Pakistan, resilient, clinical and professional all through their current tour of India, sacrificed those virtues on Sunday (January 6), throwing away a golden chance of completing the first whitewash in India-Pakistan One-Day International cricket.
The denizens of New Delhi had braved the coldest day of the winter so far to fill Feroze Shah Kotla, and they found their warmth in a face-saving Indian win by ten runs in a fascinating cricket match that wasn’t always of the highest standard but which microcosmed everything the 50-over game is about. India made a spectacular defence of their modest 167, cashing in on Pakistan’s strange bout of nerves and questionable shot selection, to ensure that they kept the series margin down to 1-2.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni, having recovered from a sore back that had threatened to keep him out of the game, chose to bat on winning the toss but another top-order failure catalysed by continued excellence from Junaid Khan and unflagging persistence from Mohammad Irfan reduced India to 37 for three. Saeed Ajmal then chose the perfect time to register his best ODI figures, five for 24, as Pakistan ruthlessly cut off all escape routes, sending India crashing to 167 all out with a massive 6.2 overs left unutilised.
There was enough in the conditions even in the second part of the match to keep the quicker bowlers interested, and Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Shami Ahmed, on debut after replacing Ashok Dinda, exploited those conditions quite beautifully. Bhuvneshwar picked up Kamran Akmal, opening the batting instead of Mohammad Hafeez who sustained a finger injury while trying to catch Dhoni off his own bowling, and Younis Khan during an unchanged 10-over burst of two for 32 while Shami was distinctly unfortunate not to court any early success as India were all over Pakistan.
The threat in the bowling was backed up by energy and enthusiasm in the field where India were positively electric, but that was briefly neutralised by the form of Nasir Jamshed and the stabilising influence of Misbah-ul-Haq. From 14 for two, they steadied the ship with a stand of 47, and Pakistan seemed to have wrested back control, particularly with Misbah adding a further 52 for the next wicket with Umar Akmal, preferred to Azhar Ali for the match.
A regulation chase was very much on the cards at that stage when a mid-innings collapse undid all the good work as India’s fielding touched glorious heights. Virat Kohli, Ravindra Jadeja, Suresh Raina and Ajinkya Rahane, coming in for Virender Sehwag, were all spectacular, pulling off one stunning stop after another, to sustain the pressure under which Pakistan finally cracked.
From being in total control, Pakistan lost their way through the middle stages, Jadeja turning in a wonderful spell of left-arm spin bowling. In the end, it came down to 23 off the last two overs, well beyond even Hafeez whose brief flurry ended when he smashed Ishant Sharma to Yuvraj Singh at midwicket, triggering delirium in the stands and overwhelming relief in the middle as Pakistan were dismissed for 157.
India were caught betwixt and between when they batted, their recent travails accelerating the germination of the seeds of doubt. The desire to attack was overwhelmed by the necessity for survival, especially against Junaid who was once again outstanding with his tremendous skill and excellent control.
India brought Rahane in for Sehwag but Rahane failed to seize his chance, falling early to Irfan. Gautam Gambhir began positively but strangely found the going difficult as he spent more time in the middle, while Kohli was all at sea against Junaid, unable to fathom which way the ball was moving and being repeatedly beaten on the outside edge and inside.
It was in the fitness of things that Junaid accounted for Kohli, eliciting an outside edge smartly taken low at second slip by Younis. By then, Gambhir had already made his way back, half-heartedly waft-swatting a short, wide delivery from Irfan and unerringly picking out the point fielder.
Yuvraj began in a blaze of boundaries but closed the bat-face in Hafeez’s first over to lose off-stump, bringing Dhoni into the middle with his team once more in deep trouble. Dhoni had come in at 29 for five in the first ODI and 70 for four in the second. This time, the scoreboard read 63 for four, and he was again required to rebuild the innings in the company of Raina. The two added 48, by some distance the highest partnership of the innings, Dhoni smashing Hafeez for two towering sixes and exhibiting the aggression he had forsaken in the previous games.
Raina took his time, content to bat in Dhoni’s shadow, and India were just about starting to get their innings back on track when the brilliance of Ajmal shone through. Ajmal has had a largely quiet tour, his three wickets in one over in Kolkata notwithstanding. With India threatening a recovery, Ajmal struck paydirt, sliding one through to trap Raina in front and then dismissing R Ashwin, also leg before, with a sharply turning offbreak the very next delivery.
As he has done throughout the series, Dhoni kept the fight going until he cut Gul hard but straight to Umar Akmal at point to be dismissed in an ODI at home for the first time in seven innings. Jadeja lashed out towards the end but without much support, India failing to bat out their 50 overs for the second time in four days.