Never before had India won any series - ODI or Test - in Pakistan, and the recent maulings at the hands of Australia when it came to decisive finals had many a heart beat in overdrive today. Imagine the tension, the pressure. But this young Indian team is different. It had gone to win matches and hearts. It won both. It was a sheer joy to watch the joie de vivre on the faces of the young Pathan, Balaji, Yuvi, Kaif and the uninhibited youthful exuberance with which the whole team would go into a huddle with each Pakistani wicket.
It was sweet to be rewriting history. The 40-run win that gave India the 3-2 verdict was built on a wristy 107 by VVS Laxman, followed up by another brilliant bowling display by left-arm seamer Irfan Pathan (3/32) who helped reduce the home side to 96 for six at one stage.
A fightback by wicketkeeper Moin Khan, who made 72, and Shoaib Malik, 65, was not enough for their team to overtake India's 293 for seven and the home side were all out for 253 in the 48th over.
In the end, the margin of victory might show it to be a completely comprehensive and convincing win, but there were moments in this match when the cliché about the glorious uncertainties of cricket reverberated and echoed in everybody's hearts, even if the lips were loath to articulate it, particularly when after being reduced to 96-6 in the 24th over, Shoaib Malik and Moin Khan put up a valiant and fighting 99 run partnership at almost a run a ball.
But in the end, the pressure of chasing 293 - exactly as many as Pakistan had made in the previous match, at the same venue - proved to be too much, and the early capitulation by the top-order ensured that Pakistan ended up being on the ropes from the word go.
Critics would perhaps now say that the pressure was of Pakistan's own making. Or so at least the experienced Imran Khan has been saying through out the series, insisting that it always makes sense to bat first on winning the toss, so that the added pressure of having to make so many runs does not weigh down the batsmen.
But that's not what one heard from various commentators when Inzamam won the toss and put India in to bat and managed to get Sehwag and Sachin early. Despite the brilliance of Laxman's knock (107 off 104 balls; 11 fours) - the first time in the series that a centurion did not end up on the losing side - the way this series had gone so far, the Indian total of 293 seemed eminently doable. In fact, when Laxman got out, India were 253-6 in 45.5 overs, and it took some spirited hitting by the 19-year old Irfan Pathan and 22-year old Balaji that saw 40 runs being scored in the last 4 overs that ensured India reach this total. Balaji even broke his bat, which perhaps is indicative of the pressure with which the willow hit the ball hurtled at a breakneck speed to start with.
An idea of the role of these two youngsters lower down the order can be had by the fact that Balaji ends up with the second highest average of 45.00 from his three innings (below only Rahul Dravid who averaged 62 with an aggregate of 248) and above Sachin Tendulkar (213 runs at 42.60) while Irfan Pathan comes in next with 36. And the strike rate would make one wonder why they bat so lower down the order. Both also ended with three wickets each, but Pathan was by far the hero of the match with excellent figures of 3-32 off 10 overs. Balaji finished with 3-62 off his 9.5 overs.
Pathan and Balaji rock Pakistan
True to form, this victory was primarily the result of the contributions from these two youngsters in bowling too. Balaji was the first to give India hope when Pakistan began their chase, by bowling Yasir Hameed in his first over to reduce Pakistan to 1-8 (1.4 overs), dislodging the opener's off-stump with a gem of an in-cutter.
And then young Irfan Pathan took over, by sending back the experienced Yousuf Youhana for just one, trapping him leg before wicket to reduce the home team to a precarious 9 for two by the third over. The pressure was mounting and the heat was really on three overs later when Pathan got rid of opener Taufeeq Umar, who came into the team in place of Shahid Afridi. Umar misjudged the line of a sharp delivery and saw his stumps being knocked down for 18 (17 balls, 3-25).
Captain Inzamam-ul Haq, later declared man-of-the-series, and Younis Khan tried to salvage the situation for their team by playing cautiously against the charged up Indian pacemen who bowled a tidy line and length. Pathan struck again by claiming the wicket of Younis (12 off 20 balls) with Yuvraj Singh latching on to a smart catch. Pakistan were tottering at 4-58 in 12.1 overs.
