Salman Butt gets a death grip on the bat handle, way down near the splice, with his left hand -- and uses it to power the ball straight or square; especially straight. You would think with that grip, he would be a sucker on the drive to the ball pitched up, but Butt has great cricketing sense in picking the ball to hit -- and today, the sense and the hitting were on full display chasing the huge India score in overcast conditions and fading light.
Many of the shots he played were memorable; none more so than a scorching straight drive that went to the boundary before Sreeshanth had straightened in his follow through; another, equally brilliant, was a quick read of the Irfan Pathan change down and a blistering lofted on drive, using that bottom hand to get under the ball and blast it over the fielder.
The problem with chases of this magnitude is, no matter how hard and how often you hit, you find it hasn't even dented the mountain that looms. Kamran Akmal's early fall was an indicator -- the keeper-batsman seemed in awesome touch, characteristically fluent in his off driving. But despite helping Pakistan to 50/1 as early as the eighth over, Akmal (24 off 24) fell to the pressure of the ask rate, manufacturing a front foot drive to a Sreeshanth delivery that was too full, and did a bit too much off the seam. The hard edge flew to Gautam Gambhir at a shortish point; the fielder, with absolutely no time to react, pulled off a blinder.
From then on, it was cat and mouse -- or more accurately, cat, mouse, and calculator.
India used its seamers and packed off side fields to force the asking rate up; the recently-bereaved Shoaib Malik and the increasingly dominant Butt kept knocking them around, punctuating the singles with superb hits mostly through the covers, midwicket and in the V.
The wild card was the fielding -- with Yuvraj, Kaif and Raina pairing up to cover the region from point to mid off, the pacy Agarkar and the committed Sreeshant patrolling the outfield and the rest backing up well, the Indian fielding was probably the best we have seen in well over a decade. Raina -- who was predictably super-subbed in for Tendulkar at the start of the Pakistan innings -- had at the halfway mark added a good 30 runs to Tendulkar's total, with his remarkable ground coverage and enthusiastic athleticism.
Looming above this frenetic action, literally, was the cloud which increasingly obscured the sun, forcing Pakistan coach Bob Woolmer to scramble through Duckworth Lewis tables and his calculator, and flash the ask, on an ongoing basis, on an ersatz scoreboard for the benefit of the batsmen (The point was made by the commentators, it is one that has puzzled me too -- why are such details, relevant to the ongoing action, not flashed on the main scoreboard for the benefit of the batsmen and fielding side alike?).
The Butt-Malik association absorbed pressure superbly. Consider the comparison: At the 20 over mark, Pakistan had made 119/1 against India's 126/2, but despite the seeming parity, Pakistan's asking rate was still a hefty 7 rpo.
At the halfway mark, again, the two teams were dead even on runs, at 153 apiece with India having lost two wickets to Pakistan's 1 -- the ask, though, remained 7.08.
Yet, both batsmen kept their nerve, and their heads. Clearly aware that the more wickets remaining in hand, the more favorable Messers Duckworth and Lewis would be in the event of an untimely end, the two balanced the need to keep the board ticking over with the equally pressing need to keep wickets in tact, both for D/L and for a blast at the end.
The partnership also showed the value of working in pairs. Early on, Malik was struggling to put bat to ball; Butt took on himself the onus of farming the strike and keeping the tempo going. Thus, Butt scored 37 runs in the first 50 runs the pair put together. Then Malik got himself in -- and promptly took over the onus of scoring, at one point taking Agarkar to the cleaners with an on drive, an upper cut to third man and a smashing straight drive to move to 63 off 53 at that point. In doing that, Malik let Butt slip into the anchor role and ease himself to his 3rd ODI century (111 balls), all of them against India.
Almost immediately thereafter, though, Butt went -- attempting to clear cover off Murli Karthik and giving Dravid a chance to show off some good catching skills; the second wicket partnership had made 151 runs in 23.4 overs at 6.38; a great display of consistent strokeplay.
