Malik’s heroics

Shoiab Malik and Mohammad Yousuf were involved in a match-winning partnership of 206 and Pakistan, despite stumbling in the last stretch, posted a daunting 302. By S. Dinakar.

The tension leading to the big game was palpable. An India-Pakistan match is an event in itself.

The Group ‘A’ match of the ICC Champions Trophy at SuperSport Park would test the resolve and temperament of the cricketers. The match was as much about holding one’s nerve on the big stage as skill. However, as both captains said, t he contest was no more than a game of cricket.

India was entering the match without two of its biggest match-winners — Virender Sehwag and Yuvraj Singh. While Sehwag was recovering from a shoulder surgery, Yuvraj had fractured a finger during the Indian team’s fielding practice at Johannesburg.

India missed several aspects of Yuvraj Singh’s cricket — as a left-handed batsman of rare ability who could turn a match on its head in a matter of a few overs, a more than useful left-arm spin option and someone who could still whip up moments of sheer brilliance on the field.

India’s batting had been weakened and this could have weighed on the minds of the team management as the side entered the match with only four specialist bowlers. On a slow Centurion pitch conducive to spin, India fielded a lone specialist spinner in Harbhajan Singh. It was a move that arguably cost India the match.

Virat Kohli was picked as a batsman who could chip in with his medium-pacers and the tactic backfired. Even if India was looking for a batsman-seamer, Abhishek Nayar, an aggressive left-hander and a handy seam bowler, would have been a better choice.

On a surface favouring batsmen, India should have strengthened its bowling by playing five specialists. Leg-spinner Amit Mishra would have added to the attack. The Pakistanis are not the best players of leg-spin and Mishra could have got the ball to grip the surface and turn.

There has been much talk about the difficulty in managing two spinners when there are 20 overs of Power Play. But then, the second and third blocks of Power Play overs, when an extra fielder can be stationed outside the circle, also provide a competent spinner an opportunity to pick wickets. When a batsman is looking for the big lofted shots over the infield, a spinner is always in with a chance. He could also get the batsman on the drive in the circle.

The lack of a fifth specialist bowler impacted skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s thinking. When Pakistan was struggling at 65 for three, he did not go for the kill. Rather, Dhoni introduced Virat Kohli’s friendly pace and Yusuf Pathan’s innocuous spin. India’s trump card, Harbhajan Singh was held back until the 26th over.

The off-spinner could have attacked more had he come in earlier. Now, he was bowling with a different mind-set against two well-set batsmen.

Shoiab Malik and Mohammad Yousuf were involved in a match-winning partnership. Pakistan, despite stumbling in the last stretch, posted a daunting 302.

After a chase marked by several twists, India fell short by 54 runs. When the battling Rahul Dravid (76, 103b, 4x4) was run out after a mix-up over the third run, India was on the brink. Worse, Dravid appeared to have hurt himself.

Spurred by the batting heroics of Man of the Match Malik and Yousuf, the Pakistani bowlers were a buzzing bunch. Left-arm paceman Mohammed Aamer and spinners Shahid Afridi and Saeed Ajmal took wickets at the key moments of the chase. The young Aamer — he moved the ball both ways — bowled superbly against maestro Sachin Tendulkar. Eventually, Tendulkar edged a delivery that seamed away.

The Indians fought back. The solid Rahul Dravid rotated the strike and Gautam Gambhir, pulling, driving and whipping off his legs, waded into the Pakistani bowling.

Against the run of play, Gambhir (57, 46b, 7x4, 2x6) was run out due to a lack of communication with Dravid over a quick single. Pakistan struck back again.

Afridi and Ajmal were getting the ball to turn and bounce and batting was never easy. Kohli gave his wicket away with a lofted stroke and a shuffling Dhoni was consumed by an Afridi googly.

Suresh Raina, with Dravid playing second fiddle, launched into the Pakistan bowling. The off-colour Gul was taken to the cleaners. The left-handed Raina’s straight six off Gul was a particularly well-timed shot.

Raina (46, 41b, 5x4, 2x6) and Dravid threatened to take the match away from Pakistan when the former was adjudged leg-before to a quicker, fuller ball from Ajmal, delivered round the wicket. However, the ball appeared to have touched the bat before thudding into Raina’s pad.

India erred by not taking the Power Play immediately after Yusuf Pathan walked in. This could have changed his mind-set. Instead, Yusuf, caught at the crease and unsure about his role, fell to an Aamer delivery that angled away. After this dismissal, India’s defeat was imminent.

Earlier, Malik notched up 128 (126b, 16x4) and Yousuf made 87 (88b, 7x4). The partnership between Malik and Yousuf — 206 in 193 balls — was Pakistan’s highest fourth wicket association in ODIs.

The two batted with grace and timing rather than power. They split the field with rapier-like strokes. The emphasis was on harnessing the pace and the deviation of the ball by opening the face of the blade. And the placements were precise.

Malik and Yousuf, wristy customers, batted with soft hands and sure touch. Yousuf used the depth of the crease exceptionally well for some old-fashioned shots between point and third man against the spinners. Malik too played some soothing strokes of timing and balance; he eased the ball through the gaps.

The cut and the late cut proved extremely effective and Harbhajan was not allowed to settle down. When the off-spinner went round the wicket to narrow down on the angle for the stroke, the confident Malik still created room by moving away on the leg-side.

India, gradually, ran out of answers. Left-arm paceman Ashish Nehra apart, much of the bowling was ordinary. The bowlers erred both in length and direction. India did not deserve to win the match.

THE SCORES

Pakistan: I. Nazir c Harbhajan b Nehra 20; K. Akmal b Nehra 19; Younis Khan c Dhoni b R. P. Singh 20; S. Malik c Pathan b Harbhajan 128; M. Yousuf b Nehra 87; S. Afridi c Dhoni b Pathan 4; U. Akmal c Dhoni b Nehra 0; Naved-ul-Hasan (not out) 11; U. Gul c Raina b I. Sharma 0; M. Aamer c Kohli b I. Sharma 0; S. Ajmal (not out) 0; Extras (lb-1, w-12) 13. Total (for nine wkts., in 50 overs) 302.

Fall of wickets: 1-29, 2-53, 3-65, 4-271, 5-278, 6-289, 7-300, 8-301, 9-302.

India bowling: Nehra 10-0-55-4; R. P. Singh 9-1-59-1; I. Sharma 8-2-39-2; V. Kohli 3-0-21-0; Y. Pathan 10-0-56-1; Harbhajan 10-0-71-1.

India: G. Gambhir (run out) 57; S. Tendulkar c K. Akmal b Aamer 8; R. Dravid (run out) 76; V. Kohli c Gul b Afridi 16; M. Dhoni lbw b Afridi 3; S. Raina lbw b Ajmal 46; Y. Pathan c sub b Aamer 5; Harbhajan Singh b Ajmal 13; R. P. Singh c Yousuf b Naved-ul-Hasan 2; I. Sharma b Naved-ul-Hasan 0; A. Nehra (not out) 0; Extras (lb-4, w-11, nb-7) 22. Total (in 44.5 overs) 248.

Fall of wickets: 1-23, 2-90, 3-126, 4-133, 5-205, 6-218, 7-238, 8-243, 9-244.

Pakistan bowling: Aamer 8-0-46-2; Naved-ul-Hasan 9-0-48-2; Gul 6-0-55-0; Ajmal 8.5-0-31-2; Afridi 10-0-39-2; Malik 3-0-25-0.