India was in charge but Inzamam was still around, very much in the top of his form, with two centuries in the previous matches of this high-profile series. Would he pull his team out of the pits again? There was no other wicket India wanted as badly as his but the burly captain seemed to be in no discomfort as he went about the task of rebuilding the innings with a cool head. Inzamam curbed his attacking instincts and was quite content in keeping the scoreboard ticking with singles, but as a result the asking rate kept mounting. As did the pressure.
Inzy may have lost the match and the series but one of his scorching off-drives did manage to have Ganguly writhing in pain before he had to be carried off the stadium in a stretcher. It remains to be seen whether he would be fit before the test-series, but Rahul Dravid stood in for him as solidly as ever, while a restless Ganguly itching to be back in the middle gesticulated wildly from outside.
The Pakistan captain and Shoaib Malik put on 29 runs for the fifth wicket but Murali Kartik tempted Inzy who could not resist trying to hoist him out of the ground, but Sachin Tendulkar latched on to a brilliant catch just a few inches inside the boundary line at the long on fence, precariously - and deftly - managing to ensure that he did not cross the boundary-line while holding on to the catch. Inzy scored a 51-ball 38 which contained five boundaries. But with his fall, Pakistan capitulation seemed complete at 87-5 (20.4 overs).
All-rounder Abdul Razzak (5) also could not hang around for long, falling prey to Balaji as he returned for the second spell from the far end. Pakistan were reduced to 96-6 (23.6 overs). Then came the most productive period for the home team as Malik and Moin raised hopes of a spirited fightback with a 99-run seventh wicket partnership.
As the evening progressed, the dew made it difficult for the bowlers to grip the ball. Both Malik and Moin took advantage of the situation and played some attacking shots in a bid to accelerate the pace of scoring as the run rate had climbed to more than seven runs at that stage. Part-timer Virender Sehwag finally brought the flourishing partnership to an end by scalping Malik for 65 which came off 89 balls.
At this stage, Pakistan were 195-7 (40.5 overs). When these two were going strong, around 100 odd runs off the last 9-10 overs was suddenly looking a possibility. But even with the fall of Malik, Moin did not give up. He and Mohammed Sami kept up the run chase with a rollicking 52-run partnership, making the visitors a little panicky, but it was too uphill a task by then. Sami finally fell for 23 off only 17 balls and Pakistan were 248-5 in 46.3 runs.
Very Very Special Laxman
Earlier, put in to bat by Inzamam-ul Haq who won the toss for the fifth time in a row, the stylish Laxman marked his return to form with a sparkling 104-ball 107 before some lusty hitting by the lower order batsmen made the total of 293 runs possible. Laxman notched up his sixth century in one-dayers, his fourth this year, to hold the innings together after most of the top order batsmen failed to get a big score.
Irfan Pathan and Lakshmipathy Balaji rattled up some quick runs at the end, leaving the home team to score just under six runs an over to clinch the series.
Openers Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag seemed to be in fine nick and hit some glorious boundaries to launch the innings on a fairly brisk note. Sehwag began the scoring by cracking Shoaib Akhtar to the point boundary in the very first over while Shabbir Ahmed conceded 11 runs in his first over with both Sehwag and Tendulkar hitting him for boundaries.
The openers put on 34 runs for the first wicket before the lanky Shabbir provided the breakthrough by sending back the hard-hitting Sehwag for a 22-ball 20 which contained four boundaries. With the score reading 34, the Delhi batsman slashed at an outside the off-stump delivery but only succeeded in edging the ball to Moin Khan behind the wickets.
Tendulkar played some delightful shots before he too joined his partner in the pavilion, Mohammad Sami being the successful bowler. The batting maestro, who struck seven boundaries during his 48-ball 37, edged an outgoing delivery to Moin, much to the delight of the vociferous Pakistani supporters. India at that stage had put on 79 on the board.
The run rate dropped to some extent after Tendulkar's dismissal as Laxman, who had failed to get a big score in the series so far, and captain Saurav Ganguly played out two consecutive maiden overs. Both batsmen took their time to settle down and then kept the scoreboard moving with gentle pushes and nudges, ensuring that there were no further setbacks to the visitors.
After getting their eyes in, both Laxman and Ganguly picked up the pace of scoring without taking too many risks on what appeared to be a good batting track. The stylish Laxman flicked Abdul Razzak for a single to notch up his half century while Ganguly started playing some aggressive shots, picking up spinner Shoaib Malik for special treatment.
The pair added 92 runs for the third wicket before Ganguly (45 off 64 balls) paid the price for fishing outside the off stump to Shoaib Akhtar, reintroduced in the attack by Inzamam to break the partnership, and Moin collected his third catch. India were 171-3. Laxman got a 'life' when he was on 56 with Taufiq Umar, who was included in the team in place of the erratic Shahid Afridi, dropping him in the deep off Razzak.
Much was expected of 'The Wall' as he walked in, but Rahul Dravid (4) did not bother the scorers much as he was cleaned up by an incoming delivery by Sami, reducing the visitors to 184 for four by the 37th over. The perfect platform for a launch that never did really take off. Yuvraj Singh made an effort to accelerate the pace of scoring and hit a quickfire 18 off 19 balls and adding 44 runs in 36 balls before he mistimed a shot off Shabbir to spoon a simple catch to Inzamam. India were 227-5 at this stage in 42.1 overs.
Laxman carried on batting responsibly and took a single off Malik to notch up his sixth ODI century and the fourth this year. But the stylish Hyderabadi could not survive long after completing his century as he went for a big shot off Malik only to see the ball balloon up and land safely in Sami's hands in the cover region. He struck 11 boundaries during his knock. (253-6).
Kaif (16 off 20 balls) was the next to depart with the score at 276 but it set the stage for some exhilarating cricket from Pathan (20 off 12 balls) and Balaji (10 off 6 balls).
The Indians scored 81 runs off the last ten overs, with the last four overs yielding 40 runs, while the Pakistan bowlers on their part sent down just 16 extras (5 wides and 5 no-balls), a much more disciplined display.
On to the Tests
Incidentally, with this victory, India has moved up on the ICC-ODI championship table, sneaking past Pakistan. The series win has lifted India to the fifth place, with 107 rating points, while Pakistan dropped a place down to sixth. Going in to the series, India were placed seventh with 105 points while Pakistan had 107. Pakistan's points have now fallen to 106, placing them in sixth place, narrowly ahead of England when the ratings are recalculated to three decimal places.
This is for the the first time that India have finished a calendar month ahead of Pakistan in the ICC-ODI Championship table since October 2003. Only three points separate the sides ranked between third and seventh in the official ODI table. England and Sri Lanka have an opportunity to pull away from the pack with if they manage to win their away series against West Indies and Zimbabwe respectively.
The test series assumes interesting prospects when one looks at the ICC-test championship table which currently has Pakistan at number three with 102 points and India at number 5 with 100 points. Australia lead the pack with 125 and South Africa follow with 113.England have 101, New Zealand 100, Sri Lanka 96, West Indies 82, Zimbabwe 55, and Bangladesh 1. If the series is tied 0-0 or 1-1, Indian and Pakistan tally would not change, but India has a good chance of sneaking past Pakistan even in this form if it wins the series by even 1 test (1-0 or 2-1, which would make Pakistan 99 and India 102). If India wins by 2 tests (2-0), it would leave Pakistan at 97 and India on 104. And if India wins by 3 tests (3-0), it would leave Pakistan at 96 and India on 105.
On the other hand, if Pakistan wins the series by even 1 test (1-0 or 2-1) it would make Pakistan 105 and India 99). If Pakistan wins by 2 tests (2-0), it would leave Pakistan at 106 and India on 96. And if Pakistan wins by 3 tests (3-0), it would leave Pakistan at 108 and India on 95.
So the Indian plans should be very clear. If they win even by one test, they would end up on top of Pakistan in both the ICC-championship ratings.
With inputs from PTI