Australia v Pakistan, 2nd Test, Melbourne, 2nd day December 27, 2004

The incisive counterpunch

Damien Martyn: Stealthy and extremely effective © Getty Images

What lay behind Manchester United's unprecedented success during the mid to late '90s and in particular their treble-winning season in 1999 was their frightening ability to launch swift, incisive counterattacks. Time and again that season, game after game, they soaked up endless, relentless pressure by launching raids of their own through the quick feet of Ryan Giggs and the telepathic, contrasting partnership in front of goal between Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole. Much of Australia's success, and in particular, the spectacular nature of it, has its roots in a similar ability.

Like Manchester United, they are blessed with a group of players capable of pulling off such feats in divergent styles. Yesterday afternoon, at 286 for 3, Australia were, for the first time since the first morning at Perth, in some trouble. Warne outwitted Youhana, new ball was taken, enter Jason Gillespie, innings over this morning, with the addition of a paltry 55 runs. Simple, incisive, professional. Then after the loss of two early wickets, Damien Martyn and Justin Langer launched their counter.

It is difficult to find two batsmen as contrasting in their approach as Martyn and Langer, and two who have been as crucial to their side's success. Langer, as so many left-handers somehow are, is as cussed and dogged as you find them. There is little that is pretty in his nurdles, slants and deflections. Sometimes he slog-sweeps over midwicket for six and today he pulled off an audacious short-arm pull off Shoaib Akhtar to a ball that wasn't really that short. Occasionally, he unfurled a glorious cover-drive, as if to prove that he can be stylish when he wanted. Usually, as he did today, he battles - with his bad back, against some excellent bowling as there was from Mohammad Sami, and also against some hyped up bowlers, as from Akhtar. One over - the 19th - revealed much. Shoaib charged in, Langer allowed himself one of those cover-drives that Shahid Afridi did well to stop. Akhtar, affronted, glared. Langer glared back and mouthed something along the lines of "Have you got a problem mate?" A couple of balls later, Langer stuck out his hand to signal a no-ball himself, unbowed and uncompromising; aggression repelled.

Watching at the other end, unflappable, was Martyn. He was more stealth, less confrontational. Arguably, he was as effective. Today, he began with a streaky four, but thereafter continued in the flowing, unhindered vein that has lit up this year, one in which he has scored nearly 1300 runs with five centuries. There is an Asian batsmen inside him somewhere battling to come out, and his temperament had hints of one early in his career. Every now and again in some of his leg-side play, and in the wristiness of his play square of the wicket, you see the flamboyance, the balance and poise. One late cut, at which he immediately reprimanded himself, landed just short of gully and it could've come from any of a number of Pakistan batsmen on the field. Today, he was as stylish as Youhana was yesterday, but there was a correctness, a realness about it that comes from having done it on more than one occasion.

But Martyn and Langer's counterattack was repelled to some extent by a willing attack, led - shockingly - with maturity by Shoaib. The run-up was still long, the showmanship was too, and the stamina was still poor. But these distractions mask a growing threat. There was a time, when with Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram were on their last legs, Shoaib's career was more talk than deeds. In 2001, he had taken 50 wickets in 17 Tests leading many to believe, justifiably, that he was little more than hype.

Shoaib Akthar led the Pakistan attack with maturity © Getty Images

But since becoming, unequivocally Pakistan's leading strike bowler, he has thrived. It isn't only that he has taken over 90 wickets at less than 18 since then. It is that he has taken them against all opposition and in all conditions, bar one series. He failed against India's star-studded line-up earlier this year, but he isn't the first and he won't be the last to do that.

At Perth, he was the one bowler who looked capable of taking a wicket, and until Danish Kaneria found his rhythm and confidence today, he seemed the only one again. He cut down the pace fractionally, to the benefit of his control. And he wasn't able to generate as much reverse-swing as often and willfully as his predecessors did, but in taking the wickets of Matthew Hayden and in particular Darren Lehmann, he revealed some brain to go with the undoubted brawn. And it takes some bowler to dominate - and border on intimidating - Hayden.

His bowling, and Kaneria's guile later, lit up another riveting and competitive day of cricket. It didn't seem that way when Abdul Razzaq was playing the oddest innings of an increasingly regressive career early this morning, to gift the momentum back to Australia. Attack, counter, attack, counter - it has been this way for most of this match. When Kaneria outfoxed the irrepressible Michael Clarke, it turned again, but the arrival of the embodiment of the counter - Adam Gilchrist - signaled, before even a ball was bowled, the start of its most decisive phase.

Osman Samiuddin is a freelance journalist based in Karachi.