May 22, 2000

Match in the balance

True to its established custom, Kensington Oval has contrived another Test match of intriguing possibilities.

Pakistan and the West Indies have battled tooth-and-nail over four days of absorbing and fluctuating cricket and enter the last day of the second Test this morning with any one of the four results possible.

Led by a glittering 131 by 18-year-old Imran Nazir, who became Test cricket's third youngest century-maker, and his opening partnership of 219 with Mohammed Wasim, Pakistan converted a significant deficit of 145 into a lead of exactly 200 when the fourth day was called seven overs early because of fading light.

They were 345 for seven and, but for their baffling diffidence over the final two sessions and two extraordinary feats of endurance and excellence by the two oldest men in the game, Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose, would have been in a position to dictate terms for the remaining 90 overs.

Their tactics over the final two sessions, when they dawdled over 58 overs to add 92 in losing four wickets, betrayed a lack of self-belief as much as the predicted, if negligible deterioration in the flat, placid pitch.

While the unvarying West Indies bowling could induce no response from the hard, true surface and indulged in containment, Pakistan possess Mushtaq Ahmed and Saqlain Mushtaq, two of the finest spinners in the game who are likely to find a dry surface far more to their liking.

Saqlain's variable off-spin earned him five wickets for 121 from 51 compelling overs when the pitch was at its best in the West Indies first innings 398. He can anticipate similar work today.

So can Mushtaq, the little leg-spinner who will be encouraged by the presence of seven left-handers in the top nine in the West Indies order and the increasing evidence of worn bowlers' footmarks, out of which West Indies captain Jimmy Adams' basic left-arm spin snared two wickets late yesterday.

History also predicates a difficult task for the West Indies. Only twice has the team batting last at Kensington Oval scored over 200 to win - each time the West Indies - and then only just.

Brian Lara's extraordinary, unbeaten 153 last year carried them to 311 and their last-day, one-wicket victory over Australia in a Test widely regarded as one of the finest of all time.

There is no Lara this time and, for all the promise of some of their younger players, there is no batsman near Lara's class in their team.

The other occasion was against Pakistan in 1988 when they achieved their target of 268 with the ninth-wicket pair, Jeffrey Dujon and Winston Benjamin, together.

What does encourage West Indian optimism is the spirit and confidence they have gained during the season that manifested itself again yesterday in how they retrieved a situation that, at lunch, had all but slipped from their grasp.

The Pakistan innings followed a mystifying pattern yesterday.

The stand between Nazir and Wasim was already worth 152 at the start.

Nazir, 94 on resumption, took only 20 minutes to punch Walsh through the covers off the backfoot for his 15th boundary to pass his landmark in his second Test.

Only fellow Pakistani Mushtaq Mohammed, against India in Delhi in 1961, and India's Sachin Tendulkar, against England at Manchester in 1990, both 17, have done the deed at a younger age.

A surprise

The pair seemed in such control that it was a surprise when they were out within 13 runs of each other to the lively Reon King, who also removed Younis Khan for 21 before lunch.

Wasim was the first lbw victim of the match, to an inswinger, out for 84 after four hours, ten minutes in which he hit eight fours.

Ten minutes later, Nazir, aiming for his 21st boundary, rifled a catch to Adams' midrift at extra-cover driving through the line.

He had hit almost everything off the centre of his bat, had not offered a chance and the closest he came to an earlier exit was when he was so flummoxed by Walsh's slower ball, he ducked and took in on the right shin.

Umpire Eddie Nicholls needed precise judgement to rule that it would have missed the stumps.

Younis replaced him and smashed 23 off 17 balls with five fours, three in an over off the expensive Nixon McLean, before his extravagant cut was edged into Ridley Jacobs' gloves.

Pakistan compiled 101 off 25 overs in the first session and gave every hint that they were intent on compiling a workable lead as quickly as possible to gain time for their bowlers in the West Indies' second innings.

They then changed gears to such a decelerating extent that they added only 92 runs off the remaining 58 overs to the close.

Inzamam-ul-Haq, as dashing a batsman as there is in world cricket when in the mood, spent two hours and 74 balls carefully compiling 29.

Walsh's slower ball confused him as it had Nazir earlier and, playing too early, he gave a simple return catch from the leading edge.

Yousuf Youhanna was even more careful.

The first innings century-maker occupied an hour-and-three-quarters and 80 balls over 19 and then followed Inzamam back to the pavilion an over later, driving a low catch to Adams at extra-cover during McLean's only decent spell of the match.

Walsh and Ambrose were mainly responsible for reining in the scoring.

In ennervating heat, on rock hard ground and with everything to discourage him, Walsh typically defied the situation and his 37 years to send down 12 consecutive overs for 18 runs between lunch and tea.

He deserved much more than Imzamam's wicket from 28 overs all told.

Ambrose, 36, took over from his long-time partner at the northern end the over before tea and delivered 15 wicketless overs for a miserly 16 runs in the final session.

His 30 overs have cost him 49 runs, a remarkable statistic in such conditions.

Pakistan managed 45 off the 26 overs between intervals, 47 off 32 before the light faded, losing two wickets in the former, Moin Khan, played on, and Wasim Akram, taken off bat and pad at short-leg, in the latter.

It was either a big bluff or things really were that difficult. We'll see today.