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Paes to India's rescue again

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PROUD MOMENT: An emotional Leander Paes is congratulated by his teammates and the coach on Sunday. PHOTO: VIVEK BENDRE
PROUD MOMENT: An emotional Leander Paes is congratulated by his teammates and the coach on Sunday. PHOTO: VIVEK BENDRE

Nandakumar Marar

India wins 3-2 after being stretched beyond the limit

The Indian captain plays through pain Prakash Amritraj goes down fighting to Aisam Qureshi

MUMBAI: Leander Paes, two sets up in the fifth and decisive reverse singles against Aqeel Khan, turned around a script that had gone bizarre after an attack of cramps in the third.

The Indian captain played through pain, held his nerve and game together somehow for two more sets before riding a wave of public support to fashion a thrilling victory in the decider.

India won 3-2 after being stretched beyond the limit in the BNP-Paribas Asia/Oceania Group I play-offs at the Brabourne stadium on Sunday.

"I'm proud to be an Indian today," he said, wrapping the tricolour around the shoulders.

Prakash Amritraj, consumed by stage fright in the first reverse singles against a rampaging Aisam Qureshi, recovered a little of poise under extreme pressure but not enough to prevent Pakistan draw level 2-2.

Facing the heat

Leander stepped in to face the heat, in place of Rohan Bopanna, and humidity-induced cramps resulted in an embarrassing situation when he could neither continue playing the usual fluent game nor concede to injury.

With no fall-back option, India's talisman willed his body to obey the mind, fought back point-by-point on the road to a 6-4, 7-6(4), 3-6, 0-6, 6-1 victory.

Aqeel lost the mind game against his Indian idol, one of the mentally strongest players in the Davis Cup play.

"I was aware Leander would fight it out in the fifth, where his experience helped. When your rival is struggling with cramps, it is the player opposite who faces the biggest problem keeping his game together. I was hasty and ended up making mistakes," said the 1416th-ranked Pakistan player, who will carry this scar for the rest of his life.

Pakistan lost its best chance to defeat India at home after losing the plot at the climax, the decider lasting three hours, 48 minutes.

Leander, playing from memory in the reverse singles, fell back on instincts honed in doubles play to keep Aqeel on tenterhooks with excellent serves, sharp volleying, languid drops and instinctive net play. Except for a disputed line call ruling in the second set tie-breaker going against him, the Pakistan player might well have been a sparring partner.

The match took a different hue in the third set at 1-1 when the Indian captain called the trainer on court for treatment. Mobility reduced to almost zero due to cramps, the former went through the motions till the decider.

Fans shocked

The shocked fans, dismayed at the lack of effort from their hero known for do-or-die approach, kept up a tireless chant. Buoyed by the energy and noise level in the stands, a charged up Leander responded with a bouquet of winners.

"I had taken medicines for cramps and needed time for it to take effect," explained the Indian captain about playing out the third and fourth sets, losing 3-6 and 0-6 before orchestrating the turnaround and justifying his decision to jump into the battle after Prakash had gone down fighting to Aisam.

The results: Reverse singles: Aisam Qureshi bt Prakash Amritraj 6-2, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3; Leander Paes bt Aqeel Khan 6-4, 7-6(4), 3-6, 0-6, 6-1.

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