No Sehwag. No Sachin. No Irfan. No problem.
The interesting aspect of India's new-found expertise on the chase is the complete absence of panic. There was a period, for instance, between the 16th and the 25 over when just 45 runs were scored, and the ask crept up from 6.22 to 6.92.
Iftikhar Rao (first spell 6-0-20-1) and Yasir Arafat (6-0-25-0) were bowling tight lines on the one side of the wicket that was packed with fielders, fours were drying up and singles seemed impossible to find. That sort of thing, in times gone by, would signal panic-stricken heaves and a flurry of wickets -- here, Rahul Dravid and Yuvraj Singh stayed calm, kept ticking the board over, nodded at each other, and kept going.
It signaled the kind of confidence the team must be wishing it could bottle up, and swig from before every game and knowing that strikers of the caliber of Dhoni, Raina and Powar to come must help ease those nerves.
India has in the recent past tended on big chases to try and pull ahead with some blistering batting at the top to reduce the ask, and then taking it home. Here, it was more like a well-paced marathon, with India staying just behind the host's shoulder through much of the match, keeping wickets in hand for the finishing kick.
The progression tells the story: India after 5 overs 17/0 (Pakistan 36/0); and from there on, in 5 over segments, it was 42/0 (54/0); 69/1 (77/3); 86/1 (101/3); 114/1 (127/4) and, after 30, 141/1 (151/4).
The early impetus was courtesy Gautam Gambhir. Strangely, Pakistan's opening bowlers passed up on the short ball against a batsman who, twice in this series, has gotten out to that delivery; permitted to come on the front foot and stay there, Gambhir prospered with some fluent drives square on the off, and some flashes through and over the slips.
The first bouncer that came his way was in the 15th over, from Rao Iftikhar -- and the batsman yet again mishit a shot he would do well to cut out of his vocabulary, put the ball up in the air, and was lucky to see Mohammad Sami at square leg bail out of a simple catch on the ground that he had somehow lost track of the ball. The reprieve lasted just two deliveries the last ball of the same over was angled across the left hander, Gambhir had a slash, got the thick edge to Akmal, and walked back with India 69/1.
Tight bowling by Rao, who took over from the profligate Sami (6-0-36-0) and Arafat becalmed the Indian innings at the fall of the wicket, producing just 7 runs in the next four overs before Yuvraj Singh, promoted to number three on the back of a series to die for, began finding the range and timing on his drives. From there on, it was all Yuvraj -- and the interest facet of his game was the adjustment he made to his play to counter a track where the ball had begun to slow down (It happens a lot in Karachi, Waqar Younis had said before the game).
After playing a touch early in the initial part of his innings, Yuvraj took to moving forward or back on length, then waiting, wrist cocked, and using the snappy release of the wrist, rather than his more normal extension of the arms, to power his shots.
Dravid, whose first 30 runs had come off just 40 deliveries against the next 20 in 46, got becalmed precisely because he did not factor in that adjustment, and kept going too hard, and too early, at the ball. Not that it mattered too much -- Yuvraj was hitting them well enough for both, and Dravid took singles when he could and let his in-form partner do the hard work. The 50 of their partnership (64 balls) reflected the imbalance -- Yuvraj's contribution was 31 off 34, Dravid's 14 off 31.
At 141/1 at the end of 30 overs, India had positioned itself for the business end of the chase when Dravid fell. Mohammad Sami, in the first ball of his comeback over, produced a slower delivery that Dravid misread; he aimed a drive through the off side but when ball met bat, it was almost at the fullest extension of the follow through; Dravid merely managed to scoop it up to mid on to hold (50 off 82 balls, 6 fours, 23 singles and 1 two).
With the asking rate by then around the 6.9 mark, out came Dhoni, who these days seems to bat to a formula all his own. The other day, after his 72 not out off 46 at Lahore, he told the Dean Jones, ringside, that he waits for 10 deliveries to get a feel for the pitch and the bowling before "playing my natural game". Here, he meticulously counted them out -- and then went bang, thumping a perfectly good delivery back past the bowler to get the adrenalin flowing.
Yuvraj, who while Dhoni was getting his radar fixed completed yet another 50 (off 52 balls), promptly eased off on the hitting, focused on the singles, and let his partner do the work -- another recent trend for this team where, in the business end of the chase, one batsman (Yuvraj in Lahore, Dhoni himself the other day while Raina went nuts) slips back down the gears and gives it to the other guy to take it away.
At the 40 over mark, India were positioned just behind Pakistan's shoulder -- 205/2, against 210/4; the third wicket pair had by then raised the partnership's 52 off 49 balls (Yuvraj 18 off 18, Dhoni 28 off 31). The ask, by then, had gone to 82 off 60, and the theory of wickets in hand was tested. So, too, Yuvraj's (82 not out at the time) mental strength. Off the last ball of the 41st the last ball, also, of an outstanding spell of controlled seam by Rao Iftikhar -- he stroked a straight four, aided by a misfield at long on by Shoaib Malik, but in racing between wickets, he appeared to have done his hamstring, and collapsed mid-pitch. After prolonged mid-field treatment, Yuvraj limped back to his guard, batting on one leg with Gambhir to do the running for him -- and creamed 15 runs off the next 5 deliveries he faced. I guess when you are in the sort of form the left-hander is in just now, you can make runs from a wheelchair.
Experience is what you do with it -- Abdur Razzaq, the most seasoned bowler on the field, bowled wide to Dhoni (4); then down the leg to Yuvraj (4 -- and the 100 of the partnership up in just 79 deliveries, the ask down to 43 off 37). In the same over, a drive into the covers got Yuvraj to his 6th ODI century -- off just 90 deliveries, an effort that had the dressing room on its feet, hands overhead, applauding. The innings had 14 boundaries, which you expect from him; it also had 33 singles and 5 twos to 37 dot balls. Dhoni celebrated by lofting Arafat over long on, and at the 45 over mark, the chase was effectively over with India 259/2 (Pakistan 245/6); Dhoni off the last ball of the 45th bringing up yet another 50 (46 balls) and in the process, reducing the ask to 28 from 30.
Having gotten things where he wanted them, Dhoni then greeted Asif with a blazing four through point off the first ball of the 46th, swatted him over long off for a six off the next ball, then finished up the over with a four off a dipping yorker length ball. Up next, Sami -- same result, this time a bit wider at long off, followed up with another swat, over wide long on by way of variety -- both shots off identical deliveries, what's more. The man has ice flowing through his veins, seemingly.
A single ended it, taking India home with as many as eight wickets and a tick over three overs to spare, to complete the series 4-1 and nail a 13th successive chase. Yuvraj limped back at the end of an innings he will remember for life, through a guard of honor drawn up by his team-mates.
Right at the end, a pretty vignette -- "Thanks for the win, Yuvi", Dhoni said as the two were interviewed on the boundary rope. And then this: "When I went out to bat, the coach told me the score should be around 206 at the end of the 40th over, so I focused on that and then we went on from there." Score after 40? 205/2 -- talk of precision chasing.
If India was looking to the dead rubber to learn more about the qualities of some of its players, the first half of the game proved to be a mixed bag.
The positives, first: India learnt -- or rather, was given a refresher course -- in the fact that Sreesanth is an aggressive strike bowler, and needs to be used with a new ball in hand and plenty of men in close catching positions. Second, they learnt that off spinner Ramesh Powar has the stomach for the big game, and the ability to keep things in control even on a pitch like this where spin is not your go-to option. And third, it learnt that its fielding has developed the ability, and confidence, to shut batsmen down and lend teeth to the bowling (at the end of 30 overs, with Pakistan's score on 151/4, there were just 46 singles to 101 dot balls, and it wasn't for want of trying -- the inner ring, backed by swift legs in the outfield, was positively electric).
On the minus side, the team learnt that both Ajit Agarkar and Zaheer Khan have lost the aggressive edge that makes for good new ball bowlers. Agarkar, earlier in this series, has indicated that he can bowl controlled spells coming in as first change with an older ball; Zaheer Khan on the other hand has been just plain pedestrian.
With the two new ball bowlers being pretty prodigal in their lines and lengths, Pakistan's opening pair of Imran Farhat and Kamran Akmal cashed in, racing to 36/0 (with six wides) in the first five overs, and 54/0 in 10.
Sreesanth got his first bowl of the innings in the 11th over and struck with his 5th delivery. Having pitched the previous four deliveries up and gotten Farhat onto the front foot, the bowler produced a quick, well directed bouncer hitting off and middle and straightening into the body of the batsman. A surprised Farhat had no time to avoid; he ended up flailing at it for the bowler to run down the pitch and hold on the follow through.
