January 9, 2000

Australia sinks as Shoaib resurfaces

To say that this was an unusual day in the life of Shoaib Akhtar and of Pakistan cricket in general would be a gross understatement. To postulate that it was momentous probably would not be overselling the position either. In whatever manner it is described, though, it is likely that it will ultimately be one upon which he and his Pakistani teammates will look back with supreme fondness; a forty-five run victory over Australia in the opening match of the Carlton and United Series here in Brisbane coming at the end of an extraordinary twenty-four hours of action both on and off the field.

The day started, in fact, with the young paceman at the completely opposite end of the country to the one in which this match was being played. Indeed, he was in Perth - around five hours away by plane - and seemingly not in any position to play in this match at all. That he should have been so distant, and not with his countrymen, was the legacy of the much publicised decision eleven days ago of the International Cricket Council (ICC) to ban him from all cricket on account of an allegedly suspect bowling action.

It was in the early hours of the morning that matters began to change markedly for him. It was then that he was provided with the news that chairman Jagmohan Dalmiya, on behalf of the ICC, had decided to lift the ban - although whether the reprieve is temporary or permanent appears to remain unclear. And, although his humiliation was not completely over - for he was surrounded and jostled by waiting cameramen (at the core of a general media scrum) after being escorted to the ground late in a four wheel drive vehicle - it was from there that the portents for a remarkable day of cricket began to be set in place.

Initially, Pakistan struggled on the field of play. Indeed, after winning the toss and electing to bat, the visitors laboured badly, collapsing to a mark of 6/60 at one stage in an innings which was generally devoid of any real momentum. The first wicket - that of Mohammad Wasim (0) - was surrendered in just the second over and the top and middle order fell with almost equivalent frequency thereafter. Against a persistently accurate attack, and in the face of some fine all round fielding, the Pakistanis were never able to garner any real sense of resistance; only a fortythree run partnership between Wasim Akram (35) and Moin Khan (33) for the seventh wicket and then an unexpected yet brilliantly steadfast one of fifty-seven for the ninth between Saqlain Mushtaq (37*) and Waqar Younis (23*) offering salvation. It was symbolic indeed that even the first two of those batsmen fell to appalling pieces of judgement - Moin out to a loosely top edged sweep at Shane Warne and Wasim suicidally setting off for a single after pushing a shot virtually straight to Ricky Ponting at extra cover.

It would have been hard to imagine that anything but the opposite mood would have been prevailing within the Australian camp at that stage. After losing the toss and on a generally true pitch, they in fact hardly put a foot wrong until the moment at which Saqlain and Waqar were brought together. Glenn McGrath (who claimed 1/35 off his ten overs despite conceding a massive seventeen runs from the final over of the innings) and local hero Adam Dale (1/19 off ten) set the tone with excellent opening spells, maintaining a perfect length and moving the ball both ways to the general discomfiture of each of the batsmen to whom they bowled. And while both Warne (2/52) and one-day international debutant Brett Lee (0/39) were at far from their best, it scarcely mattered; particularly once part time medium pacer Andrew Symonds (3/34) had cut an early swathe of his own through the Pakistani order.

But, for as one-sided as the affair seemed in a season of lopsided matches, there was still at least one more dramatic Shoaib-inspired twist to follow. Essentially, it arrived in the sixteenth over of the Australian innings with the locals apparently cruising to victory on the back of a rapid fire partnership of fifty-three runs for the second wicket between Ponting (32) and Adam Gilchrist (27). More specifically, it came in the form of two wickets in successive balls in the sixteenth over for the paceman, whose success (together with the generous, moving support afforded him by a huge 'Gabba crowd) must surely have swelled tears in more than one eye on what was a public holiday back in his home nation.

Bowling wholeheartedly, with sheer energy and aggression, and in front of a panoply of flashing camera bulbs, he first removed Ponting with a delightful leg cutter that was edged straight to second slip and then followed up with a scorching off cutter that trapped Australian captain Steve Waugh (0) palpably lbw. Later, he foxed Dale (15) into spooning a shot to cover but, after that, there was little more that he needed to do in the way of wickettaking and his final figures of 3/31 from seven overs spoke loudly of the extent of his triumph.

Inspired by their brave teammate's burst, Shoaib's fellow pacemen then exposed further, and ultimately fatal, weaknesses in a suddenly brittle Australia's defences. Man of the match Abdur Razzaq (4/23) was the first to join in, doing so emphatically as he also claimed wickets with successive deliveries in a stunning spell of his own. He induced an always uncomfortable-looking Damien Martyn (4) to drive away from his body to gully to end a poor innings; forced Symonds (0) to retreat after edging his first ball to second slip with his next ball; and then smeared the stumps of Lee (2) with a glorious inswinging yorker.

As Australia crashed to lose five wickets for seven runs in the process, so the crowd seemed to lose its previously deafening voice and so indeed thoughts turned to their team's inability to find its way to a better position than this after having their opponents not only 6/60 but also 8/127 earlier in the day. It was merely left to Waqar (2/25) to wrap up the exhibition at 139 around yet another innings of sheer defiance from Michael Bevan (31*) and another of significant courage from an injured Shane Warne (9).

Polemics will doubtless follow this day's cricket and Dalmiya's actions, coming as they do at the end of a remarkable fortnight, during which the very validity of Shoaib's immediate future as an international cricketer has hung gravely in the balance. As things stand now, cricket seems as far away from an answer to the whole contentious issue of chucking as it has ever done. Even the ICC's actions in forming a panel to scrutinise suspect actions and supposedly ease the pressure upon umpires who seek to no-ball apparently thrown deliveries appears only to have inadvertently exacerbated the difficulties which apply in such circumstances. Although the ban on Shoaib actually made for this most emotional of re-appearances, cricket's authorities should indeed hang their heads in shame that it should ever have come to this. This whole saga has been a mess and that it leaves the players and all who follow the game in such confusion is a matter of serious regret.