A team that thus far had made 886 runs for the loss of 18 wickets off 140.3 overs in the preceding three games (including 292/5 on a seaming track in the third game, off 47.4) toyed, early on, with a thought: Should we canter? Or should we make things a touch interesting for fans, do their blood pressure a bit of no good?
Off the third ball of the second over, Sachin Tendulkar reached across to touch a Mohammad Sami delivery that started wide and went wider; Akmal was duly grateful.
Gautam Gambhir, for his part, seemed quite circumspect; content to wait for the bad ball to come along. The 5th ball of the 5th over was one such -- short from Sami, going nowhere, and Gamhir, already on the front foot, transferred weight nicely and rocked into a fierce pull. The first ball of the sixth over was upper cut over slips, the next blasted through point, two dot balls later, an immaculate straight drive fetched a third four. And then Gambhir went into the pull, this time caught on the front foot with inufficient time to transfer back, got it high on the bat, put it higher still in the air, and Sami ran the length of the pitch and held at silly point, then glared at Imran Farhat who, dashing in from point, had done his best to get in the bowler's way (21 off 20 Gambhir, 29/2 India).
This was a conventional chase; the team saw no need for wild cards. Rahul Dravid and Yuvraj Singh got together, and began an extended net against a lineup of Pakistan bowlers who, with no runs to defend, opted for short lengths and overt machismo in preference to the fuller length.
Yuvraj Singh tapped the ball around for 13 deliveries, then got going with an immaculate on drive off Rana Naved, following it up a ball later with a straight drive. Dravid, with the target clearly in sight, uncorked shots he normally doesn't play that early in the innings, mixing up his trademark drives and flicks off the pads with upper cuts and fierce pulls.
By the 15th over, the score was 71/2 (Pakistan 38/4); the run rate was up to 4.79 and the ask had been brought down from 3.22 to 2.59. Neither batsman looked to force the pace -- they didn't need to. With Pakistan's bowlers clearly demoralized, the hittable ball was always around the corner, and Yuvraj and Dravid waited and waited and clinically cashed in. The 50 of the partnership (Dravid 26 off 28; Yuvraj 21 off 32) came off 65 balls in the 17th over.
The most interesting part of the proceedings was further confirmation that Yuvraj is maturing in a hurry. There never was any doubt about the quality of his shot-making; he has always had the ability to caress a particular ball in one direction, then bludgeon the identical delivery in quite another, alternating rapier and broadsword at will. Increasingly, though, he has acquired patience; he will wait, if his partner is going well he will rein himself in and willingly play second fiddle -- as he did in game three when Dhoni fired, and as he did here while his captain eased into strokeplay.
His wicket came as a surprise -- a fuller length delivery from Rana Naved, in the 24th over, inexplicably found his feet anchored in concrete; the ball angled across, touched the edge and went through to Akmal (114/3 in 23.2; run rate of 4.92 and an ask, for the 47 runs that remained, of 1.84; 37 off 57 Yuvraj and a partnership of 85 in 17.2 overs that ensured Pakistan wouldn't break through).
Mohammad Kaif's rotten run continued -- and his total lack of confidence showed in the manner of his dismissal. To a short, wide ball from Razzaq in the very next over, Kaif stood rooted in position, swished schoolboy fashion with his bat, and walked almost before Inzamam pouched the catch at slip.
There was a point in time when Kaif was the assured accumulator, Yuvraj the flighty showman; even as Yuvraj acquired poise and assurance, Kaif's game has fallen away dramatically.
Dravid, who brought up his 67th (65 deliveries) ODI half century between the wickets of Yuvraj and Kaif, kept stroking fluidly. His innings had it all -- patience, power, finesse (when he plays off his pads, even Euclid applauds). One ball after he had delicately threaded Sami through the covers, a swinging, dipping full toss bowled from wide of the crease angling in to middle saw him miss his pet shot for the first time this innings -- and up went the finger on the shout. Dravid (59 off 72; India 133/5).
Suresh Raina started off with a thick outer edge along the ground to third man, followed up with a deft flick for two off his pads, then opened his shoulders and slammed Rana Naved through the covers to celebrate having, finally, got an opportunity to bat. The standout, though, was off Razzaq in the over after Dravid went -- a superlative off drive off the back foot, then a glide onto the front foot, going low into the shot and a full flourish on the extra cover drive left the field standing, and partner Mahendra Singh Dhoni applauding.
