The Kotla track was supposed to be deteriorating rapidly. The players had said so, and they are honourable purveyors of ideas, men who actually know what they're saying. The experts had said so, and they are equally honourable.
Thus, on the fourth day of the first Test, Danish Kaneria was supposed to be the X-factor, the man who should have used the supposedly wearing pitch to devastate India.
But on Sunday at the Kotla, in front of its biggest ever crowd, all the suppositions proved grossly incorrect. The pitch didn't change its character, the Pakistanis threw away their remaining wickets and only one of their bowlers looked threatening, and his name was not Kaneria.
The real X-factor
Shoaib Akhtar took a wicket in the first over of his first two spells and removed Rahul Dravid in his first over after tea. Pakistan never looked like taking a wicket when Akhtar wasn’t on. Not a ghost of a chance was created. The only times the Indian batsmen were beaten — six times in all perhaps, apart from the wickets — was when they went for their strokes. Sourav Ganguly cleared gully once, and one flew over second slip off Sachin Tendulkar's bat. But there was no real chance.
When Akhtar took Dravid out with one that speared in, beating the Indian rock with pace and movement, breaching his defence to knock back the leg-stump, India were 110 short of victory. But that was Akhtar's 10th over of the day and he was clearly beginning to tire — he is in his 33rd year, has been rusty for a bit and his efforts flag after a day's toil, even if the spirit is willing.
Before the Test began, Akhtar had written in these pages that there was little support for him from the other end, and that was very much in evidence on Sunday. Pakistan, thus, are all but beaten after being in a position to wrench the game away when at 149/2 in their own second innings. No support cast Pakistan have used only four bowlers in the match. Sami has looked completely ineffective; Sohail Tanvir took key wickets in the first innings but is highly erratic, gifting too many four-balls; and Kaneria's four wickets comprised India’s tail.
Before this Test, Kaneria had taken 31 wickets from eight Tests against India; in India, he had 19 from three — impressive, but at 31.52. The ball did not turn, it did not seam, it did keep low on a couple of occasions, but not with a regularity that could worry the batsmen.
On this track, only a tearaway paceman could have helped Pakistan, or sundry outstanding deliveries from Akhtar's support cast, or a man of the genius of Warne — and even that is debatable. Thus, it was up to Akhtar. His first spell was outstanding, the second devastating. The wickets of Wasim Jaffer and Dravid, and the advent of Tendulkar, visibly fired him up.
Duel in the sun
The roar that arose from the teeming, pulsating Kotla when Tendulkar stepped on the turf did not abate for the next 20 minutes, when tea was taken. Akhtar used his acumen and showmanship a tried desperately to prise out Tendulkar — first ball, he tore in with his celebratory airplane style, his arms spread out, perhaps indicating that he'd already got his man.
He fired in yorkers, pitched the ball up and fast, bowled short, went around the stumps — but Tendulkar was unshakeable. Late in the day, in his last spell of two overs, he even tried to knock off Tendulkar's head with searing bouncers, but the pitch had no life, and Tendulkar easily swayed out of harm's way.
The other three bowlers never came close to harming India. Shoaib Malik, his arm and collarbone aching each time he bowls, could not summon the courage to bring himself on.
Tendulkar and Ganguly, thus, took the game away from Pakistan; Tendulkar was steady, Ganguly impetuous, flashy, effective — in their stand of 50, Ganguly contributed 34 and Tendulkar 12.
Sami and Tanvir bowled on their pads too often, and that's unforgivable. Tanvir later said that Pakistan didn't miss the fifth bowling option, but the truth is, on Sunday, they lacked a real second option.