The first ball of his second over was another interesting lifter. The ball was angling across Akmal, landing leg and seaming back in. Playing the line, Akmal looked to flick off the pads, found the ball growing on him and coming in, and could only put it high in the air for Rudra Pratap Singh to run in from fine leg and hold a good outfield catch.
The ball that did for Shoaib Malik, in his third over, was the best of the three wickets. He had earlier in the over bowled a good length delivery in the off channel from very close to the stumps, and seen the batsman wait back and punch the drive on the rise through the covers. With his fourth ball, he swung wide of the crease at the last moment, hit the identical length but angled it in from wide of the crease and again, made it kick off length. Malik again shaped for the drive, was foxed by the different angle, and got the edge for Raina at a slightly backward point to hold on the dive.
The wickets, plus great ground fielding, restricted Pakistan to 47 runs between overs 11-20. Ramesh Powar got a go in the 22nd -- and struck immediately. Off the fourth ball of his first over, Inzamam shimmied down the track and launched him over the wide midwicket fence; the offie, with his next ball, bowled a very full length, making the ball go through with the arm to defeat Inzy's paddle and hit him in front (Inzamam 21 off 20, Pakistan 115/4).
From that point on, Mohammad Yousuf and Younis Khan joined hands to steady the innings, batting well within themselves, eschewing extravagant strokeplay, and pushing the ball around to keep the board ticking over. Yousuf was the more aggressive of the two, ending a nightmare run in this series with some authoritative strokeplay in which the drives, especially on the off, stood out. Younis was content to just hold his end up; thus, the 50 partnership (71 balls) saw Yousuf contribute 36 off 40, while Younis contributed 15 off 34).
Powar, who coupled good control and variations, mostly in line and pace, with an ability to stay cool under pressure, helped keep things in check during his period, bowling his ten on the trot to end with very impressive figures on a pitch that really had nothing on offer for him. His consistency also meant India did not have to try any part-time options.
The association stretched to 95 and was beginning to look increasingly authoritative (93 runs in the 15 overs between 26-40, to bring Pakistan to a fighting 210/4 at the end of the 40th), when Agarkar, coming back in the 41st with the older ball, took out Yousuf with a good slower ball on the full length. The batsman looked to hit over the top of wide midwicket, but was foxed by the change down in pace and managed only to loft it down Zaheer Khan's gullet in the deep (67/85).
The wicket, however, brought Abdur Razzaq out at that point in the game where he is happiest. Agarkar's next over, the 43rd, disappeared for 13 including a free flowing loft over midwicket for six and an effective swing down to fine leg for four. Before he could really get stuck in, however, RP Singh in his last over took him out to a good short ball and a rank bad shot. The ball didn't climb as much as the length dictated; Razzaq had a swing at it, misjudged the height and only managed to put it high in the air for midwicket to run in and hold (239/6; Razzaq 24 off 15).
The two wickets meant that Pakistan managed just 35 runs in the five overs between 41-45. Younis Khan got his 50 in the 46th over (64 deliveries) but with India bowling a mixture of Agarkar, Sreesanth and Zaheer Khan, the bowlers held their line -- and their nerve -- to ensure there were no real late fireworks. Zaheer redeemed himself with a good comeback over at the death, foxing the flailing bat of Yasir Arafat with a good slower ball on leg stump (261/7; Zaheer three runs in the 48th).
In the 49th, Sreesanth claimed his fourth with a low full toss that Mohammad Sami hit straight to Kaif on the off (264/8). Zaheer's final over, though, went big -- with Younis Khan opening his shoulders and the bowler dropping them in the good length slot, two successive sixes over extra cover and long off powered an effort that produced 18 runs, to end the innings on 286/8.
The hosts have a good score on the board, with 76 runs coming for four wickets in the slog phase, though you had to figure something in excess of 300 is more par for this track. That in fact makes it a good all-round bowling performance, given India was without Pathan here. India, on the chase, are without two of their main engines -- Sehwag, out through injury and Sachin Tendulkar, who is being rested here. Sets up an interesting second innings -- and a chance for the team to see if its nerve, and its reserve strength, is good enough to keep its chasing streak alive.