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January 10, 1999


India Down Under

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Pakistan hijack India at the Gabba

Prem Panicker

As Saqlain and Waqar scrambled a last ball bye to seal a dramatic win for Pakistan, the team's dressing room erupted. Inzamam ul Haq, not a man you see running too often, was first off the blocks, racing onto the field to hug the two heroes of the evening. And the message on the T-shirt he was wearing told a tale: 'Proud to be a Pakistani'.

That kind of pride -- in self, in team, in country -- brings with it certain desirables. On a day when India, in the field, performed with a fervour rarely seen from the side, Pakistan had just that little bit more. They were just that little bit more focussed, committed, determined; they fought just that little bit harder, their nerve held just that little bit more. And they won -- by just that little margin.

In yesterday's match report of the lung opener between Australia and Pakistan, we had made the point about the Pakistan tail, and its new-found determination, and wondered if the Indian tailenders were watching, and learning. Today, we got the answer to that one -- no.

When India batted, at one point the score read 186/7 as Robin Singh walked back after a fine 50. This was in the 48th over. 8 balls later, India were all out, with three tail-end wickets falling in a rash of panic and rank thoughtlessness for the addition of just 9 runs.

When Yousuf Youhanna walked off after a brilliant 63, in the 43rd over, Pakistan were 153/8. Still 43 shy of the target, and seemingly down, and out. For the second straight time, Saqlain and Younis, in a display of guts and determination, fought on, to edge their team home past the winning post.

A little thing, this determination to not give up, to fight to the last ball. One team had it, batted to the very last ball of its allotted quota, and won. The other team failed to last the full quota -- and lost.

With the game being played out on the same track as the lung opener, the toss was going to be crucial, with the team batting first having an edge. And Wasim Akram gave that edge to India when he called wrong, Tendulkar promptly electing to bat first. Having got that one right, the Indian captain, the team management, and the national selectors who reportedly first mooted the plan, got a big one wrong when they decided to split the Ganguly-Tendulkar opening combination.

The two have been opening for quite a while, barring odd aberrations (aberrations that have never worked, by the way). So right off the bat, splitting them up made little sense. Tendulkar started out in the middle order, and it was only after he moved up to open that he really tasted big success with the bat. Further, the Ganguly-Tendulkar combination is, in terms of runs and partnerships, second only to the all-time greats Greenidge and Haynes -- and when you have that combo on hand, it has to be a foolhardy man who thinks of splitting them. The argument being made here was that it was in the interests of shoring up the middle order -- but if that was the case, Laxman, by temperament a middle order batsman, could have been used to fulfill that function.

Akram and Younis began brilliantly, getting inordinate seam and swing movement. Laxman was unable to capture that same careless rapture of his innings against Australia, being beaten repeatedly by the swing of Younis and the angles of Akram. Ironically, his defensive prods and pushes saw him survive several close calls, but the minute he went on the offensive, it proved fatal. The ball from Younis was short, there was nothing wrong with the shot selection as Laxman went into the pull, hitting hard and rolling his wrists over it -- a touch of extra bounce, though, meant that the ball stayed in the air that fraction too long, and Afridi at midwicket dived to hold a very good catch.

Rahul Dravid began in a hurry, with a flowing on drive followed by a neatly executed flick off the pads. But there was about his batting a desperate desire to play too many shots -- probably as a bid to shake off the run of bad scores that has been dogging him for a while now. This desire has been evident in his last few Test innings as well -- and the outcome, now as then, was yet another ugly dismissal, its manner uncharacteristic of a batsman who is reputed a technician. This time round, to a ball from Akthar that was wide of off and shortish in length, Dravid walked into an airy drive, bat swinging away from body and feet nowhere in line, to nick thhrough to the keeper.

That brought Tendulkar to the wicket in the 15th over. And immediately, the danger of batting him down the order became evident, as he began with hard-hit drives and cuts that went straight to the spread out fielders. Tendulkar is a batsman who can take brilliant toll of the field restrictions early on, and in the process put the bowling side on the back foot. Here, his best shots were going to hand, and you could see him hitting harder and harder in a bid to break free. One such drive, hit a bit harder than he would normally have, saw Youhanna diving forward at cover only to spill the chance.