India, on a track that remained beautiful to bat on and against two batsmen in great nick, had only the one game to play -- bowl tight lines and ensure that the chasing side didn't bring that ask down too dramatically. And -- though this might fly in the face of the scoreboard -- India's seamers bowled well, much better than recent events led us to hope. Pathan bowled his ten overs through straight (0/52); Sreeshanth opened with a surprisingly nippy 138.6 kmph delivery, and bowled with a lot of pace and swing; and Zaheer Khan and Ajit Agarkar, coming in after the power plays were used up, stayed disciplined on a pitch where even good balls disappeared to the fence. At the 30 over mark, Pakistan had scored 179/1 against India's 192/2.
Murli Karthik was the weak link, getting neither turn (understandable on the pitch) nor drift; compounding it by staying over the wicket and bowling outside leg, which produced wides at critical moments, then switching to round the wicket and pitching short.
Afridi and Malik teamed up with the latter striking a beautiful on driven six off Karthik, followed by a four to third man. That over, the 34th, finally saw Pakistan's run rate come on par with the ask rate 6.53 to 6.67. (At the 35 over mark, Pakistan 231/2 against India's 233/3 -- thanks in the main to Malik's superbly timed acceleration. The batsman, who after posting his 50 off 49 balls, hit up a further 40 runs in just 18 deliveries, perished however when trying to flat-bat Zaheer Khan over midwicket, only to hole out to the fielder there (97 more needed from 86 -- and for Pakistan, the advantage of India's collapse in the last five overs opening up a huge window).
Afridi looked set to take it home, mishitting a six off Sreeshanth after going under a bouncer, but to the next ball, Kaif proved the value of quality fielding skills, running around a checked drive to cover, fielding it on his good side and in one motion, throwing down the stumps with Afridi short of his ground (85 needed off 79). Amazingly, half the crowd promptly made tracks for the exit -- apparently the prospect of a Pakistan win is insignificant, if it is not Afridi doing the winning.
Mohammad Yousuf looked in nice nick, but after doing his best to run out his captain by calling him halfway down then sending him back (the throw missed), he fell into a trap set by Dravid. Realizing that neither was good at calling and running, India had brought mid on and mid off inside the circle; Yousuf looked to clear the fielder, off Agarkar, and managed only to hit it straight to mid on (265/5 after 40; India 266/3).
Inzamam with his unflappable calm seemed to be taking the game home, when he managed to find yet another interesting way to get out. The batsman stroked one to mid off, Raina picked up and with Inzy out of his ground, threw at the batsman's end. Inzy played a perfect forward defensive push at the throw -- unfortunately, standing a good three yards out of the crease. The appeal was made (there will be talk of whether appealing for that was within the spirit of the game), and the umpires had no choice but to give Inzamam out (39 needed off 41).
With midnight fast approaching -- or so it seemed -- Younis stroked Agarkar down the straight field for four (30 more off 34); only for Razzaq to give the initiative away, stepping away from his stumps for a needless heave, and managing only to inner edge for Dhoni -- who probably needed a torch to see the ball -- to dive and hold (299/7; 30 needed off 32).
In pitch dark, Naved managed a controlled pull for four, then stroked a risky two, carved one through point. With the umpires increasingly fidgety over light, Dravid had to go back to spin -- and Murli made amends with a great 47th over that produced just two. That, though, was it -- even with Yuvraj poised to bowl, the umpires had no choice but to offer light, which Pakistan promptly accepted, winning the game by 7 runs per D/L, with the board reading 18 to get off 18 balls.
It was defeat, not disgrace; that said, India will rue two missed opportunities. The first, in the last five overs of its innings when it played daft cricket to lose 5 wickets for just 23; secondly, in the field, bowling a touch slow on the over-rate and pushing the game into extended time, on a day when the light had begun fading as early as the 15th over of the Pakistan innings.
At the end of it all, the Pakistan dressing room looked strangely flat, strangely bereft of celebration --- both teams had fought hard, punched each other silly, and deserved for one of them to land the knockout blow.
Two youngsters with contrasting styles typified an unconventionally aggressive start to India's one-day campaign -- Irfan Pathan, all calm calculation, and Mahendra Singh Dhoni, all strut and swagger, shrugged off the early loss of Virender Sehwag and rocketed the team off to the sort of start the team, which started the day expressing apprehension about the light, would have dreamt of.
Rahul Dravid indicated a day before the lung-opener at Peshawar that the team will not go in for much experimentation -- likely, what he meant was that the likes of Pathan and Dhoni batting up the order no longer count as 'experiments'.
It was an interesting exercise in strategy and counter -- Inzamam-ul Haq, on a smallish ground, clearly did not trust bowlers to be able to keep things in check with the older ball, so opted to use his power plays right at the top. Dravid responded with Pathan at number three, followed by Dhoni -- and the gambit succeeded big time.
Pakistan made all the early running, thanks largely to Mohammad Asif. With each outing, the youngster gets ever more impressive. It was as if he was continuing his match-winning spell from the Karachi Test -- impeccable length, phenomenal control and the seeming ability to tweak the seam either way and send down fast off breaks and leg cutters at will had the Indians in early trauma.
Asif struck with his first ball of the innings, when he sent one down on length through the channel that seamed and bounced, forcing Virender Sehwag to play at it for the feather-edge through to the keeper.
For 12 successive deliveries, Asif then tied Pathan up in knots, beating him repeatedly with the length and slanted angle, accentuated by seam movement away.
The most impressive thing about Pathan's batting in either form of the game is a phlegmatic calm -- he can be repeatedly beaten, yet show no mental scarring, and when occasion affords, his strikes are clean and confident. A mistimed drive got him off the mark, a mistimed pull off Rana Naved gave him his first four -- but from then on, he changed up the gears and produced a beauty. His drives through the off were straight out of the batting copybook; and once he had managed a couple of sighting shots, the confidence came through in a lovely little shimmy down the track to Asif, treating him like an off spinner and blasting it over extra cover for four.
It was Umar Gul, though, who bore the brunt. Coming in for the expensive Rana Naved, Gul found himself slapped over third man for six, then driven through point for four in his first over. And that was the trailer -- in the next over, the 13th of the innings, Pathan first under-edged a ball to the third man fence, then drove off the back foot through point, went on the front foot and drove yet another four, followed it up by picking the slower one and again piercing the covers, flicked the next off his pads to the fine leg fence, and followed up those five fours with a calmly stroked single to mid on to end an over that went for 22.
From then on, it was all Pathan. Farming the strike, reducing Tendulkar to spectator, the youngster reduced bowlers to extras and the boundaries to irrelevance, racing to 53 off just 49 deliveries, with 10 fours and one six.
Just when he appeared to have the bit fully between his teeth, Rana Naved -- who was cracked for successive fours to third man and cover, responded with a short ball that didn't bounce as much as its length, less than halfway down the track, indicated. Pathan was caught between avoidance and dalliance, picked the hook because fine leg was well inside the circle, and managed only to play it off the high part of his bat to that same fielder, ending an innings of 65 off 65 that took the first quarter of the game completely away from Pakistan.
That was the 16th over, the final power play was still in force, and Dravid sent out Dhoni to cash in. The batsman started off with successive fours off Razzaq, played out a dot ball by way of variety, then biffed another four to ensure that the loss of the wicket did not hurt the momentum of the innings.
Unlike the more classical Pathan, Dhoni's batting has something of the free spirit about it -- aesthetics concern him about as little as lines and lengths, his aim invariably is to lift his bat above head height and bring it down with tremendous savagery. Perhaps the best indicator of his batting mindset came in the 31st over, when Shoaib Malik saw the batsman dance down to him and bowled one well wide of off and short. Dhoni, who was moving in line with leg to free his arms, realized he was stranded, did the sort of split that spoke well of the tailoring of his trousers, and from that position, still managed a cut to third man for four to bring up the 103 of the partnership off just 91 balls.
Sachin Tendulkar's innings was an essay in many modes -- and moods. He started off being beaten outside his off, responded with a couple of imperious cover drives, then pulled up a chair and stayed put at one end watching the Pathan show. During this phase, the lack of strike seemed to impact on his flow -- a Rana Naved delivery angled in to middle and leg saw him (as he has so often in recent times) try to push with the shut bat face to midwicket, miss the line and be bowled off his pads, only to look up and see the umpire's hand out for the no ball.
