It's all in the mind

While talent, technique and fitness remain key ingredients, it is the mind that provides a team the winning edge. If the Pakistanis came out strong right at the end of the series, and India dished out tame, soft cricket, it was a case of surging confidence on one side and a mental fade-out on the other, writes S. DINAKAR.

THERE is an old saying in cricket - "When you have the adversary down, make sure that the side disintegrates physically and mentally."

Former Australia captain Steve Waugh was a strong advocate of this rather ruthless approach. So was Ian Chappell, so was Allan Border, at least in the latter half of his tenure as captain when Australia reclaimed its stature as a strong, vibrant cricketing force.

And the logic behind the theory was simple. The sides that overcome tough situations, generally regroup, blend well and become resilient.

While the failure of India's celebrated batting line-up, that resorted to ultra-defensive tactics, to last the final two sessions on a spinning but not unplayable Chinnaswamy Stadium pitch will haunt the side in the days ahead, the actual turning point of the series arrived at Mohali on day five. Pakistan, just 53 ahead and with only four wickets remaining, scripted a great escape, aided by some ordinary Indian bowling, and the side regained an essential quality — self belief.

In a 1-1 scoreline, there is no victor and the vanquished, yet the Pakistanis celebrated and the Indians slipped into a bout of depression. It was ecstasy for Inzamam, and agony for Ganguly. It was clear the Pakistanis had gained more than the Indians.

How quickly things had changed from last year when the Indians notched up a maiden Test series win in Pakistan on an afternoon of history in Rawalpindi. Then, Ganguly's visage was radiant while Inzamam, under vehement attacks from the media, was a picture of dejection.

While talent, technique and fitness remain key ingredients, it is the mind that provides a team the winning edge. If the Pakistanis came out strong right at the end of the series, and India dished out tame, soft cricket, it was a case of surging confidence on one side and a mental fade-out on the other.

Make no mistake, even in the Kolkata Test, which India eventually won comprehensively, there were at least two stages when Pakistan could have taken a stranglehold on the contest. Then Pakistan pulled away on the first day of third Test, with Inzamam and Younis Khan, the brilliant and the efficient, laying the platform for their side's victory.

It was India that was on the defensive now — Pakistan had nailed the mind game — as Inzamam's men levelled the TVS Cup series on a gut-wrenching evening. The Inzamam story is also one of a remarkable transformation from a man, who appeared under siege not too long ago, to a positive skipper, who is more relaxed mentally.

He might have shown some anger over an umpiring verdict in Bangalore, but for most part, he was at peace with himself and his job. In Pakistan, a grumpy Inzamam had lashed out at the local media for not supporting the team, and seemed bothered by a simmering feud with strike bowler Shoaib Akhtar.

Here, the Sultan of Multan was increasingly visible on the field, whether walking up for discussions, setting the fields, or shuffling his bowlers around. The 100-Test man was in control and his deputy was humming as well.

The top-order was one of the biggest areas of concerns for the side, when Younis, picking himself up after the nightmare in Mohali, dug in deep at one end at the crucial No. 3 slot, and the Pakistani fortunes looked up.

Pakistan had blundered when it omitted Younis from the three Tests against India last year. The Indian pacemen were able to make early inroads leaving a middle-order of stroke-makers exposed early — a clear path to disaster.

Coach Bob Woolmer's hand is visible in Younis' promotion up the order. His elevation to vice-captaincy was hotly debated upon, but the reasoning behind the move cannot be faulted. He is a chirpy character and a team-man, whose enthusiasm for the game appears limitless. And the man Younis replaced as vice-captain, Yousuf Youhana, remains a top-notch middle-order batsman.

While the young left-handed openers, Taufeeq Umar and Salman Butt, failed to make headway, the mercurial Pathan, Shahid Afridi, brought with him a truckload of positive energy, whether taking the attack to the cleaners with blistering strokes or sending down his assorted variety of spin.

Versatile leg-spinner Danish Kaneria's bowling was among the highlights of the series. He did, undaunted by reputations, bowl quite beautifully, with clever variations of spin, pace, length, and the use of the crease.

Asim Kamal, a tenacious left-handed fire-fighter in the middle-order, and Kamran Akmal, the buoyant wicket-keeper batsman who took wing at Mohali, are obvious assets for Pakistan. Abdul Raazaq, a quiet but committed all-rounder, provides his captain with options.

Situations throw up heroes and Pakistan had one in Mohammed Sami, who, with Akhtar absent, operated with fire in the second and third Tests, hustling the Indians with well-directed short-pitched deliveries, and achieving reverse swing. The slimly built paceman bowled lengthy spells without compromising on his intensity, and struck a few key blows.

Paradoxically, Akhtar's injury might have actually helped Woolmer and Inzamam, to usher in more consistency into the attack. Akhtar is furiously fast but he is also wayward, and in order to fit into Pakistan's game-plan, he will have to bowl with more discipline.

While Pakistan is coming together as a team, the question to be asked is whether this Indian side is on the decline. The overdependence on Virender Sehwag for starts and Rahul Dravid for winning runs in the middle-order does not present the side in favourable light.

Sehwag provided the line-up momentum, Dravid offered it solidity. Sachin Tendulkar and V. V. S. Laxman contributed, but could not dominate. Once Sehwag departs, the run-rate dips.

Comeback paceman Lakshmipathy Balaji, apart from being lively, achieved two-way seam movement from a high action. However, left-armer Irfan Pathan needs to rediscover the delivery darting back into the right-hander. The match-winning leg-spinner, Anil Kumble, spun a Test for India at the Eden Gardens and wicket-keeper batsman Dinesh Kaarthick showed heart and pluck.

Ganguly's loss of form with the willow had a negative effect on the side's morale. The ball is no longer travelling off the sweet portion of the blade, and his footwork these days is no footwork really. While Inzamam's ethereal batsmanship inspired, Ganguly's tentative ways threw his side into a state of despair. Like they say — `It's all in the mind.'