Those shots brought the ask to 20 at one run per over; Raina then turned on Asif, with two braces on either side of the wicket separated by another elegant cover drive for four. Dhoni seemed to like the view so much, he raced a very quick single, went to the other end, and applauded another caressed cover drive from Raina, this time off a full toss from Sami.
For someone who plays so many shots, Raina has a very good defense -- and, on the evidence of his very few outings thus far, an assured sense of which balls to hit. Imran Farhat got to bowl the last over of the game, with India needing just 4; Raina pulled the third ball of the 33rd over to seal the win -- and in the pavilion, the team did a jig to celebrate their second straight ODI series win in Pakistan.
For Dravid, the comfortable 5-wicket win with a tick under 17 overs to spare, must have been especially sweet in 2005, when Pakistan pulled back from 2-0 down to take the series with four straight victories, he had led in the last three of those games, and been pilloried for the result. This time, he has reversed it -- India came in to the series as the underdogs, and have outplayed the hosts in every department.
Batsmen hog the glory; bowlers play the walk on parts. One-day cricket -- and India's dream run chasing, with 11 successful ones on the trot before this game, has followed that storyline.
Fulsome praise has gone to batsmen who have held their nerve even when confronted by sizeable targets -- and there is merit in that. But perhaps it is also time to render unto Caesar -- what has passed unnoticed is that the Indian bowlers have, in each of the last three outings, managed to take out 4 wickets inside the powerplays, thus ensuring that the home team did not go into the business end of the innings with wickets in hand.
It was 4/68 in 13.2 overs in Rawalpindi; 4/82 in 16.4 in Lahore; 4/29 in 12.5 overs here and it could well have been 5/49 inside in 17 had Asad Rauf, whose umpiring has been impressive this series, not given Mohammad Yousuf the benefit of faint doubt when the batsman was just four.
It's remarkably good going, for an attack described as 'popgun', in comparison with that of the hosts -- and it merits a fair share of the credit for India's success, thus far this series, batting second.
Rahul Dravid yet again opted to insert on winning the toss -- and since there wasn't anything unusual, either by way of grass or moisture, in the wicket, you had to reckon the Indian captain was banking on the discipline of his bowlers, and the burgeoning confidence of his batsmen.
The rash of wickets early on in the last two games apparently had given Pakistan pause for thought -- here, the openers came out looking to play within themselves, clearly bent on seeing off the early overs and building a good platform. Irfan Pathan and Sreeshanth started with maidens, and at the end of 5 overs, Pakistan had made just nine.
The first wicket was clearly the result of back room planning. Just before the third ball of the 7th over, Dravid reinforced his regular point with a shortish point, halfway between silly point and the regular position. Pathan bent that ball back into Kamran Akmal; the next one, he angled it across, straightening it with the arm. The width was like manna for a batsman on starvation rations -- Akmal flashed into the square cut and Raina, in the shortish point position, reeled in a catch with incredible insouciance, considering he had no reaction time whatsoever (15/1).
The second wicket was the result of sheer brilliance in the field. The two opening bowlers had becalmed the Pakistan innings; the score was 26/1 after 10 (with 46 dot balls in that score). Sreeshanth, who as in the previous innings, had bowled aggressively, pitched one on Salman Butt's off stump seaming away, and the batsman, whose defensive technique is not of the best, played a most unusual shot. It was a parody of the forward defensive push -- played with very hard hands on the walk; when ball met bat, his front foot in fact was in the air. The thick edge flew to where second slip should have been; Dravid, the lone slip, flung himself to his wrong side, and snaffled the catch as the ball was going past him (27/2 in 11.1 and Butt 13 off 36).
Shoaib Malik is naturally aggressive, but the Pakistan gameplan of circumspection appeared to have gotten to him -- the player with two nineties and a century in three games was content to push and prod at pretty much everything, and that mindset more than anything else brought about his downfall. Rudra Pratap Singh, taking over after a superb first spell Pathan (6-2-15-1), produced a bouncer with the third ball of his first over. Malik was standing outside his crease, he had moved onto the front foot before the ball was delivered; the ball grew big on him, the batsman tried to avoid, then played a half hearted pull and Irfan Pathan, racing in from square leg, dived forward to hold (9 off 25 Malik, and Pakistan 29/3 in 12.4).
That was the prelude to drama. Younis Khan was sent in ahead of the off form Mohammad Yousuf -- and the first ball he faced was a reprise of Karachi. This time, it was Singh who bowled a delivery on off straightening onto middle; Younis looked to defend, found his pad in the way, and was nailed bang in front, to yet again find himself the middle man in a possible hat-trick (29/4 in 12.5).
