Bring on the green tops
The thrilling contests in the last Ashes series gave cricket a new constituency, attracting even those who cared little for the game. Bore draws, like the one in Lahore and that expected here, will only succeed in alienating even the faithful
"The Rawalpindi Express can surely prove to be the difference between the two teams. And with the pitches expected to suit fast bowlers, the Indians would be in for a torrid time." That was how the official newsletter of the Pakistan Cricket Board looked ahead to the India series. More than halfway through it, the much-hyped Express has huffed and puffed 41.2 overs for just one wicket - courtesy Sachin Tendulkar's decision to walk - at a cost of 146 runs. Some difference, and some torrid time, on pitches that were more cow-pat than green top.
The batting tracks have taken the steam out of the Rawalpindi Express
Apart from a brief burst after lunch yesterday, when every batsman looked intimidated, Shoaib too has been as ineffectual as every other bowler in this series. And the sense of frustration at having to do what he calls "donkey work" on such unforgiving pitches finally spilled over this morning in an eventful over to the unflappable Mahendra Singh Dhoni. After a magnificent straight-drive and a casual slash over slip, Shoaib was fuming. The short ball from round the wicket was duly unleashed, only to be dismissively pulled to the midwicket fence. The beamer that followed cast him in even poorer light and it was no surprise when Younis Khan hauled him off after just three overs.
By the time Pakistan captured their 10th Indian wicket of the series, they had leaked 997 runs - a sobering reminder to everyone concerned that even a potent bowling attack can be utterly negated by surfaces where only a strong masochistic streak can make bowling bearable. Shoaib's travails, when put alongside Anil Kumble's struggles and the pounding meted out to the likes of Irfan Pathan and Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, amply illustrate just what an unequal contest this series has been so far, with batsmen piling on runs for fun and bowlers nearly redundant.
At least Pathan had the consolation of adding to his burgeoning reputation as a batsman. As against Sri Lanka, he was accomplishment personified, defending with composure and playing some magnificent shots off both front and back foot when afforded the opportunity. Yet again, he missed out on a century that was there for the taking, but the confidence gained from four-and-a-half hours of resolute, classy batting showed as he came out to bowl a decent first spell where he was consistently quicker and more probing than he had been earlier. But for a mistimed grab from VVS Laxman, he would even have had a wicket to show for his effort.
India's hopes of an improbable victory rested with Kumble, and when he snaffled Salman Butt, it raised visions of other crucial sessions when he had run through sides. But this pitch is still so good, and the turn so slow, that Kamran Akmal and Younis Khan were quick to redress the balance. After the heroics on the last tour, this has been a sobering experience for Kumble, but it will be a brave individual that writes him off completely when the teams come out tomorrow morning.
India were far more disciplined with the ball this afternoon, with Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh especially miserly, and barring a contrived situation of Hansie-and-leather-jacket proportions, it's impossible to see either team winning. With so much attention trained on this series worldwide, that's a real pity. The thrilling contests in the last Ashes series gave cricket a new constituency, attracting even those who cared little for the game. Bore draws, like the one in Lahore and that expected here, will only succeed in alienating even the faithful. That PCB newsletter could well be candidate for Joke of the Year, but for the fact that no one's laughing.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo