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Rivalry to resume at Rawalpindi!

Nimish Dubey
(nimish@enableall.org)


Call me a conceited person, but I cannot help feeling a little smug. Did I not say that India-Pakistan matches were potential humdingers (if you don’t remember me saying that, take a look at Curtain Raiser dated 12th March, 2004)? What a start to the series – a world record aggregate of runs scored, sensational batting and a last ball finish. That is the stuff of legend and cardiac arrests!

Reasons to celebrate

On the surface, India have much to be glad about. Although not at full strength (no Laxman, Kumble, Agarkar or Harbhajan), the team batted brilliantly and fielded well under pressure to shut out the hosts at Karachi. Most of the top order got runs and Kaif made a successful return to the side. On the bowling front, Nehra and Zaheer bowled well at the death and even Murali Kartik staged a good recovery after taking some stick earlier on from Inzamam and Youhana.

Pakistan can also take heart from their performance. Their batting was supposed to be weak but it almost matched to the much-hyped Indian line-up. Inzamam-ul-Haq finally struck form after a spell that contained as many runs as rains in the Sahara. Youhana and Younis batted well under pressure and Razzaq once again displayed his ability to score quickly at the death. Even on the bowling front, Shoaib Malik bowled a tidy spell while the other Shoaib (Akhtar) did manage to look menacing in his second spell after a disastrous start.

…and reasons to worry

But if both sides will be only fooling themselves if they feel that they have only gained from the run-feast in Karachi. For one, both teams bowled horribly. India conceded 300-plus runs for the third limited overs match in succession while Pakistan redefined erratic bowling by sending down a number of wides and no-balls – extra runs and deliveries which in the end cost them the match. The fielding was not much to write home about and even the batting was downright eccentric at times. How else can one explain a team with 300-odd on the board and wickets in hand getting a mere 25 runs in the final five overs?

There were times when one felt that both teams were trying desperately to lose the match (Is this part of the ‘friendship’ initiative?). Inzamam began a comedy of errors by inexplicably electing to bowl when batting first seemed to be the only rational option available. He then took his own time to bring on a slower bowler even as all his pacemen were being carted all over the park. Incidentally, I am still racking my brains to find out why Yasir Hamid got only one over when all he conceded were five runs. Ganguly too seemed to be in a world of his own at times, not giving a single over to Badani or Yuvraj, both alleged all-rounders, even as Pakistan ran amock.

If one looks objectively at the Karachi match, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Pakistan may actually have gained more than India. Ganguly’s men had an opportunity to rub the hosts’ faces in the dust but instead they allowed them to almost pull off a miraculous victory.  A heavy defeat would have meant no end of public criticism for Inzamam and his men. But a well-contested loss is another matter altogether.   While Pakistan will be under pressure to level the series, they will not be burdened by the outcry that would have inevitably followed a poor performance.

What’s in store at Rawalpindi

So what will Rawalpindi serve up? Well, India have, quite amazingly, never played an international match at the venue! Pakistan have played 13 and won 10 times – a formidable record. The wicket is supposed to have as much life as an Egyptian mummy and another run feast could well be on the cards – this was the ground on which Gary Kirsten savaged the UAE for an unbeaten 188 in 1996. Mind you, part of the match will be played under lights in the night. And that is a time when the white ball does start to swing a lot. Whoever wins the toss should bat first, notwithstanding Inzamam’s decidedly eccentric move to bowl first at Karachi.

Now, one of my pet theories is that on a wicket that suits batsmen, it is the bowlers who make a difference. The rationale for this is simple – if the wicket is easy to bat on, the batsmen can only be pressurised by good bowling.  Pakistan do possess the better bowling attack by far, but it badly misfired at Karachi. The indications are that Shabbir Ahmed will be fit for the match and will replace Naved-ul-Hassan (he who bowled no fewer than half a dozen wides and no balls in his opening over at Karachi). His inclusion could make Pakistan’s attack arguably the fastest in world cricket today. Another player who could get the nod is maverick all rounder Shahid Afridi who might open the innings, given the less-than-convincing show by the Pakistani openers in the first match. His handy leg spin will also add some depth to the Pakistani attack that looked short of options at Karachi.

India are not likely to make any changes, unless forced by injury. At the time of writing both skipper Sourav Ganguly and last over hero Ashish Nehra were looking doubtful starters. While Ganguly is likely to recover, risking Nehra might not be a good option. Which may open the door for Irfan Pathan. If VVS Laxman returns, it is likely that the luckless Badani will miss out. There is also a chance that Romesh Pawar might make his debut, replacing Murali Kartik. Kartik was expensive at Karachi and Pawar’s batting ability does make him seem a useful customer for the shorter version of the game.

So who is going to win? The smart money will be on India, given their batting strength and Pakistan’s lack of consistency. However, it is unlikely that Pakistan will bowl as badly as they did in the opening ODI and that could make batting a much tougher experience for Tendulkar, Dravid and Co. And perhaps it would be pertinent to mention that this is Shoaib Akhtar’s home town.
 
Logic says that India should run out winners. But my instinct says that Pakistan could spring a surprise or two!

Do you agree with our Pundit’s conclusions or do you think he’s missing out a trick or two? In either case, feel free to mail him at nimish@enableall.org.

 



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