Gul lays the Shoaib factor to rest
After ejecting himself somewhat scandalously from the Pakistan dressing room yet again before a major tournament, that model team-man Shoaib Akhtar postured, somewhat melodramatically, that he would find it difficult to forgive himself if Pakistan suffered in the tournament on account of poor bowling. Shoaib must be at peace with himself now: Pakistan's journey to the final has been plotted by the bowlers, so much so that it's hard to see how they could have done any better with Shoaib in the team. On the contrary, it could have been worse.
Sohail Tanvir, the man who replaced Shoaib in the team, has gone at under seven an over and his quirky, wrong-footed action has presented a challenge to all batsmen who have taken a few balls to figure him out - and a few balls is a lot in Twenty20. Mohammed Asif has generally been good with the new ball and Shahid Afridi, with his bag of wheezing topspinners, mildly turning leg-breaks and fast straight balls, has rarely allowed batsmen to unleash big shots against him. They have one thing in common: discipline and consistency, not traits familiar to them.
No one has embodied this better than Umar Gul. One of the lesser lights in the Pakistani pace battallion, and someone prone to injury and inconsistency, he has been a match-turner in a format designed to break the will and heart of bowlers. His last three overs against Australia turned the match in Pakistan's favour and his four overs today all but won it.
He came on when the match was in the balance. New Zealand had built a base to launch an assault. Asif and Tanvir had bowled a few tight overs at the start but New Zealand had got to a position - 72 for 1 after ten - from where 160 seemed a certainty and, with a couple of big overs, 180 a possibility. After all, the heavy bats - Craig McMillan and Jacob Oram - waited in the dugout.
From here, Gul bowled his four overs for 15 runs with returns of three wickets. His first three balls produced no runs - there was one more dot ball later in the over - and his second over produced two wickets. In all, there were 14 dot balls and he conceded only one four, an edge to third man by Craig McMillan.
Often in Twenty20, and especially in the late overs, wickets are gifted to bowlers by batsmen going hell for leather. But Gul's wickets were not by chance. He forced the batsmen to play desperate shots because he allowed them no liberty, not even a sniff. The line was unerringly steady, on or around off-stump, no wides, and not one ball on leg. It allowed his captain to set a field for him, five to six men on the off, and fine leg comfortably in the circle. But it was length that did it.
Remarkably, he didn't stick to one length but varied it expertly, from just short of length to yorkers with the occasional sharp bouncer. He gave the batsmen no room and his unpredictability with the length didn't allow them to plan their strokes. Peter Fulton was surprised by a low full-toss that he could only manage to pat to cover, and Oram was had with brilliantly executed balls. The first one was a bouncer from over the wicket, the second a yorker from round, followed by another fuller, but a bit shorter than the earlier one; this one Oram aimed to loft over cover by backing away but only managed to tickle to the wicket-keeper. It was a stroke played in the knowledge there would be no easy hits on offer.
With Afridi wheeling away two good overs at the other end, New Zealand's run-rate retarded to six when it should have galloped away and the loss of wickets - including two comical run-outs - meant there could be no sting at the end. Ross Taylor, who was involved in both the run-outs, dragged New Zealand past 140 with a few blows in the last over but it was twenty short.
Remarkably, once again Pakistan had out-fielded a team reputed for its outcricket. Admittedly, they conceded a few overthrows, including one to an unnecessary direct hit, and their outfielders were, on occasion, slow to the ball, but they caught everything and were generally sharp in the ring. In contrast, New Zealand missed three catches - a sitter, a difficult chance and one that wasn't even attempted - and a run-out in the second over.
Difficult to say if it was nerves but, once again, New Zealand have stumbled at the semi-final stage. Perhaps it is their limit.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo and Cricinfo Magazine