An affair to remember

It is incredible to think now that this tour almost didn't happen. The Indian team went to Pakistan with reluctance and apprehensions, and will return having scripted a glorious chapter. If Pakistan can bear to look beyond despondency and gloom, they will see light. This tour established beyond doubt that despite the shadow of terror, and skirmishes on the Afgan border, Pakistan remains a safe place for cricket. It should clear the way for many more, and for a cricket board driven to the edge of bankruptcy, it is a heartening prospect.

And if we spare a moment to look beyond cricket, the tour was a showcase to changing emotions and perceptions. It was a pity that spectators cooled off to Test cricket after thronging the grounds for the one-dayers, but the warmth for the Indians remained. Cricketers have always been received with grace and affection in both the countries, but if this tour hadn't happened, thousands of Indians would have never experienced first-hand the hospitality of a neighbouring nation which had been out of bounds for most of them. Goodwill and friendship are empty slogans unless the common man feels it in his heart, and while it will be simplistic to assume that cricket has brought about a seminal change, it will be fair to say that cricket provided the window for both Indian and Pakistanis to see and feel the change. That, in itself, is a humongous accomplishment.

Indian and Pakistani fans painted their faces with one another's colours, the national flags - the ultimate symbol of a nation's sovereignty and pride - were stitched together, the Indian flag fluttered proudly in stands and on the streets of Karachi and Lahore, Laxmipathy Balaji had his name chanted in the stadium after he had dismissed a Pakistani batsmen, and while Pakistan mourned the loss of their team, emotions never turned ugly, and Indians were applauded at every ground. In hotels and on the streets, taxi drivers, bell boys, gatekeepers - the people often generalised as ordinary, and whose assumed will is often brandished as an impediment to a solution to the Kashmir issue - have gone out of the way to extend the hand of friendship, while terming the K issue inconsequential. When Pakistan tour, the onus is on India to reciprocate.

For the Indian team, the series victory was a moment of fulfilment, the realisation of a promise that they have held out from three years. It confirms the progress that has been all so evident since John Wright and Sourav Ganguly came together in December 2000. Since then, India have won 16 Tests, and eight of those have come abroad. The enormity of that achievement becomes instantly apparent when you hold that up against what preceded: 13 wins abroad in 68 years. It can be argued that this team is yet to win a Test series outside the subcontinent - the team led by Ajit Wadekar did it twice in succession in West Indies and England - but that will only be a quibble. As Wadekar himself has written this morning, "never before have we had a team like the current one".

The most significant aspect about Indian cricket in recent years has been the manner in which new players have made themselves instantly felt. Through the 80s, it was impossible to contemplate a team without Kapil Dev. In Pakistan, India hardly felt the absence of Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh because Irfan Pathan and Balaji bowled like seasoned professionals. Pathan, with his bubbly enthusiasm and overt expressiveness, has captured the imagination, but Balaji's transformation from a predominantly in-swing bowler to a versatile and crafty swing bowler has been dramatic.

Balaji took the most wickets in a losing cause at Lahore and he was India's best bowler in Rawalpindi. His best ball of the match didn't fetch him a wicket, but it would have done Kapil Dev proud: it swung in, hit the good length on middle stump, and cut away. Compelled to play it, Inzamam-ul-Haq managed only to edge it to first slip where Dravid, as if affected by a furiously spreading epidemic, dropped it. Not disheartened, Balaji induced another edge shortly afterwards, which was caught by Parthiv Patel.

It was a similar story in the first innings when Ashish Nehra, making a comeback from injury, responded to a denial of a straightforward leg-before decision against Inzamam to an inswinger, and made the ball move away from the same spot to earn an edge. Indian batting in Multan and Rawalpindi inspired awe, but the bowling was a revelation. By making the ball talk in the air, the Indian bowlers have a shown a way to do business on pitches that offer them little.

Three scores of above 300 have been made in the last six months, but for impact and daring, Virender Sehwag's, though the smallest, has been the most stunning. What once seemed a gamble now seems a masterstroke: Sehwag continues to make hundreds at the top of the order - he now has six centuries in five countries and five of them as opener - and continues to confound.

Yuvraj Singh showed no nerves as Ganguly's stand in and forced a change in the team by scoring a blistering hundred in Lahore. Parthiv, moved up the order in the decider, stood up to Shoaib and Sami, scoring a crucial fifty and, as has become customary for him, Dravid delivered when India needed him the most, scoring his second match-winning double-century in six Tests.

Pakistan's weakness in batting had been apparent even before the tour began, but what became increasingly obvious as the tour wore on that it was a team lacking in spirit and discipline. Never has a Pakistani team looked so supine in a contest featuring India. Inzamam towered above the rest in performance, but the endearing man that he is, he does not seem to have the personality to impose his will on a team not devoid of talent, but lacking in purpose.

Only recently, Pakistan had won Test series against South Africa at home and New Zealand away on a back of a few searing performances from their fast bowlers. They scrapped to win at Lahore with the help of one from Umar Gul, but that decisive burst from Shoaib never came and Mohammad Sami, though he bowled his guts out at Rawalpindi, never seemed the threat that he had been billed as. It was also apparent that so reliant have they become on reverse swing that when conditions didn't permit it, they were found lacking in other skills. Unlike earlier Indian teams, the short ball doesn't hold a terror for most batsmen in this side, and in Multan and Rawalpindi they took full advantage of the one-dimensional nature of the Pakistani bowling attack.

But even in this hour of distress, Pakistan must resist the temptation for wholesale change. As evident from India's recent success, Pakistan need to change the environment, not the players. In the subcontinent, Sri Lanka were first off the blocks in approaching the professional model, and India have embraced the modern work culture whole-heartedly. Javed Miandad is adamant that "coaching by computer" is never likely to succeed in Pakistan, but the lack of basics - fitness, discipline, work ethics - is so glaringly evident in their cricket that they can no longer expect to compete consistently through talent and inspiration alone.

Sambit Bal is editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India, and of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine.

Click here for Hope and fear, Rahul Bhattacharya's chronicle of the history of India-Pakistan cricket, which appeared in the March 2004 issue of Wisden Asia Cricket.

Click here for The humanising factor, Amit Varma's piece on the issue of India touring Pakistan, from the same issue.