The value of matchwinners

Since the first morning of the Lahore Test, things have gradually fallen into place for a Pakistan side which was in a shambles only a week earlier. In the process, they also demonstrated, not for the first time, the perils of writing off any Pakistan outfit. Indisciplined they may be, often to the point of driving their supporters to sheer frustration, but mediocre they are not. At Multan they played way below par - the batsmen recklessly threw away their wickets, the bowlers had no regard for the virtues of line and length, and the fielders decided to give the Indians one reprieve after another. It was, quite simply, a shockingly unprofessional display, but it didn't make their players lesser potential matchwinners.
Less than four months ago, against New Zealand at Wellington in the Boxing Day Test, Pakistan were staring at defeat: after conceding a first-innings lead of 170, they watched New Zealand sail to 95 for 3 in their second innings, an overall lead of 265, with seven wickets still in hand, and the best part of two days still to go. Then, the genius of Pakistan's pace attack came to the fore: New Zealand, incredibly, lost their remaining wickets for just eight more runs, and Pakistan knocked off the 274 runs to win by seven wickets.

Nothing so dramatic happened here, but Pakistan's fast bowlers came to the party yet again, just when they had been written off. Only Inzamam-ul-Haq and the team management can reveal if the move to publicly chastise his bowlers was a deliberate ploy to rile them up, but if it was, it worked like a charm. Umar Gul took the lead, but by the end of the game, the more famed duo of Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Sami had both run into rhythm: Sami bowled a hostile spell on the third afternoon to get rid of Sachin Tendulkar and Yuvraj Singh, while Shoaib rocked the innings on the fourth morning with a particularly fiery over in which both Virender Sehwag and Irfan Pathan perished. If all three fast bowlers fire again at Rawalpindi, the much-famed Indian batting will have a fight on their hands again.

Meanwhile, the Indian think-tank have a couple of issues to mull over in the four days before that game. The most vexing of those revolves around fitting Yuvraj into the final XI, an issue brought about by his splendid performance in the series, and by Sourav Ganguly's return. The easy way out would be to change the opening pair and bring in Yuvraj for Aakash Chopra, but that would mean altering a successful combination: Chopra, despite his twin failures here - one of which was due to poor umpiring - and Sehwag have done an exceptional job at the top of the order, and Chopra's solidity has been a vital part of India's solid batting line-up. Yuvraj is clearly in superb form, but runs at No. 6 does not automatically mean that he will translate that success when he opens the batting. He is the obvious first-choice back-up in the middle order, and could even be tried as an opener if the current pair has a long run of failures, but to alter the combination now would mean meddling with an area which, after so much searching, has finally started delivering satisfying results.

If Ganguly's return requires a player to sit out, it must still be Yuvraj, simply because the rest of the players have even better credentials than he does: VVS Laxman is the only one in the middle order against whom there is even a shadow of a doubt, and dropping him would be severe injustice to a man who has bailed the team out time and again in the last year and a half. Parthiv Patel showed plenty of character and more than a glimpse of his strokeplaying talent in his unbeaten 62, but again, that is scarcely sufficient to suggest that he could successfully open the batting.

The other area of concern for India was the insipid bowling by Ajit Agarkar - he clearly looked short on match-fitness and confidence, and Ashish Nehra will be a strong contender for the third seamer's spot.

After the hopelessly one-sided Test at Multan, critics were clamouring to write off Pakistan, predicting a 3-0 whitewash for India. Now, with Pakistan having levelled the series so comfortably, the series has been set up perfectly for the finale at Rawalpindi.

S Rajesh is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo.