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All or Nothing at Lahore

By Nimish Dubey
(nimish@enableall.org)


If they gave away awards to those who wrote the script for cricket matches, the ongoing India-Pakistan cricket series would have picked up a few of them. Right from Inzamam’s decidedly eccentric decision to bat first at Karachi to Ganguly’s obsession with using Tendulkar in the slog overs to Pakistan’s bowlers serving up more extras than a Bollywood movie, the action has been anything but predictable. And while purists might quibble at the quality of the cricket on offer, there have been thrills aplenty. Given what has happened so far, it would be a brave person who would venture to predict the outcome of the deciding match at Lahore. Still, it would only be fair to try doing so. Form, what form? At the very outset, it would be prudent to throw current form out of the window. For notwithstanding the presence of so many world-class performers, consistency has been at a premium in the series. So there are many players due for a good score or spell! Regardless of all the initial prattle of this being a battle between the mighty Indian batting line-up and the equally formidable Pakistani bowling battery, the series has basically been a face-off between the two teams' batsmen. Of course, the bowlers did lord it over somewhat at Peshawar, but apart from that aberration batting has ruled the day, or night, depending on when the game was played. Ironically, in spite of this run monsoon, most of the mainline batsmen have not really been in the best of form. Dravid, Inzamam and Hameed have been the only consistent performers. The remainder – Tendulkar, Sehwag, Youhana, Kaif, Yuvraj, Ganguly, Laxman – have either been totally out of sorts or only played the odd good innings or two. Even so, the batsmen have outperformed the bowlers by far. If that sounds difficult to believe then just consider that not a single bowler has managed to take four wickets in a match so far. Add to this the fact that only once has a bowler gone for under four runs an over in a match and that over 120 runs have been conceded though wides and no-balls alone, and you get an idea of just how bad the bowling has been. And bad is putting it mildly. While there has been the odd good spell from the Pakistani pacemen, they have conceded far too many extras to have an impact. In fact, Pakistan have redefined cricketing hospitality by serving up at least five poor deliveries for every good one bowled. That is not to say that the Indians have fared much better. Pathan has looked incisive in his opening spells but mediocre with the old ball, Zaheer has been patchy and Kartik's good spell at Lahore is counterbalanced by his less than impressive display at Karachi. Completing the picture of India's bowling misery is captain Sourav Ganguly's strange handling of the attack – he has so far reposed greater faith in Tendulkar than in some of the more regular bowlers in the team! Could it be a bowlers' ball? There are, however, some indications that the final match of the series may actually see the bowlers playing a major role. And no, this is not mere wishful thinking. Quite surprisingly, not much attention has been paid to the fact that Sunday's match at Lahore was actually played on the wicket meant for today's match! The reason for this change was that the wicket meant for Sunday's match seemed far too dry and the authorities suspected that it would break up too easily. Now, one does not know which wicket today’s match will be played on, but the fact is that in either situation the bowlers have reason for optimism. If the same pitch is used, it is a fair chance that the wear and tear caused by the earlier match will result in some uneven bounce. On the other hand, if the new pitch is used, one cannot be too sure if two days of intense watering would have bound it enough, so there could once again be a chance of the ball doing something after hitting the surface. Add to this the fact that Lahore traditionally offers some bounce to the bowlers and that there is some reverse swing to be found in the evening, and you can see why I think that the bowlers could play a crucial role in the finale of this series. The toss, changes, etc. India are unlikely to make any changes to the team that won on Sunday. Although there will be those who feel that Badani should be given a chance ahead of the less than impressive Laxman, Ganguly is not known for tinkering with winning teams. Personally, I would like to see Powar come in for Laxman as that would not only mean an extra bowler, but would also give Dravid and Ganguly a chance to move up the batting order. Pakistan's bowlers have perhaps been the biggest disappointments of the series so far. In four matches, they have only once succeeded in restricting the opposition to a score below 290 – hardly the performance one expects from one of the world's best bowling line-ups. It is therefore surprising that Pakistan have not made even a single attempt to tinker with its bowling, going into every match with the same frontline bowlers – Akhtar, Sami, Ahmed, Razzaq and Malik. In retrospect, they would have done well to play Saqlain at some stage. It might well be too late to bring in a new player now. Of course, if I had a say in matters, I would bring in Saqlain for the highly erratic Shabbir Ahmed. Which brings us to the toss. While batting first might be the thing to do at most venues in Pakistan, Lahore might be a different story. On Sunday, the side that bowled first definitely had the edge, especially with dew making fielding and gripping the ball extremely difficult towards the end of the match. Nonetheless, I would stick to my old-fashioned ways and recommend batting first. The rationale is simple – with the series in the balance, the pressure is going to be much more on the team batting second even if the target is modest. My prediction? Well, if Pakistan seemed set to canter home a few days ago, the force seems to be very much with India right now. I would place the visitors 55-45 favourites to record their first ever ODI series victory in Pakistan. A final word of advice: do not get too taken in by all the ridiculous talk of mental strength and psychological warfare. The truth is that neither team is too good at handling public pressure. So it really makes no difference if the Indian players go into huddles at the drop a hat or if Pakistan are getting sledging tips from Javed Miandad. At the end of it all, it is all going to boil down to who gets a better start! Do you agree with our Pundit’s conclusions or do you think he’s missing a trick (or a few marbles)? In either case, feel free to mail him at nimish@enableall.org





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