Even as Virender Sehwag and Rahul Dravid walked out to resume their innings on the last day of the first Test, at around 3 pm local time, after a day spent in the pavilion watching paint dry -- or, at least, super soppers run around the ground mopping up the wet -- it was evident play could not continue for long.
Evident in the shadows on the ground that indicated the overhead lights had kicked in, evident in the blinking eyes and pained expression of wicket-keeper Kamran Akmal after collecting an Akthar express almost as it went past him, evident too in the grouchy expression on Inzamam-ul Haq's face, with the Pakistan skipper's expressive countenance clearly indicating that he didn't appreciate having to take his men out there just so Pakistan could find itself on the wrong end of the record books.
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76 overs and five deliveries after they began bowling with 679 runs behind their backs, Pakistan finally had cause to celebrate. And three balls later, the umpires offered the light, it was taken, and everyone walked off again -- the Pakistan team, relieved that the ordeal was over; Rahul Dravid, with 128 of the best to his name and seemingly capable of batting on till midnight, and VVS Laxman, who has been sitting in the pavilion with his pads on from the evening of day two onwards waiting for a hit, and who finally got to face one delivery in this Test.
The scorecard: 410/1 in just 77.2 overs, at a run rate of 5.30, says it all.
If Pakistan had battered India's bowling into submission, scoring its runs at a scorching 4.73 per over; India had given back better than it got. And in the process, sent out a message -- reinforced last evening, in so many words, by vice-captain Sehwag -- that trying to decide this series on batting tracks was not a viable option.
It's funny, really -- on the first day and for most of the second, as Younis, Yousuf, Afridi and Akmal put 100+ against the name of each of India's four frontline bowlers, commentator after expert rued the fact that India did not have a fifth bowler to take up the slack. 'India is missing a fifth bowler,' came word from the commentary box, over and over like a litany. By the end of a sadly truncated Test -- only 210.5 overs could be bowled out of a total possible of 450 -- Pakistan were ruing the absence of a seventh bowler, with five of its six bowlers going for plenty and Shoaib Akthar alone, who bowled with pace and heart and evident signs of the new commitment that's so much talked about, returning respectable figures.
On balance, you had to say the two teams will leave Lahore with honors even -- or tilted very marginally in favor of India. The home team heads for the second Test aware that containing the Indian batting lineup is going to be a task and a half; the Indians take away the knowledge that their bowlers will be able to make inroads against the opposition only if the wickets offer some sign of a pulse.
At the end of it all, you are tempted to salute three awesome players. First, Younis Khan: at the start of a Test series with so much riding on it, nerves are inevitable; when Salman Butt managed to get himself run out on the first morning, that early loss plus nerves could well have triggered a slide. If Pakistan mounted an enormous batting effort, much of the credit needs to go to the ever-smiling vice captain who, from the moment he came out and opened with a back foot punch, eased those nerves and batted with admirable freedom of expression, guiding -- even goading -- his two partners along before a third came along and ran him out tragically short of a double hundred he richly deserved.
Mohammad Yousuf batted with refreshing insouciance; Shahid Afridi with malevolent intent; Kamran Akmal with nonchalant freedom -- but those three centurions will likely be the first to admit that it was the calming presence of Younis Khan that freed their minds, and their bats; that he was the fount fountainhead from whence their freedom sprung.
Then, Rahul Dravid: For weeks now, he has with stoic calm endured a firestorm he did nothing to cause, or deserve. By all accounts, he did not know on the morning of the Test that he would end up having to open, after having jettisoned his opener to accommodate his former captain. For two days, he saw his bowling attack dismembered, and his team seemingly falling to pieces around him on the field, on his very first testing assignment -- and he must through it all have been aware of that sub-stratum of opinion that is willing him to fail.
With all that baggage, he came out in pursuit of 679, and batted with a flint-eyed, hard-jawed determination (and trademark technical competence) that limns, even defines, the spirit he says he wants to inculcate in this side.
And finally, Virendra Sehwag -- who, yet again, pulled his team along in the slipstream of his insouciant brilliance. As he walked out to bat on the evening of the second day, Ramiz Raja in the commentary box spoke of his 'destructive' innings in the first innings of the first Test at Multan, March 2004. It was a 'devastating' knock, Raja said; it knocked the heart out of Pakistan.
Really? In that knock, he scored 309 runs off 375 deliveries, with 39 fours and six sixes. When he was finally out here this afternoon, defying light in pursuit of a record, he had hit up 254 runs off just 247 deliveries with a mind-bending 47 boundaries besides the one six; he had mocked all attempts to set a field for him by finessing 7 fours to third man, crashing 11 through point and blasting 14 through the covers, easing six through long off and three through long on besides the one six, and gliding four through midwicket and a further two behind square on the on. And he had done all this with a crook ankle, on which he hobbled through much of his innings.
Having already used up 'destructive', 'devastating', and suchlike superlatives for an earlier effort, what was left? Just a shrug of the shoulders and a one-word salute to arguably contemporary cricket's rawest, most untamed, most elemental force: Sehwag.
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