned sharp, some behaved awkwardly from the rough, and others went straight with the arm. Good-length balls turned into shooters. Dhoni was expecting the top surface to chip off; Malik spoke about the hard and bumpy nature of the outfield. These weren't conditions suited for an international game and consequently produced a match low on quality.

The fielding was often comic. Irfan Pathan looked silly when he forgot to judge the spin on a sweep from Mohammad Yousuf. When Salman Butt, at third man, muffed a straightforward collection off a Dhoni glide Shahid Afridi, the bowler, applauded sarcastically. Barring Shoaib Akhtar, who showed that out-and-out pace can prove lethal on any surface, the faster bowlers didn't have much of a say.

Eventually it was spin that made the difference. Harbhajan Singh and Murali Kartik varied their length and extracted more turn than their Pakistan counterparts - Afridi and Abdur Rehman. They tied down the batsmen - Pakistan couldn't manage a boundary for nearly 23 overs in the middle - and pre-empted their improvisations.

"You just can't play orthodox cricket on a pitch like this," Dhoni said, pointing out the manner in which his spinners reined the batsmen in. "You need to be different in these types of wickets. It's being innovative that makes the difference. We have good spinners like Kartik and Harbhajan in our ranks and Yuvi [Yuvraj] has not bowled and you might seem him in the coming matches.

"The spinners bowled according to the field. The pitch might be helping spinners or fast bowlers, but putting the ball consistently in one area is tough. Today for instance, you had to pitch the ball where the ball was getting more turn. If you bowled a bad ball, the chance of opposition scoring a boundary was high. Kartik and Harbhajan are pretty good at this and Sachin [Tendulkar] also got us some wickets as well."

In the end, that made all the difference for India.