India vs Pak ODI: Itís over well before itís over
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Mohammad Irfan's height, by various estimates, is between six-feet-nine inches and seven-feet-one inch. Whatever he might register on the scale, the consensus is that he dwarfs the Indian openers.
As Irfan sent down the first ball of the game, Virender Sehwag, standing at the non-striker's end, would have felt like a dinghy in the wake of an ocean liner. Looking up, he would have seen a length ball lodge into the mitts of Kamran Akmal a few inches from the wicket-keeper's face.
Some of the ball's doing could be down to the retained moisture in the wicket, sweating under the covers for at least a day before the game. But what you see is what you believe, and until it was too late, not one of the Indian batsmen dared put a decisive foot forward.
Junaid spot on
While Irfan got the ball to steeple with little coaxing, it was the other left-arm pacer, Junaid Khan, who was finding the more dangerous length on a wicket that offered early assistance. Hampered first by hesitant footwork, and then by the inability to judge which way Junaid Khan was getting the ball to move, India's top and middle order simply detonated, much like the stumps they left behind.
Dhoni is a stickler for keeping a right-left combination going in the middle, but Junaid Khan, pitching the ball on middle and getting it to straighten from over the wicket, was equally effective against either type of batsmen. Sehwag, Virat Kohli and Yuvraj, all succumbed to variants of the same ball.
It proved so effective that Irfan was persuaded to try, and was rewarded with the wicket of Gambhir. All batsmen groped for the angle and had their stumps splayed. Rohit Sharma got suckered into playing for the swing only for Junaid to move it the other way, and was out caught at slips. From 17/0 in 3.4 overs, India were 29/5 in 9.4.
With the new rules decreeing that five fielders have to stay within the 30-yard circle during the entire innings, Dhoni and Suresh Raina would ideally have looked to score at a rate fast enough to set the side up for a final assault. The early wickets ensured that, despite not losing a wicket in the stretch, the run rate, which was 3 at the end of the mandatory powerplay (10th over), was 3.09 after 33, before the batting powerplay was effected.
Raina, and later Ashwin, watched from the other end as Dhoni battled the track, the bowling and the sapping humidity in an innings that showed why he is one of the best pacers of an ODI innings. The 73 he added with Raina for the sixth wicket came at three an over and it was the left-hander who played the dominant role, scoring 37 of those runs, to Dhoni's 22.
The captain, dropped on 16 off Mohammad Hafeez, concentrated on survival. Raina fell in the second ball of first over of the batting powerplay, the 33rd and Dhoni still held back. Then, he changed gears.
The unbeaten 125 off 100 balls he put on with Ashwin is third highest for the seventh wicket in ODIs. Ashwin's contribution was 35. Dhoni finished on an unbeaten 113, India on 227/6, a total that was unthinkable even until a few deliveries before the innings ended.
It seemed the knock had somehow altered the direction in which the match headed, so much so that India would even have fancied the win a few overs into the chase. Bhuvneshwar Kumar curved one into the stumps of Mohammad Hafeez with the first ball of the innings and had Azhar Ali pull into the hands of mid-wicket.
At 10.2 overs, Pakistan were 21/2. After 30.2 overs, at the end of a passage during which Dhoni made his 'fifth bowler' send down nine overs, Younis Khan and Jamshed had moved the score to 133/2, more than doubling the run rate. The former departed a ball later, but the damage was already done, much earlier.