Balaji flies high, grounds Pak on Day 1 of decider
One has a Test average of 10.18 and the other of around seven. Both (obviously) are not in the team because of any skills, actual or potential, with the bat. Both have a heck of a job on their hands at the moment, with Pakistan bowling, if the hosts want to be in with a chance of winning this series on a greenish wicket.
But Mohammed Sami (with a vast experience of 15 Tests) and Fazl-e-Akbar (with five), made sure they gave themselves a chance. They probably decided that if their batters couldn't give them a score that they could try and defend, they would have to do even that, themselves.
The Pakistan top order collapse would earn them the wrath of their voluble coach, Javed Miandad, and rightly so after they played with little application on a wicket that had some moisture in it. It was also a very disciplined performance from India's pace trio, especially Lakshmipathy Balaji. They exploited the help they got from the pitch after Sourav Ganguly finally won a toss when it counted. Balaji bowled a superb line and length to return his best ever figures of 4-63.
Coming back to that ninth-wicket stand, it lasted for over an hour-and-a-half in which they tortured the Indians, who were more or less certain they had wrapped up Pakistan's first essay after Balaji trapped the classy Asif Kamal plumb in front. Though people began talking of how Yuvraj Singh and Irfan Pathan shared in that 117-run partnership for the eighth wicket, no one seriously thought the Pakistan lower order would make a fight of it.
But they did, at least Sami and Akbar. They swished and missed, there were a couple of close leg before appeals and a couple of nicks that went close to the slip fielders. Sami, who nearly missed this game after suffering a back strain and cleared his fitness test only late on Monday, got hit once on the helmet and once in the box --- the ball even breaking his guard! He was also dropped when on 34 by Parthiv Patel (who made a hash of sitter), and eventually went on to make his highest ever score in first-class cricket.
He would be cursing himself for taking that suicidal single that finally ended the Pakistani essay at 224 and left him one short of his 50.
The fightback itself wasn't pretty but it was very effective. By the time Akbar fell offering no shot to Anil Kumble, the combine had put on 70 invaluable runs for Pakistan. This incidentally, equalled Pakistan's highest ninth-wicket stand against India, set as recently as Multan, when Yousuf Youhana and Shoaib Akhtar delayed India's win.
Danish Kaneria, whose bating skills have been often compared to Ashish Nehra's, decided this was the day he wanted to hang around a bit too, so that by the time the Pakistan innings folded up with Sami's dismissal, they had got to a respectable 224 after being at an embarrassing 137 for eight.
And when India batted, it was disaster at first touch. Even as people were discussing Virender Sehwag's new opening partner --- finally Parthiv Patel, as the team decided not to risk exposing either Ganguly or Yuvraj to this first day wicket -- the mainstay of the Indian batting through this series got out to a first-ball blob.
Sehwag got a ball on his pads from Shoaib Akhtar and looked like he was trying to turn it to the on-side, but mistimed it to backward point instead. Yasir Hameed, who was probably upset with himself for chasing a widish delivery to get out when he was set, took a beauty of a catch. He juggled it, nearly dropped it and finally got it by turning backwards, diving and holding on with one hand.
At stumps, at 23 for one, India had thankfully lost no more wickets, even though Patel was looking somewhat jittery. He can't be blamed, what with the movement the bowlers are still getting from the wicket. In any case, the only thing in his favour is that no one seriously expects him to do anything much -- precisely the reason he was offered up for sacrifice.
The decision to send him up was surprising in the end really. It was expected that Patel would walk out with Sehwag if India were put in to bat in the morning but to send him at the top later anyway, sends out the wrong signal. Whether or not Patel eventually scores, the decision shows that either India are not confident of their new opening combine, or they're worried about the much-vaunted middle order and are therefore not willing to expose the in-form Yuvraj. Whatever it is, it betrays a nervous mindset. One that Pakistan would be looking to expose.
Pakistan: Inzamam-ul-Haq (captain), Taufeeq Umar, Imran Farhat, Yasir Hameed, Yousuf Youhana, Asim Kamal, Kamran Akmal, Shoaib Akhtar, Mohammad Sami, Danish Kaneria, Fazle Akbar.
India: Sourav Ganguly (captain), Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, V V S Laxman, Parthiv Patel, Irfan Pathan, Anil Kumble, Ashish Nehra, Laxmipathy Balaji.
Umpires: David Shepherd, England, Rudi Koertzen, South Africa
TV umpire: Zamir Haider, Pakistan
Match referee: Ranjan Madugalle.