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First test drawn as India lets advantage slip

By Thaleel
March 12 2005

Until the halfway point of the game, India were holding the whip in the driver's seat. Pakistan had been shot out on the first day, and a scillintilating hundred from Virender Sehwag had seen India storm past the Pakistan total with only two wickets down, and a run rate of over 4 an over. Once Sehwag fell, India produced a clinical performance showing just how to fritter away every bit of advantage they had at that point. Sehwag fell in the second session of day 3, for a stellar 173 - his 9th test hundred in just 32 matches, by any yardstick a stellar statistic - and from thereon, the wheels began to fall off the Indian juggernaut. Tendulkar and Ganguly scratched out 59 runs in the post-lunch session, making the wicket look like one that was creating all sorts of problems for batsmen, Ganguly in particular seeming incapable of getting the ball off the wicket. The following session with the wickets of Ganguly, Tendulkar and Karthik falling, ground the momentum almost to a complete halt - and by stumps, a lead that fans were expecting to have reached 200 or more had only been moved to 135.

It was the antithesis of aggression - when an opponent was down, India should have put the boot to the throat and looked to end it as soon as possible. Instead they allowed Pakistan to stand back up and escape the day with two good sessions of damage control. A good first session on the fourth day seemed to make up for the previous day's post-lunch shenanigans as Laxmipathy Balaji first followed his 5-for in the first innings with a brisk 31 to take the lead past 200, before India finally took the field - and rocked Pakistan, with Balaji taking the first two wickets and Pathan removing Salman Butt to send them reeling at 10/3.

From thereon, things went out of control - defensive field placing without a third slip (an area where Inzamam edged two deliveries through) cost India plenty of runs through missed catch opportunites, and Rahul Dravid providing Asim Kamal with two lives when in single figures - a rarity for Dravid with his usually immaculate fielding standards - saw Pakistan end the day just 6 down. Yet, with a lead of 53 and a new ball due, India would have expected to run through the remainder of the Pakistani batting.

Instead Kamran Akmal found the ideal moment to pull out a maiden test hundred; a sterling innings full of pluck and fine strokeplay supported well by Abdul Razzaq as Zaheer Khan looked listless, Kumble seemed a ghost of the bowler who'd taken 74 scalps the previous year, and Irfan Pathan struggled to show any real venom. Only Balaji continued to threaten, inducing a few plays and misses - but with more catches being dropped by VVS Laxman and Ganguly, Pakistan ended up batting through enough overs to get to a safe lead, and then some - enough to eventually declare at 496.

Akmal's strokeplay on the fifth day wicket, and the general rate of scoring made the final two "slow-go" sessions on day 3 seem even worse - 60 overs yielded just 129 runs with a run rate of barely over 2 an over, as Ganguly, Laxman and Tendulkar failed to capitalize on a Pakistani attack that had been lashed to pieces in the morning session. It left fans wondering what might have been. Even a relatively moderate, but higher rate of scoring of 3 an over with a bit more selflessness and aggression might have seen India perhaps declare with a bigger lead and earlier, giving their bowlers more time to bowl Pakistan out and to give India a 1-0 lead going into Kolkata. Instead, the series remains level.

Virender Sehwag, who looked to have set the match up for an Indian win by the time he was dismissed, and Balaji, who toiled relentlessly for match figures of 9/171, will no doubt be gutted with potentially match-winning performances having been wasted, thanks to two dismal sessions of play where the middle order lost all momentum in the innings. It's now a question of whether team India can pull themselves back together, after some insipid performances in the second half of the test, to hit Pakistan hard at Kolkata. With Pakistan having overcome stiff odds to grind out a draw, the psychological advantage will no doubt rest in Inzamam's camp.

Yet for both teams, change seems to be a must. VVS Laxman's innings of 58 off 125 was not what the side needed - a sluggish knock with only a few brief sparks coming when India needed runs at a fair clip - and with some poor fielding to boot by the side, the voices clamouring for Yuvraj's recall might get louder. Yuvraj has enjoyed a stellar run of form in the recently concluded Duleep trophy, and his presence at forward short-leg, where he took some stunning catches against Australia, might also be something to wonder about with Gautam Gambhir not looking comfortable in that position - and even with Laxman having scored 58, his third knock over 50 in the last 12 months, he will be under some pressure.

Dinesh Karthik too, will be feeling under some pressure with his lack of runs since debuting. While his glovework had been adequate in earlier games, Karthik had a horror performance at Mohali, leaking a number of byes and struggling with the bat, and while he has been included in the squad for the next test, the young keeper will be worrying about the need for runs from the number 7 spot.

Zaheer Khan though is in a completely different situation - while chances of Laxman being retained at Kolkata are high, Zaheer might well be mixing the drinks and bringing them out in a few days' time. Balaji outbowled both his partners, having worked his way back to full fitness and form in recent months, and with stellar spells with new and old ball in this match, it would take a blunder of epic proportions to leave a fit Balaji out for Eden Gardens, meaning that Zaheer, who looked flat after a decent opening spell on the first day, might make way for Harbhajan.

Failures for vice captain Younis Khan, and erratic performances with ball for the Pakistani seamers will also leave Woolmer and Inzamam pondering the prospects of change. With Eden Gardens generally hosting a more spin-friendly wicket, India might just see one of the opposition seam attack make way for either Shahid Afridi, who would also bolster the batting while bowling his quickish leg spin, or offspinner Arshad Khan to support Danish Kaneria.

Regardless, Pakistan will feel that they hold the upper hand coming into Kolkata - especially given India's unimpressive home record there. The psychological boost for Pakistan from this game, and the blow India will feel having let an opportunity to win the first test slip could very well be major factors in the next test.

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