Mohammad Yousuf avoided the hat trick by clipping an almost identical delivery for a single, was lucky to survive an LBW appeal, and then settled down to bat with calm sense, nurdling the ball around the field, hitting through the line only on the rare occasions when length afforded and joining his captain in building a resuscitating partnership. It was grim, defensive work -- Pakistan crawled to 38/4 in 15, 70/4 in 20, 94/4 in 25 (that score had 106 dot balls in it). The two brought up the 50 of the partnership off 55 deliveries, stretched that stand to 68 runs at a healthy 5.3, and appeared to have turned things around when the wicket fell.
Ajit Agarkar, who had left the field after bowling 6/21 in the previous game due to a back problem, had a nightmare start -- he was driven straight off the first ball he bowled, creamed through point off the last ball of that over, and had given away 24 in his first four. In his fifth, he struck -- with a ball perfectly bowled through the channel, shaping in, landing in that no-man's land, then seaming fractionally away. Yousuf had to play at it, the seam found the edge, and Dhoni dived and held in front of first slip at the second attempt (29 off 40, 97/5).
That wicket forced Pakistan to do what they didn't need to -- shed a bowler, and reduce their bowling options to four full-timers plus Shoaib Malik in defense of a low-ish total. The ploy would have worked had Farhat stayed with his captain in a good stand -- but the batsman, after hitting a couple of fierce shots, went in predetermined fashion to play a lofted off drive off RP Singh. The ball was to short for the shot, Farhat flung his bat one handed at it anyway, the resulting catch was a dolly to mid off (14 off 30, and Pakistan 6/124.
Four deliveries later, Abdur Razzaq went. His batting is largely uni-dimensional -- he looks to step to leg, free his arms, and hit through and even across the line. Here, he needed dour defense -- and that mindset saw him perched on top of the crease, neither forward nor back, a sitting duck for an RP Singh delivery that angled across him, pitched close enough to find the edge on the way through to present Dhoni with an easy take.
In the midst of all the mayhem, Inzamam was his usual self -- a seemingly immovable rock, playing to merit and having so much time to play each ball that you wondered what the other batsmen were making heavy weather of. His driving, especially through the covers and straight, was effortlessly elegant, and the way he batted you figured that if he could find someone to hang with him, he could still turn this round. And then his nemesis struck -- Sachin Tendulkar, who had been bowling tight seam up at one end in a sustained spell, letting Dravid rotate his attacking bowlers at the other, produced an inswinger on a full length. Inzy rarely if ever takes a big stride in defense -- here, his front foot was on the top of the crease as the ball hit on a full length, and straightened just enough to pin him in front (8/131 in 31.1, Inzamam 49/63).
Once Singh had bowled out a potentially match-winning spell (10-0-40-4, a spell where the sole blemish was a tendency to lose control and bowl too many wides for comfort, against which he bowled a surprising proportion of potentially wicket-taking deliveries), Pathan came on -- and off his second ball, produced a very good bouncer that took Mohammad Sami by surprise -- the startled waft went straight to Agarkar on the square leg fence (147/9 in 39.2).
Pathan in the 42nd over gave away a couple of fours, then got his line and length right, produced a ball that seamed away from short of length, drew Asif into the cut, and found his edge through to end the innings on 161 with a good 8 overs and one ball to go.
The bowling on the day was spot on. There was a report a day earlier, that Greg Chappell had gotten the bowlers together and was making them work on their lines and lengths, getting them to bowl in pre-determined channels. The work the bowlers put in clearly paid off here -- barring the initial waywardness by a seemingly stiff Agarkar, and the sudden profusion of wides, mid spell, by Singh, the bowlers hardly put a foot wrong.
What could go unnoticed, though, is the fielding. Dravid for the duration of the innings had five, mostly six, men inside the ring -- and almost nothing went past them. When Yuvraj dived at point, Kaif at cover was behind him, backing up; when Kaif dived, it was with Raina racing from mid off to get behind him and cut off a possible misfield. It's the kind of performance you expect from the Australians and, at their very best, from the Proteas -- here, from a team once notorious for giving away singles to balls pushed straight to the fielders, it was eye-opening.
Pakistan finds itself at the least a 100 short of what it needed; worse, it finds itself a bowler short; still worse, the introduction of the supersub produced a partnership of a mere 27, way too little to offset the loss of the extra bowler. India, here, has to bat ineptly to lose; the smart money will be on the visitors extending their chasing streak to 12, and taking the series 3-1 with one to play.