| Sachin Tendulkar congratulates Inzamam-ul Haq after the fifth one-dayer in Kanpur on Friday. (AFP)
Kanpur: Cricket owes its charm and character to the Rahul Dravids. They believe that old values never die and therefore, hold the essence of the game even under the most trying conditions. Such has been the depth of their fighting spirit that they can easily inspire a Mohammed Kaif (here) or a Mahendra Singh Dhoni (in Visakhapatnam), to rise to the occasion.
But once in a while, one Shahid Afridi comes into the picture, hits all systems, norms and calculation for a six, and leaves a mark that is simply indelible.
On Friday, the choc-a-bloc Green Park Stadium here could only breathtakingly watch and wait for the logical end of an inexplicable innings. As Afridi swung his bat and the match in Pakistan's favour ' a five-wicket victory ' India were left with their aspirations writhing in shock and awe. The prospect of Pakistan going into the final Pepsi Cup one-day International in New Delhi on Sunday with a 3-2 lead became a foregone conclusion as early by the first 10 overs of the Pakistan innings. Such was the immediacy and importance of Afridi's 45-ball 102 (out in the next delivery).
As far as the current series is concerned, perhaps Dhoni's 148 in Visakhapatnam will come close in destructive potential, but what sets Afridi's innings apart is the fact that he battled and won the match on his own. Nine sixes and 10 boundaries were the embellishments of his 75-minute blitz, which showed no mercy on any bowler, as stand-in captain Rahul Dravid vainly resorted to a number of containment measures.
Afridi plundered Lakshmipathy Bajali for 23 runs in his second over. Anil Kumble, who replaced the beleaguered bowler, suffered the same treatment. Dinesh Mongia conceded one run less in his opening over as every nook and corner of the ground was scorched by his sheer powerful hitting.
The Pakistan opener missed the opportunity of improving upon his world's quickest 37-ball hundred, but he joined Brian Lara as the second best in the list. Afridi also surpassed Sanath Jayasuriya's record of smashing the most number of sixes in one-day Internationals by six more, at 194.
Very few, however, had prepared for this, when the Green Park wicket welcomed Dravid's decision to bat first, with unpredictable variation in bounce and putting one's skills under immediate scanner. Dravid, in his new assignment, was thrust into a chaotic situation as his team was tottering at 11 for two.
Both openers ' Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag ' had gone back to the pavilion falling pray to the unexpected low bounce and the advantage of winning the toss was under serious threat.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh soon followed, being unable to handle the vagaries of the pitch. Rana Naved-ul Hasan was firing at that time, pushing the absence of Mohammed Sami (who missed the match due to a side strain) to the background. Rana was accurate and made good use of the pitch. He returned his first-spell figures of three for 18 in seven overs.
India reached 53 for three when the field restrictions were over, giving the indication that a festival of runs was not to be the case here, as had been on the past four occasions in the series.
It was, thus, left to Dravid and Kaif, who had spent quite a bit of his formative years at the track, to encounter a surface, especially at the media-centre end, where the balls shot up surprisingly from a good length at times and at others, kept so low that one had to really stoop to avoid the danger.
A watchful start, accompanied by precision of the duo's movement at the crease, was the quiet prelude to a dazzling exhibition of strokeplay towards the end. Kaif flicked Shoaib Malik twice in the same over while Dravid deftly swept Afridi on his way to the fifty. They were already hinting at great things to come. Kaif (78 off 90 balls) departed when India were looking forward to a position of strength. His captain, on the other hand, carried on till he perished on the penultimate ball.
The Dravid-Kaif fifth wicket partnership yielded 135 off 160 deliveries.
Dravid's 86 turned out to be his highest as the captain, surpassing 59 (against Australia, in Mumbai two years ago).
Mongia clobbered Ardhad Khan for a couple of sixes as India returned to enjoy the lunch with 249 for six on the board and an assurance that they had a great chance of going up again in the series.
They came back to the field with the same conviction. Their challenge looked imposing and the track difficult to bat on, till Afridi came and told them, 'what about this'