BOWLERS' NIGHTMARE

PAKISTAN was negating its own advantage, a stronger pace attack than India's, by opting for such a wicket, says S. DINAKAR

The first Allianz Test had slipped into the realm of the past, when one of the local mediapersons, answering questions from a television channel on his mobile, summed up the match wonderfully well. His voice boomed in the press box — "Yeh Test ballebazon ke liye Jannat aur gendbazon ke liye kabarsthan thi (This Test proved a heaven for batsmen and a graveyard for bowlers)."

Indeed, it was. Rarely do we come across a pitch as suitable for batting as the one prepared for the first Test at Lahore's Gaddafi Stadium. Bowlers looked towards the sky in anguish while batsmen gleefully struck the ball past or over the ropes in a duel loaded in their favour.

A fair contest between bat and ball is what makes Test cricket a gripping affair. You expect pace and movement on day one and two, and the pitch to take turn as the match progresses. On the surface for the first Test, the batsmen could get on to their front foot blindfolded and hit through the line for the fielders to be chasing leather. The bowlers became mere cannon fodder. There were the odd moments of challenge when Rahul Dravid and Virender Sehwag had to grapple with some quick bowling from Shoaib Akhtar who, due to the sheer strength of his shoulder and an action which the biomechanics believe stems from a deformity to his bowling arm, managed to extract surprising bounce on such a placid track.

Predictably , batting records were set aplenty. Sehwag (254, 247b, 47x4, 1x6) and Dravid (128 not out, 233b, 19x4) batting for an astonishing 76.5 overs, gravely threatened the 50-year-old 413-run opening wicket record between Vinoo Mankad and Pankaj Roy before Sehwag nicked a short-pitched delivery from paceman Rana Naved-ul-Hasan three short of the mark on the final day. It was a phenomenal stand — in terms of concentration, coming up with a strong response after more than five sessions of fielding, and the sheer enormity of the runs scored in strikingly contrasting styles — by a first wicket pair forced to come together by circumstances. For Pakistan, Younis Khan and Mohammad Yousuf, the former Yousuf Youhana, cracked positive hundreds, Shahid Afridi blasted his way to the seventh fastest century in Tests and Kamran Akmal whipped up the quickest three-figure innings by a wicket-keeper batsman in Tests. The bowlers, on both sides, were simply pounded into irrelevance.

The Test was also seriously disrupted by the dark, cloudy and misty Lahore winter. To be fair to curator Haji Bashir, the fog and the rain could have prevented him from preparing a livelier track — visibility in the northern parts of the sub-continent during this time of the year is poor. He might have also been forced to keep the pitch covered for long periods. Though, this still does not explain why every blade of grass was removed from the pitch. The wicket, that was rolled excessively, lacked hardness and the resultant bounce. A measure of grass on the pitch could have at least assisted seam movement. Pakistan was negating its own advantage, a stronger pace attack than India's, by opting for such a wicket.

IN A THREE-TEST SERIES, where the first match assumes much importance, Pakistan could have gained a psychological advantage and momentum through a pace bowling thrust in the first Test. After all, it was on a green-top in Lahore that paceman Umar Gul bowled Pakistan to an emphatic victory over India in 2004. Yet, it did appear that the home team was concerned about the vulnerability of its own line-up in such conditions. And why the Pakistan Cricket Board's suggestion of holding the first Test in Karachi, where the weather, even during this time of the year, is sunny and clear, was not accepted by its Indian counterpart is open to question. The series, this way, could have begun on a brighter note. Come to think of it, the Test at the Gaddafi Stadium may not have produced a result even with a more sporting pitch, considering how much time was lost to bad weather. All the more reason why Karachi might have been the ideal venue for the first Test.

The batsmen certainly made most of the opportunity in Lahore — none more so than Sehwag and Dravid. How the latest Indian opening combination came into being was not without drama.

The presence of Sourav Ganguly in the squad meant that he had to be fitted into the XI to avoid the unpleasantness of having a former captain on the reserve bench — a scenario that would certainly not have added to the ambience in the dressing room. Yuvraj Singh's two crucial half-centuries against Sri Lanka meant he had earned the right to stay in the XI. The axe, predictably, fell on opener Gautam Gambhir who had performed well in the tour game at the picture perfect Bagh-e-Jinnah.

Much of the talk revolved around Ganguly opening the innings when Dravid put his hand up. Television cameras caught the captain and the former captain in an animated discussion during the nets before the toss. "It was just cricketing talk. Too much should not be read into it. I had made up my mind to open the night before the match," Dravid said. So it was Dravid who walked out with Sehwag after Pakistan, electing to bat, had posted a gargantuan 679 for seven. Irrespective of the state of the wicket, there was a lot of pressure on the Indians because of the mountain of runs that needed to be scored. Dravid, with studious defence and impeccable judgment outside the off-stump, and Sehwag's stinging shots, in the wide arc between covers and third man, powered India ahead.

After several interruptions on days three and four, the two entered the final day on the threshold of a record — they were just 10 runs short of the magical 413. Following a seemingly endless wait on day five, play finally resumed at 2.20 p.m. And the proceedings lasted just 12 minutes. There was time enough though for the otherwise expensive Rana Naved to snare Sehwag with his third short-pitched delivery, which the batsman only managed to nick to the wicket-keeper while attempting another upper-cut. The Indian opening pair had fallen three runs short of equalling the record. "We enjoyed what we achieved together more than being disappointed about what we missed. It was a joy watching Sehwag bat from the other end", said Dravid later.

Man of the match Sehwag, searching for form ahead of the effort, struck 47 boundaries in the knock, the most fours in a Test after England's John Edrich who had struck a pulse-pounding 52 boundaries in his epic knock of 310 not out against New Zealand in Headingley in 1965. Sehwag also reached his hundred in 93 deliveries, bettering, by a ball, the earlier record for the quickest Test hundred by an Indian opener set by the peerless Sunil Gavaskar in the Delhi Test of 1983 against West Indies. Furthermore, Sehwag's double century in 182 balls was the second fastest in Test history. Dravid essentially blunted the attack. He also essayed some gorgeous cover-drives and strokes off his legs.

Speaking of double hundreds, Younis (199) was desperately unlucky to be run out when just short of one. Mohammad Yousuf unleashed some expansive cover-drives in his gorgeous innings (173), which set the stage for the end-innings blitz from Afridi and Akmal. Afridi (103) blazed his way to the second quickest hundred by a Pakistani in Tests — the feature of his innings being the four successive sixes off off-spinner Harbhajan Singh — and the fleet-footed Akmal (102 not out) went on to better his idol Adam Gilchrist's record for the fastest Test hundred by a wicket-keeper.

Asked about the preparation of such a pitch, Inzamam quipped, "I am not a groundsman." He also said, "Only the batsmen were visible in the match. The bowlers were invisible." The Pakistan captain had got his words just right.