>There was disaster waiting to happen -- and it came in the 20th over when, after driving, then cutting, Razzaq for two fours, he shaped to play to through midwicket a delivery that bit fuller in length and seaming in, the movement beating the shot and going through the gate to take out middle stump. So what was the cumulative result of the brilliant ploy to bat him down the order? As in the World Cup, the middle order remained brittle -- and the opening overs went unutilised. Makes you wonder -- how many times does one need to make a mistake to learn from it?

Kanitkar didn't bother the scorers too much. In fact, not at all. There is about this lad one puzzling question -- is he in the side as a pure batsman, or as a batting all-rounder which is how he began his career? If he is there as a pure batsman, then he holds a place beyond his merit. If he was picked as an all-rounder, then it becomes increasingly curious that neither in the Test, nor here, has he had to turn his arm over even once. If this keeps up, a question needs to be asked -- is Kanitkar Mr Borde's token entry for the Maharashtra lobby? Here, he lasted all of two deliveries, the second of which -- a straight one going through outside off from Saqlain, he touched to Moin behind the sticks.

At 4/77 in the 20th over, India was in big trouble. Robin Singh, easily the coolest head in the side, and Ganguly, who after a bit of initial fidgets was beginning to time the ball as only he can, settled down to a recovery act that lasted 19 overs, and yielded 66 runs. Robin, though, enjoyed a huge share of luck when, with the score 97/4, he swept at Afridi's first delivery, a fullish length ball that missed the bat and took the pad bang in front of off -- why that was not given, only the umpire knows. Immediately thereafter, he pushed at a quick Afridi top-spinner, and Moin put one down.

Once over that hump, Robin settled down to play with calm good sense, while Ganguly began stroking with increasing fluency. His wicket in fact fell just when it seemed likely that he could bat through the innnings. Akthar, brought on after the drinks, opened with a brilliantly disguised slower ball, bowled from wide of the crease angling in. Ganguly completely misread the change of pace, pushed inside the line and saw the ball pitch off to straighten and take out the stump.

Dighe, making his debut, looked very busy as he cut and drove at everything in sight -- in his eagerness to make a mark, all he managed to do was hit too hard too often. Akthar took him out with a quicker ball following on the heels of the slower one, the ball straightening on line to take him plumb in front.

Robin, batting with increasing assurance after his twin reprieves, fell immediately after going past his 50 when, in a bid to up the tempo, he flat batted one from Saqlain, from outside off, down the throat of long on.

And then the Indian tail did one of its numbers. Kumble played one out on the on, turned slowly for the second, and didn't even need a third umpire to tell him to begin the walk back. Agarkar then got under one from Akram, lifted it over midwicket, and turned for a second that was never there, to be run out by half the length of the pitch. And Srinath, off the very next ball, vaguely pushed inside the line of an Akram delivery that straightened to hit off, and India had folded with 7 balls of the regulation 50 overs to spare.

7 balls. At that point in the game, that is worth a minimum of 7 runs. Which should come as a sobering thought for India as it contemplates the margin of defeat today.

Given the small total, India needed to bowl very well in the first 15 overs. Srinath however began with a forgettable first spell, the only silver lining in it being that he induced the impetuous Afridi to slash at one outside off, lifting a bit off length, for Laxman to take the edge at second slip.

Three overs into his first spell, Srinath had to be replaced by Prasad, and sanity returned to proceedings that were threatening to go out of hand. Prasad settled onto a fine line and length especially to the left-handed Anwar, beating him repeatedly outside off, while Agarkar, whose bowling form at least seems to be coming back with every outing, looked very sharp right from the first ball he bowled. Agarkar in fact produced the next two strikes, getting one to swing in a bit and then straighten on off to have Ijaz trapped plumb in front -- a mode of dismissal that, given his enormous shuffle, the batsman is particularly vulnerable to.

Inzamam ul Haq appears to delight in finding comical ways to get himself out. During the World Cup, it was his running between the wickets that had the spectators in splits. Here, it is threatening to be his pad play. For the second time in two games, he pushed his pad into line of a ball bang on the stumps and then added to the mirth with his expression when given out -- when Inzy's baby-face gets that look of bewilderment about it, it is all the watcher can do to keep from howling with laughter.

Suddenly, the game was turning on its axis, and Srinath, brought back for his second spell and seemingly having used the time in between to sort his head out, made it a seeming rout when he made one lift and leave Anwar outside off, the batsman trapped on the drive for the ball to slice off the edge to Robin at point.

Abdul Razzaq, demoted in the order, continued the procession when he pushed his pad at a Kumble flipper on line of the stumps, and suddenly, Pakistan were 64/5 in 19 overs, and the writing seemed on the wall.

This kind of steady fall of wickets produces a momentum for fielding sides, and India rode that to take out the dangerous Moin Khan. Srinath bowled one on a shortish length, Moin rocked into the pull and hit with tremendous power and what seemed to be good placing till Dravid, at square leg, took off to his right, to pluck a sensational one handed catch while still airborne, to reduce Pakistan to 71/6.

Akram, gritting it out and riding a few close shaves, and Youhanna who after a quiet start, blossomed into a demonstration of the kind of street-smart percentage cricket Javed Miandad was known for in his day, then mounted a recovery with a 49 run partnership. During this phase, however, India looked fully in command, with the bowlers keeping things tight, the fielders staying up and Tendulkar, for once, keeping the field aggressive with slips in place and other fielders well inside the 30-yard line. The runs were trickling in, but the winning momentum at this point still seemed to be with the fielding side -- a feeling that was further underlined when, immediately after the drinks break, Ganguly (who curiously had fallen a victim to the 'drinks and loss of concentration syndrome' in his own turn) produced a ball outside off that jagged back in just enough to crash into the stumps off Akram's inner edge.

Saqlain came out to join Youhanna, and in a display that deserves high praise, hung in there despite facing dot ball after dot ball. The pressure on him, at that point, must have been enormous. Time and again, Youhanna got the single only to see Saqlain play out three, four, five dot balls -- and in the process, the asking rate climbed ever higher. Pakistan were 148/7 at the end of 40 overs. Given that one over had been lopped off for slow over rate, this meant that the side needed 48 off 54 heading into the straight. The next 17 balls, however, produced just 5 runs and Srinath added to the fun when he produced a brilliantly disguised slower ball, trapping Youhanna in a predetermined heave over midwicket, the shot hit way too early for the ball to flare off the top edge to Dighe behind the stumps. His 63/83 was as fine a demonstration of percentage cricket as you want to see, but when he left, Pakistan were still 43 shy of the target, with 37 balls to go.

Younis, who appears to have added batting to his repertoire, came out at this point and with Saqlain, produced an exhibition of nerveless, ice-cold batting that had the crowd on the edge of their seats. The two chipped away at the singles, ignored the dot balls and every now and again, displaying uncanny knack in picking the right one, set themselves for the big hits that kept them within range of the target.

It truly was a remarkable effort. Exemplified, for instance, in Srinath's final over. There was nothing wrong with the ball he bowled -- it was just that Saqlain, emulating Younis's last over heroics against McGrath, set himself and clubbed a straight, full length ball on off back over the straight field for a six. In the next over, keeping his nerve after a couple of dot balls from Kumble, Saqlain again rocked back and smashed one square through point for a four. And suddenly, going into the final over from Prasad, Pakistan needed 6 off 6 with two wickets in hand.

Chipping, nudging, running like their lives depended on it, the two brought it down to the wire. One ball to go, one run to win. All 11 Indians in hand-shaking distance of the two batsmen. Prasad pitched short, on middle, Saqlain failed to find room for the shot and in what seemed to be a premeditated gambit, let the ball flash past him and took off. Even before the ball got to the keeper, Younis had already raced down to make his ground. And before the bowler and assorted fielders could sort themselves out and gather the ball at the other end, Saqlain had touched down and, roaring in triumph, taken off.

It was a victory scripted by guts, and deservedly, it puts Pakistan on top of the table with two wins in two outings. And ups the ante for India and Australia, both winless, as they take each other on in the day-night game on Wednesday.


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