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Two-all or Game and Series, Pakistan

By Nimish Dubey
(nimish@enableall.org)


As I mentioned in my curtain raiser to the series, cricket is a funny game. Before the ODI series got underway, everyone was talking about how this was India's best chance to defeat Pakistan. Three matches into the series, it is India who have their backs to the wall.  The hosts need to win just one of the two remaining matches to wrap up the series. India on the other hand have to do something they have never managed before - chalk up consecutive ODI wins on Pakistani soil.

India: one batsman too many?

Mind you, the task facing India is not impossible. The Pakistan team should be more susceptible to nerves and the pressure of the home crowd, given its relative inexperience. There is also the matter of the Indian batting line-up that is potentially among the best in the business. It is the word 'potentially' that is critical in that last sentence. While there is no doubting that India have some of the best batsmen in world cricket, it is also a fact that the Indian team has lost five of its last seven matches.  In four of these, the much-vaunted batting line-up fell embarrassingly flat on its face (Irfan Pathan actually top scored in one of those matches, if my memory serves me right). All of which makes one wonder what the team is gaining through its policy of making Rahul Dravid keep wicket to include an extra batsman in the line-up. If a batting line up that has the likes of Tendulkar, Sehwag, Ganguly, Dravid and Laxman in its ranks needs an extra batsman or two, then surely something is amiss.

The alarming aspect of this 'extra batsman' policy is that it has often left India a bowler or two short. So if the batting fails, the team simply does not have the bowling resources to make a match of it! Ironically, victory is by no means assured even if the batting succeeds. This is because the bowling is not too strong - witness what happened in Karachi where India struggled even after its batsmen had run up a colossal 349! The absence of an extra specialist bowler came to the fore again in Peshawar when Pakistan recovered from 65-4 to win the match because India simply did not have the bowlers to pressurise them.

And it's no point bemoaning the absence of all-rounders. Yuvraj, Sehwag, Tendulkar and Ganguly can all bowl and have, at different times, won matches with their bowling but they seldom bowl regularly. Sehwag did not bowl at Peshawar, Yuvraj was magnificent at Rawalpindi but did not bowl at Karachi and got a single over towards the end of the Peshawar match. Even specialist all rounder Ramesh Powar bowled fewer overs than Tendulkar and Ganguly at Peshawar when India desperately needed wickets. How on earth are all-rounders supposed to develop in these conditions?
 
Perhaps it is time that the 'extra batsman' practice was laid to rest and a specialist bowler included in his place.  And what better time to make the change than before the crucial match at Lahore? I would bring in Bhandari or Kartik for either Kaif or Laxman. But honestly, I cannot see the Indian team doing this just yet. There is a chance that Zaheer may miss out, given his performance so far but his experience could see him hang on to his place. Laxman has looked far from fit and there could be a chance for Badani to come in!

Pakistan: will they keep going?

Meanwhile, the Pakistan camp must be wondering at its own good fortune. The team's batting was considered its weak point but has come good in all three matches. Inzamam-ul-Haq seems to be in good touch, Yasir Hameed is perhaps turning out to be the batsman of the series while Abdur Razzaq cannot stop scoring down the order. Even the bowling seems to be sorting itself out after an indifferent start. Sami, Shabbir and Akhtar are causing a few problems while Shoaib Malik is quietly turning his arm over without conceding too many. The addition of Afridi has given the fielding a bit of a fillip as well and added an extra bowling option if needed.

Of course, it is not all roses for the hosts. For one, they still seem to be following a puzzling strategy. Although Inzamam has won the toss in all three matches, he has twice elected to bowl first, defying all conventional wisdom. It is a strange move from a team whose batting is supposed to be suspect. Surely it would be easier setting a target than chasing one? Well, Inzamam seems to think differently. And then there is also the question of pressure. Thus far, the Indians were the favourites and the Pakistanis had nothing to lose. The tables have now been turned and it remains to be seen how the team will react to the new situation.

Team changes? I cannot see any. Taufiq Umar would have played if Hameed had failed at Peshawar but Hameed's 98 has perhaps got him the opener's slot for the rest of the series. There is no real need to change the other batsmen or bowlers, barring injury. My money is on Pakistan fielding the same side that won at Peshawar.

The theatre of action: Lahore

All of which brings us to the venue of the last two matches of the series - Lahore. Pakistan have a respectable ODI record here, winning 23 and losing ten matches whereas India have won one and lost two. Although the wicket is expected to favour batting, the fact that both matches will be played under lights could make a difference. The pitch does offer more bounce than the ones generally seen in the country, although it can hardly be called a hard or quick track. Dew is often a factor at Lahore and while teams bowling second may get some reverse swing going in the evening, gripping the ball will be a tough task for the fielders as well as the bowlers. So should the team winning the toss bat first or bowl? This is going to be a tricky question, although I am one of those who believe that batting first in a day-night match is always the safer option.

India have some happy memories of Lahore. Kapil Dev's 8-85, the best bowling in a Test by an Indian in Pakistan, came at this venue, as did Sanjay Manjarekar's 218, the highest Test score by an Indian in Pakistan. The current group of players may have to come up with efforts on similar lines in the one-day game if India is to keep the series alive.

Before signing off, I must congratulate a couple of our subscribers on their pitch-reading ability. Vikas Kapoor saw something that none of the so-called experts did - the fact that the Peshawar wicket could play differently from the ones at Karachi and Rawalpindi. Similarly, while most people have been talking about the state of the pitch at Lahore, Nilendra was quick to highlight the importance of the role played by dew on the playing surface. Now, if only the teams had brains like those in their think-tank!

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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