The day of Rudra Pratap

THE MAN OF THE MOMENT. Rudra Pratap Singh celebrates with wicketkeeper M. S. Dhoni after taking the key wicket of Younis Khan.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

R. P. Singh's strikes effectively sealed Pakistan's chances of making a comeback in the crucial ODI game, writes S. Dinakar.

The skipper flew to his left to hold the speeding ball. It was a sensational catch by Rahul Dravid as southpaw Salman Butt edged the zestful Sreesanth. The team converged on Dravid and the effort ignited the entire side in the early stages of a key encounter. India needed to win in Multan and the captain sent the right message to his men.

The Indians blew an opportunity to clinch the Test series in Karachi. They had to make sure that they sewed up the ODI series in Multan. Leading 2-1 in the five-match Hutch series, they could not afford to leave it till the last match, again in Karachi. India, creditably, bounced back from the reverse and the mental pounding in the third Test. The five-wicket victory in Multan, after India dismissed Pakistan for just 161, marked a remarkable turnaround in fortunes.

Following the crushing defeat in the Karachi Test, India went down to Pakistan in the opening ODI in Peshawar and was haunted by a widely predicted Pakistani sweep. Talks of a 5-0 or a 4-1 margin for the host were doing the rounds.

The Indians regrouped. Coach Greg Chappell, a master of mind games, stressed on the need for the Indians to relax mentally. In hindsight, a couple of days of practice refreshed the Indian cricketers.

And it was fitting that a team that had placed plenty of trust in youth found the man of the moment in the young Rudra Pratap Singh. The left-armer walked away with the right award — the Man of the Match.

R. P. Singh picked up four key wickets after India won the toss. The match that began in the shadow of a `bandh' call in the Central Punjab city ended in jubilant Indian scenes under the lights. The pitch did provide a measure of assistance to the pacemen, but then the Pakistanis should have done better. A total of 161 was never going to threaten the Indians. Take away skipper Inzamam-ul-Haq's pleasing 49, and there was hardly any innings of substance.

R. P. Singh played a major role in the host's collapse. He cleverly sent down a well-directed short-pitched delivery to snare the in-form Shoaib Malik, who had committed himself on to the front foot; Irfan Pathan grabbed a fine running catch at square-leg. Younis Khan was trapped leg-before first ball by an incoming delivery from the left-armer.

IRFAN PATHAN brings off a spectacular catch to dismiss Shoaib Malik.-AP

Then in his second spell, R. P. Singh consumed super substitute Imran Farhat with a short ball and angled one across the dangerous Abdul Razzaq to find the edge. In his first year in international cricket, the paceman has made significant strides.

From Rae Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh to the Indian team — it has been quite a journey for R. P. Singh. And the big stage does not appear to daunt him; it only seems to motivate this unassuming youngster.

A four-wicket innings haul in his debut Test in Faisalabad might not be of the earth-shattering variety, but it was an impressive performance by a youngster on an unresponsive Iqbal Stadium wicket. And he has stuck to an ideal line in the ODIs, enhancing his two-way movement.

The 20-year-old left-arm paceman has the right-attributes. Powerfully built with strong shoulders, R.P. Singh hits the deck, can also achieve swing; he should ideally be a yard or two faster though.

A product of Lucknow's sports hostel, R. P. Singh has learnt his cricket with Mohammed Kaif and Suresh Raina; this is boom time in Uttar Pradesh cricket and the system there clearly nurtures young talent.

R. P. Singh has also spent time at Chennai's MRF Pace Foundation, where he has honed his skills under the legendary Dennis Lillee. The left-armer has put all the knowledge gained to good use and does have the ability to bring the ball into the right-hander from over the wicket.

He can sting and it was not surprising that he caught the attention of the National selectors. R. P. Singh was the new kid in the assembly line of Indian left-arm medium pacers after Ashish Nehra, Zaheer Khan, and Irfan Pathan. Importantly, he has been able to lift his game to the demands of international cricket.

After a quiet tour of Zimbabwe, where he figured in just a single ODI during the tri-series, R. P. Singh took flight in the India-Sri Lanka ODI series last year. The left-armer bowled with verve and control and his four for 35 on a batsman-friendly Rajkot pitch was an outstanding piece of bowling; he was also able to extract surprising bounce.

He has impressed Chappell with his work ethics. The Indian coach has spoken about his ability to land the ball in the right areas. "He can only get better from here," says Chappell.

R. P Singh's strikes in Multan meant there would be no comebacks for Pakistan in the crucial ODI. Mohammed Sami might have struck two early blows, removing Sachin Tendulkar and Gautam Gambhir, but the target was never likely to threaten India. Pakistan, eventually, paid the price for injudicious stroke selection by its batsmen.

Dravid (59, 72b, 9x4) and Yuvraj Singh added 85 runs with positive batting. Dravid collected runs with drives, flicks and pulls, never wasting an opportunity to score.

The authoritative Yuvraj's decisive footwork was once again evident; the left-hander is also the newly promoted vice-captain after Virender Sehwag was forced to go home owing to an injured shoulder.

Pakistan succeeded in removing Dravid and Yuvraj, while Mohammed Kaif perished early. But the promising Suresh Raina proved a thorn in the flesh for the home team. The left-hander, who seems to have flair and substance, sent the ball streaking through the gaps in the covers off either foot.

The tendency of the Pakistani batsmen to play too many strokes on a pitch where the ball did seam around proved their undoing. Kamran Akmal should have come down the order; the wicket-keeper batsman fell early cutting Irfan Pathan to Raina, standing at point for the stroke. In this instance, Akmal's strength proved his undoing.

Inzamam's was a quality effort, before he was undone by a doubtful leg-before decision off Sachin Tendulkar; the Mumbaikar, in the absence of a specialist spinner, donned the mantle of the fifth bowler with typical enthusiasm.

The Pakistanis, also hampered by the injured Shahid Afridi's absence, failed to get any partnerships going. When Inzamam and Mohammed Yousuf threatened to build a stand, Ajit Agarkar sent down a lovely away going delivery to find Yousuf's edge. A diving Dhoni gobbled up the ball on second attempt.

It was a day when the Indians caught and fielded brilliantly. Yuvraj, Raina, and Kaif choked the flow of runs in the circle and the pressure gradually built on the Pakistanis.

It was a perfectly timed team effort from the Men in Blue.

THE SCORES

Fourth One-Day International, Multan, February 16. India won by five wickets. Man of the Match: R. P. Singh.

Pakistan: Kamran Akmal c Raina b Pathan 3; Salman Butt c Dravid b Sreesanth 13; Shoaib Malik c Pathan b R. P. Singh 9; Inzamam-ul-Haq lbw b Tendulkar 49; Younis Khan lbw b R. P. Singh 0; Mohammad Yousuf c Dhoni b Agarkar 25; Imran Farhat c Raina b R. P. Singh 14; Abdul Razzaq c Dhoni b R. P. Singh 1; Naved-ul-Hasan (not out) 13; Mohammad Sami c Agarkar b Pathan 11; Mohammad Asif c Dhoni b Pathan 6; Extras (w-17) 17; Total (in 41.5 overs) 161.

Fall of wickets: 1-15, 2-27, 3-29, 4-29, 5-97, 6-124, 7-126, 8-131, 9-147.

India bowling: Pathan 7.5-2-26-3; Sreesanth 8-1-30-1; R. P. Singh 10-0-40-4; Agarkar 7-0-38-1; Tendulkar 9-0-27-1.

India: G. Gambhir c & b Mohammad Sami 21; S. R. Tendulkar c Kamran Akmal b Mohammad Sami 0; R. Dravid lbw b Mohammad Sami 59; Yuvraj Singh c Kamran Akmal b Naved-ul-Hasan 37; M. Kaif c Inzamam-ul-Haq b Abdul Razzaq 0; S. K. Raina (not out) 35; M. S. Dhoni (not out) 2; Extras (lb-1, w-4, nb-3) 8; Total (for five wkts.in 32.3 overs) 162.

Fall of wickets: 1-5, 2-29, 3-114, 4-115, 5-133.

Pakistan bowling: Mohammad Asif 8-1-35-0; Mohammad Sami 9-0-42-3; Naved-ul-Hasan 6-1-33- 1; Abdul Razzaq 9-0-47-1; Imran Farhat 0.3-0-4-0.

Pakistan full substitute: Imran Farhat (Yasir Arafat, Pakistan innings, 25.4 ov).

India full substitute: Zaheer Khan (unused).