Following that life, the batsman settled down to what, in his current form and career stage, he is best fitted to do -- work the ball around, run the singles hard, let his partners bat around him, and when occasion afforded, strike hard and clean, as witness a free flowing loft over long on for six off the last ball of Arshad Khan's first over as super sub in place of the hapless Umar Gul.
Dravid continued to ride the momentum, sending in Yuvraj Singh at the fall of Dhoni's wicket, and the batsman carried on the momentum of his Test hundred at Karachi with a stream of delicate cuts, powerful drives and, when length afforded as in an Afridi over, mixing up a powerful hoist over wide long on for six with the most delicate late cut you ever saw for the follow-up four.
For India, partnerships were the key -- following the early fall of Sehwag, every successive pairing produced runs at pace. Pathan and Sachin brought up their 51 off 62 balls, but then upped the gears to put together 94 in 14.5 overs at 6.34. Next up, Dhoni and Sachin -- and the 52 in even time at a run a ball. That was merely the stage -- Yuvraj and Sachin brought up their 52 off just 42, and seemed set to accelerate even further when Yuvraj, after driving Razzaq on either side of the wicket, flicked him easily off his toes but managed to pick out the tall Arshad on the line at deep backward point to end a superb cameo of 39 off just 28 balls.
Rahul Dravid came out finally -- and clipped the first ball he faced through midwicket for four; there was to be no let up.
Tendulkar, who had gotten to 51 off 66 balls and, in the process, been completely upstaged by his partners, raced to his 39th ODI hundred off the 5th ball of the 45th over, scoring his second 49 runs off just 46 deliveries. To the very next ball, an attempted reverse sweep off Arshad Khan saw the finger go up for the LBW; the batsman was very unlucky in that the ball had gone off his glove onto pad; uncharacteristically, Sachin made his feelings very clear as he walked off. India's bid to race to a phenomenal score suffered another hit in the next over, when Rana Naved beat a Dravid (16 off 14) flick with the fuller, almost yorker, length and found the pad in front of leg stump.
The progression, in five over periods, tells the story of an innings that was planned around flat out aggression: 16/1 in 5; 47/1 in 10; and from there on, 99/1, 126/2, 153/2, 192/2, 233/3, 266/3 and, 305/5 at the end of 45 overs, with the third 100 runs of the innings coming off just 78 deliveries.
A perennial problem of mucking up the end overs saw India lose 5 wickets for 23 runs -- throwing away the immense platform the batsmen had built.
328, though, is a more than competitive score on this or any ground; it is never easy to go in knowing you have to hit close to 7 runs an over every over for the full course of the innings. One good opening spell, thus, and India should fancy its chances in the second half of the game.
To talk of bowling in an innings so dominated by the bat is pointless; bowler after bowler came, and disappeared; the only shining light for Pakistan was the indefatigable Asif, who alone in inimical conditions showed the control and skills needed to keep batsmen from taking him on. Interestingly, Pakistan this morning had backed the gloom, the dew and the early morning start and opted to field first; Dravid at the toss had indicated he would have done the same, but at no point in the Indian innings outside of the first 5 overs did the bowlers seem to be in with the faintest chance.
Pakistan, too, seemed to have opted for presumed virtues of line and length against those of sheer pace, when benching Shoaib Akthar and opting for the less pacy new ball attack of Asif-Naved-Gul-Razzaq.
The Pakistan fielding was water tight early; it was especially interesting to note that the fielding side appears to have put considerable work into perfecting the art of fielding in pairs and throwing via relays -- but once Pathan, then Dhoni, got into assault mode, the fielders wilted and misfields began to proliferate. It then tightened again as wickets fell -- Shoaib Malik producing a scarcely credible throw from the deep midwicket fence to hit the stumps on the full and catch Ajit Agarkar way out of his ground; the batsman clearly expected the hit to go for a four, and was caught completely off guard by a superb bit of fielding. And Salman Butt plucked a stunner in the final over on the midwicket fence to end India's innings.
By way of aside, this match produced one other aspect of interest: the wiring up of the two umpires, through earphones, to the stump mikes to help them pick up the edges better.