TOP-DRAWER PERFORMANCE

The Indians performed admirably in the crunch situations at Rawalpindi. And more than the victory, the manner in which it was achieved must have been heartening for the team, writes S. Dinakar.

If World Cup 2007 is the big picture, then the Indians took steps in the right direction during the second one-day international of the five-match Hutch series. Chasing Pakistan's 265, Rahul Dravid's men cantered home in 43.1 overs. More than the victory, the manner in which the seven-wicket win was achieved at the Pindi Cricket Stadium must have been heartening for India.

The Indians played the crunch moments of the contest well. After Inzamam-ul-Haq surprisingly opted to bat, the visitors needed to strike early on a fresh wicket under a cloud cover. Irfan Pathan did just that. There has been a sharp decline in the left-armer's pace, which means he probably cannot extract life out of a placid surface. But if there is juice in the pitch and humidity in the air, he can be a handful. Pathan opened the sluice gates for India with the new ball in Rawalpindi. He swung the white ball appreciably both ways and constantly probed the batsmen. The left-handed Salman Butt edged a delivery swinging away from him and Kamran Akmal chopped a slower incoming delivery onto his stumps.

These Pathan blows put India on the road to victory. No wonder, coach Greg Chappell calls him "an all-rounder for the future and an impact cricketer." The Man of the Match, he rightly was.

The Indians were sharp on the field, effecting four run-outs — three of them crucial. Sachin Tendulkar recovered quickly from a mis-field at square-leg to run out Mohammad Yousuf at the non-striker's end. S. Sreesanth whipped in a fine throw from deep point to the 'keeper, catching Shoaib Malik, within striking distance of a century, short of the crease. Then Suresh Raina scored a direct hit from mid-off and Abdul Razzaq had to begin the long walk back. The presence of Yuvraj, Kaif and Raina in the circle has lifted the standard of the Indian fielding.

Pakistan recovered from 68 for four — skipper Inzamam top-edged a catch to mid-on trying to turn Zaheer Khan — with the free-stroking and innovative Shoaib Malik and the in-form Younis Khan raising 102 for the fifth wicket. Once Malik departed, the Pakistani innings lost momentum and the regular fall of wickets did not help enhance the run-rate.

Sreesanth sent down a creditable spell at the `death', and his lively pace was a factor here. Ajit Agarkar and Zaheer Khan donned useful supporting roles.

The Indians continued with the four-man pace attack. Interestingly, the team entered the contest without a regular spinner — there is a feeling in the Indian think tank that the Pakistani batsmen handle spin exceptionally well — which meant Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag had to share 10 overs between them. The duo, under the circumstances, performed a fair job.

India had off-spinning all-rounder Ramesh Powar as the Super Substitute. This meant in the event of India defending a total in the second half of the match where there could be more purchase for the spinners, the Mumbaikar would have replaced one of the batsmen and India would have had five bowlers. Powar's services were not needed this time, but there was much logic in the Indian ploy.

After restricting Pakistan to 265, India required a solid opening partnership. Virender Sehwag blitzed away at the top of the order and Sachin Tendulkar held firm, even while gathering his runs at a healthy clip.

Pakistan, without the injured Shoaib Akhtar and his thrust, needed Rana Naved-ul-Hasan to support the incisive Mohammed Asif. But in striving for pace on a pitch with a thin coating of grass, Rana ended up giving width to Sehwag, who pounded him square of the wicket. The trademark `uppercut' six over point confirmed that the Delhi batsman had rediscovered his touch in the ODIs. Without pressure from both ends, the Indian innings was up and running. The fact that Sehwag batted in the afternoon, when there was little lateral movement for the pacemen, helped the dashing opener's cause.

After the departure of the openers, Rahul Dravid, back at No. 3, and Yuvraj Singh sealed the Indian victory. Dravid cover-drove, square-cut, and flicked delightfully. Yuvraj was authoritative, his soaring confidence reflected in his dominant front-foot play on both sides of the wicket. The fact that he is a natural back-foot player indicates that Yuvraj now is a well rounded batsman. There has been a noticeable improvement in his shot selection too.

Before the game, the focus was on the pitch and Dravid did have a long conversation with Agha Zahid. The chief curator duly informed the Indian captain about the last two matches here, the fourth and fifth ODIs against England this season. In the first game, Pakistan successfully defended 210. In the next game, the host, pursuing 207 for a win, was dismissed for 200.

But those matches — day night games which began at 11 a. m. — were held during early winter when there would have been dew on the surface in the evening, making the pitch a touch sluggish. In the event, Inzamam blundered.

Malik was involved in a collision with bowler Zaheer while scampering for a run, and pushed the ball in the process. The Indians, this time, did not appeal for obstructing the field.

Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf met both teams on the eve of the match. He then watched a part of the match.

THE SCORES

Pakistan v India, 2nd ODI, Rawalpindi , February 11.

Pakistan: S. Butt c Dhoni b Pathan 0; K. Akmal b Pathan 14; S. Malik (run out) 95; M. Yousuf (run out) 1; Inzamam-ul-Haq c Sreesanth b Khan 8; Y. Khan c Kaif b Agarkar 81; S. Afridi c Kaif b Pathan 18; A. Razzaq (run out) 14; Naved-ul-Hasan c Raina b Agarkar 6; U. Gul (not out) 17; M. Asif (run out) 2; Extras (w-4, nb-5) 9; Total (in 49.2 overs) 265.

Fall of wickets: 1-0, 2-43, 3-46, 4-68, 5-170, 6-204, 7-234, 8-242, 9-257.

India bowling: Pathan 10-1-43-3; Sreesanth 10-0-52-0; Zaheer Khan 9.2-0-53-1; Agarkar 10-0-52-2; Tendulkar 7-0-45-0; Sehwag 3-0-20-0.

India: V. Sehwag (run out) 67; S. R. Tendulkar c Kamran Akmal b Abdul Razzaq 42; R. Dravid c & b Shoaib Malik 56; Yuvraj Singh (not out) 82; M. Kaif (not out) 5; Extras (lb-6, w-5, nb-3) 14; Total (for 3 wkts. in 43.1 overs) 266.

Fall of wickets: 1-105, 2-123, 3-241.

Pakistan bowling: Naved-ul-Hasan 7-0-60-0; Mohammad Asif 6-1-28-0; Umar Gul 9-0-49-0; Abdul Razzaq 7-0-43-1; Shahid Afridi 2-0-17-0; Arshad Khan 9-0-37-0; Shoaib Malik 3-0-24-1; Younis Khan 0.1-0-2-0.

Pakistan full substitute: Arshad Khan (Mohammad Yousuf, India innings, 0.0 over).

India full substitute: R. R. Powar (S. Sreesanth, India innings, 0.0 over).