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Sambit Bal

Beware the unknown

If cricket matches were won by the weight of past performance and reputation, the India-Pakistan series would be a no contest

Sambit Bal
Sambit Bal

Can Mohammad Khalil do a Bruce Reid? © Getty Images
If cricket matches were won by the weight of past performance and reputation, the India-Pakistan series would be a no contest. Between them, Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid have scored nearly as many Test runs as all 16 members of the Pakistan team put together, and Anil Kumble alone has taken 175 more wickets than the entire Pakistan bowling attack. Cricket, more than any other sport, is a game of numbers. But equally, numbers can sometimes be more inconsequential in cricket than in any other sport.
On paper, Pakistan bring to India one of their thinnest bowling combinations ever. Imran Khan, the first - and last - Pakistan captain to win a Test series in India, has drawn comparisons between this side and his team of 1986-87. That team had Imran, admittedly not as potent as he was in 1982-83, Wasim Akram, Abdul Qadir and Iqbal Qasim. Inzamam-ul-Haq brings Mohammad Sami (48 wickets at 46.52), Rana Naved-ul-Hasan (6 at 45), Abdul Razzaq (62 at 37.43), Mohammed Khalil (no wickets at all), Danish Kaneria (102 at 29.47), Arshad Khan (30 at 28.40) and Shahid Afridi (21 at 39.95). Put them up against Tendulkar, Dravid, VVS Laxman, Virender Sehwag and Sourav Ganguly, and you have grizzled bullfighters arrayed against calves.
But cricket rarely follows this kind of easy logic. Most Indian batsmen have been around for too long not to be alive to the dangers of underestimating their opponents. India have had several nasty surprises from unheralded bowlers, and a few of them have been Pakistanis. In 1979-80, Sikander Bakht, so wiry that you could have coiled him around your fingers, tore into a mighty Indian line-up with an eight-wicket burst, dismissing them for 126 at Delhi. He took 24 wickets in five Tests in that series, and 33 in his other 21. He never took another five-wicket haul. Five years later, Azeem Hafeez, the left-arm medium-pacer, bowled India out for 156 with 6 for 46 at Lahore. He ended his career with 63 wickets from 18 Tests, 21 of which came in five matches against India.
Then there was Mike Whitney, who took 17 wickets in three Tests against India in 1991-92, 11 of them at Perth, but only 22 from his other nine. A couple of Tests earlier Bruce Reid, whose career was forever dogged by injuries, had netted 12 wickets for 126, plunging India to an embarrassing four-day defeat. His career ended two Tests later when his body gave up. Is it a coincidence that three of these were left-arm bowlers who primarily took the ball away from the right-handers? Is that a cue for Pakistan to draft in Mohammad Khalil?
It is natural for Inzamam to look back to Pakistan's series in 1986-87, when Imran's team hung on for draws till the last Test at Bangalore, which they won through two spinners of modest ability on a minefield of a pitch. But it is more instructive, perhaps, for him to go back a couple of seasons earlier, when David Gower brought an unfancied team to India and walked away victorious.
Gower's team had a rookie opening pair, a portly veteran on a second wind at No. 3, and a bowling attack with the combined experience of 63 Tests and 165 wickets. They were duly thumped in the first Test at Bombay, where they were bamboozled by the legspin of Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, who took 12 wickets. But their spinners - Phil Edmonds, an eccentric and combustible slow left-armer, and Pat Pocock, a 38-year-old offspinner who had made a comeback to international cricket after eight years, shared eight wickets in an inexplicable Indian middle-order collapse in the second Test, and the series was squared. One Test later at Madras, England found a new hero in Neil Foster, a fragile-looking right-arm medium-pacer, who twice rocked a batting line-up that could be termed among India's best ever (Gavaskar, Srikkanth, Vengsarkar, Amarnath, Azharuddin, Shastri, Kapil Dev and Kirmani) to hurtle India to defeat. He took 11 wickets in that Test, and never really reached such heights again in a decade-long career which fetched a modest return of 88 Test wickets at 32.85.
Moral of the story: beware of the unfancied and the unknown - they may sting less frequently, but when they do, they are no less fatal.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo in India and of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine.