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June 8, 1999

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Azhar, finally!

Prem Panicker

When the story of this game is written into the history books, the focus will be on two captains -- Mohammad Azharuddin of India, and Wasim Akram of Pakistan.

Azhar, down and almost out. Comes out to bat under enormous pressure, finds it impossible to get the ball off the square. And finally, as it comes down to the wire, decides to lay it all on the line and, with luck and good judgement in equal measure, plays an innings that in the final analysis makes the difference. Then comes back onto the field, takes two catches, the second a pure blinder. Leads superbly, attacks throughout, and seems to find a magic touch with his bowling changes -- every time he brought about a change, it worked.

And Akram? At the toss, when Azhar called right and opted for first strike, Akram was asked his opinion. "No problem, we are treating this match as practise for the semifinals, it will be good to get some practise chasing for a change," said Akram, forgetting that counting chickens before the eggs had even been laid could prove disastrous. When those words were spoken, Geoffrey Boycott said, "I can't believe he said that, that is not confidence, that is arrogance." True -- and by the end of the match, those words had come back to haunt the Pakistan skipper.

It was one of those days. Yesterday, Rediff had carried a picture of Old Trafford, looking like a swimming pool. The ground staff worked miracles to produce an outfield that was a bit sluggish at the start but under the sun, rolled out into a beauty. As did the pitch, which the groundstaff made into a batting beauty -- and mind you, the forecast was for this game to be hard hit by rain, perhaps even washed out.

India made a forced change, bringing in Ramesh for Ganguly, whose knee was still bothering him. Pakistan made two -- bringing on Afridi for Wasti on the grounds that "Afridi always does well against India" and Salim Malik for the injured Yousuf Youhanna.

India decided to keep Tendulkar at the top of the order, which immediately brought up the prospect of a face-off against Akthar. As it turned out, it was Akram, with a brilliant first spell of 6-0-14-0, who caused problems for both openers. Akthar banged one down fractionally short and was pulled, pitched another full and was driven, tried a yorker on middle and leg and was flicked, and with 20 coming in his first four overs, the bowler was banished to the outfield.

Ramesh played a few nice shots, off his hips in particular, but a characteristically lazy flick across the line of a Razzaq delivery pitching off and seaming in a touch saw him play all around it to lose middle stump.

Tendulkar at the start of his innings had fans cringing, with two drives at Akram deliveries, head thrown back, that he was fortunate didn't connect. For the first couple of overs, he seemed edgy, but settled once he brought off that pull against Akthar. And when Dravid joined him, the two settled into playing some outstanding cricket, working the ball around into the gaps and scoring singles at will -- under their combined attentions, the bowling began to take on a ragged look.

Tendulkar was beginning to look ominous when he threw it away in a moment of unnecessary aggression. Going down the wicket, he attempted to take Azhar Mahmood over the top of mid off -- and walked into a trap set for him. Akram had played the fielder there at the three quarter mark, inviting the batsman to try and clear him, and Tendulkar ended up picking the fielder out, the shot going off the bottom of the bat which meant he didnt get the elevation he was looking for.

Jadeja, yet again, came ahead of Mohammad Azharuddin, the Indian captain having promoted his deputy since he himself was not in the best of form. Today, however, Jadeja looked a bit tentative and to a ball from Mahmood that kicked up at him, the batsman was caught squared up, pushing but unable to keep the ball down. Inzamam dived full stretch at slip and clung on to a great catch.

At this point, things swung against India. Azhar showed every sign of his bad form, seemingly unable to work the ball off the square. In the process, Dravid who was stroking well was also shackled, finding himself at the wrong end of the wicket time and again while dot balls ticked by at the other end.

In the 50-partnership between the two (off 89 balls), thus, Azhar managed just 17. That landmark came up in the 40th over and at that point, India had reached just 158. Dravid decided to try and up the run rate, lashed out at a ball from Akram angled across him, and managed only to hole out to cover, having notched up his third 50 of the tournament (in addition to 2 centuries, yet again producing an innings of clinical perfection).

Somewhere around this time, Azhar appeared to get his second wind. There was this over from Saqlain that turned the tide -- time and again Azhar went dancing down trying to lift him over the top, and failed. Finally, he got it all right -- and wafted a six over long on and from then on, he was, in today's phrase, happening. A slashed drive over cover, a flick through midwicket, and suddenly, there were glimpses of the Azhar of old.

Robin Singh at the other end produced one of his trademark lifts over wide long on, off the hapless Saqlain, and India ended its innings on 227/6, Azhar falling in the penultimate over when he slashed Akram to point.

For Pakistan, Akram as always was brilliant with the ball, but Akthar and Saqlain were both handled with ease by the Indian batsmen. Thus, yet again, it was left to Azhar Mahmood and Abdur Razzaq to really do the job, bowling with impeccable control in the middle overs and ensuring that the batting side didn't get away from them. These two bowlers have laboured in the shadow of the Akhtars and Akrams, but through this tournament have proved to be the real spine of the Pakistan attack, and today's was yet another standout performance.

227 was never going to be a daunting total -- but then, the Pakistan batting lineup at the top hasn't exactly impressed thus far. For India, the task was going to be to take out two, three wickets at the top and put on the squeeze.

The way the play began, it looked like it would be over by the 25th over, though. Srinath started in wayward fashion and Anwar cut and drove him for fours. Then he took on Mohanty and slammed him for two more fours. Afridi swung, not too well but still with enough vim in the shot to get a four and 19 runs had come off the first 14 balls.

Afridi however fell to his usual problem -- more adrenalin than thought. Srinath made one lift at the batsman, who pushed and found Kumble at point.

Ijaz came up the order, and the way he batted, it was obvious the orders were to attack. Azhar meanwhile made one of his many inspired moves of the day, using Prasad for one over to get Srinath and Mohanty, both of whom had bowled a bad couple of overs, to switch ends.

Mohanty almost struck as soon as he got to the other end, seaming one away from a length, Ijaz driving, the seam movement taking the toe of the bat and going to mid on where Ramesh spilt a sitter.

Ijaz though didn't survive too long. With both Srinath and Mohanty settling into a great line and length, run-making became difficult and the pressure told on Ijaz. Srinath worked on Ijaz in the tenth over, beating him with successive deliveries, one seaming in, the next going out, a third lifting and straightening. Ball four was fuller in length, Ijaz, by now confused, pushed with bat away from his body and the edge flew to Azhar for a good second slip catch.

Azhar immediately attacked the new man in, Salim Malik, with two slips and two gullies -- a field the Indians haven't used in a long long time. The rest were brought inside the circle, runs dried up and overs ten and 11 were maidens -- and as the dot balls mounted, so did the pressure.

Azhar decided to bowl Mohanty through -- preferring, obviously, not to risk him at a more crucial stage, and the bowler responded with a controlled spell that saw him give away only 31 in his ten, and being distinctly unlucky to have Ijaz dropped off his bowling, and edges from Anwar twice dropping short of slips.

Prasad meanwhile replaced Srinath, and after a couple of leg cutters, brought one in to Salim Malik. The batsman, unsure where the ball was going, pushed blindly forward and was trapped bang in front, Pakistan had slid to 52/3 and began looking brittle.

On fire on the day, Prasad almost immediately afterwards struck an even more vital blow. At the start of his innings, Anwar seemed to be discovering a rich vein of form, driving fluently and playing a couple of savage pulls. Once Srinath went round the wicket and began angling it in to him, however, the left-hander's touch deserted him and what was at the start a 133 strike rate began slipping. Prasad, a bowler who has consistently troubled him, then took him out with a ball on off, seaming in, drawing the batsman into a defensive push with bat away from body to find the edge. Azhar was standing wide at first slip when that ball flew hard and low and close to Mongia. The Indian keeper has an injured left palm that he was saving through the game, and was unlikely to go for it. Azhar did, brilliantly, to hold very low to his right.

From then on, the Indians tightened up even further in the field, reducing Inzamam in particular to strokelessness. The fields stayed attacking, the bowling was aggressive and Pakistan's run rate suffered. Kumble helped things along when, in the 25th over, he produced one of those flippers that kicked up at Azhar Mahmood, the batsman shaped to cut, playing the line but misjudging the bounce, and Mongia took a great catch, going up on his toes to ride the edge as it flashed off the top edge of the bat.

Moin Khan raised hopes of a revival with his busy style of play, lifting a trademark six over square leg and producing the usual fun and games as he attempted to push Inzamam into running between wickets. But well though Moin played, Inzamam's strokelessness meant that the ask kept getting tougher and tougher, forcing the wicket-keeper to take increasing risks.

As Moin threatened to take the game away, Azhar suddenly attacked, bringing on Prasad in place of Robin Singh. With a deep square leg in place, Prasad made one bounce and seam in to Moin. The batsman, playing for the short length, swung into a pull, only for the ball to come into him, and cramp him for room -- and Tendulkar, out at deep backward square for that shot, gleefully took the mishit.

Abdur Razzaq had developed a calf problem while bowling, and came out to bat in some pain. Standing in place, he swung Prasad high over square leg for a six, but collapsed and was forced to call for a runner. Noticing his hampered movements, Azhar again threw in two slips and a gully (this in the 35th over).

Four overs later, he gambled yet again, bringing in Srinath. At this point, Robin had two overs to bowl and had Srinath not been able to break through, that would have meant the fifth bowler had to bowl at the death. A big gamble, that. And the move paid off as Srinath pitched one on a full length on off and middle, Razzaq with feet anchored swung hard and missed, and back went middle stump.

That brought Akram to the wicket and, interestingly, Azhar immediately put a slip in for the new man while Srinath went round the wicket to cramp the left hander for room.

Pakistan going in to the 41st over had managed onlyl 149 and the batsmen out in the middle needed to go for pretty much everything. Inzamam, however, had batted himself into a huge shell (at one time, he had played 64 balls for just 20 runs) and when he tried to change gears, found that his timing had gone awry. Back came Prasad, to deliver the blow with a ball of full length that Inzy stepped to off and tried to swing over square leg. The late movement off the seam beat the shot and got him bang in front.

The ask rate was now above 8 an over, and Kumble came in at this point to take out Saqlain, looking to go to off and play the flipper to leg, missing and taking it on the pad in front of the wicket.

With last man, Akthar, for company, Akram had no option but to try and hit out at everything. And his preferred area is the on side. Prasad came on, with a deep backward square, a deep midwicket and a wide and deep long on, covering the three areas Akram likes, and gave him one on leg stump. The Pakistan captain swung, got it on the top half of the bat as the ball followed him on the shot, and picked out Kumble at deep backward square to give India a comfortable 47 run win -- India's third win over Pakistan in World Cup matchplay.

For his five-wicket haul, Prasad got the man of the match. But I thought for his late charge with the bat, his two catches at slip and all round captaincy on the day, Azhar deserved it every bit as much. Srinath after his wayward first two overs was immaculate, Mohanty put his extravagances behind him and bowled an immaculate line and length, Kumble though a touch expensive in his first spell came back strongly at the death and Prasad was, quite simply, outstanding, producing key breakthroughs every time the batsmen looked like taking the game away from the fielding side.

Thus, yet again, India produced one of those performances, from the brink, that had you scratching your heads and wondering why the devil this side couldn't play at this level all the time. For Pakistan, meanwhile, the third straight defeat, coupled with injury problems, means the momentum of the early games is lost and all the hard work has to be done all over again.


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