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July 27, 2006
Marbles, or a lack thereof, shouldn't take too much away from a quite special display of fast bowling from Steve Harmison and some feisty spin from Monty Panesar, the latter prolonging a recent Pakistani tradition of failures against left-arm spinners (Ashley Giles, Mohammad Rafique and even the Sri Lankan Rangana Herath for the prosecution please).
It's a puzzling pattern with no obvious explanation, except that on evidence of the shots Mohammad Yousuf, Faisal Iqbal and Shahid Afridi played against Panesar, clearly they don't seem to think too highly of that brand of bowling. Ultimately, in fact, despite the bowling, there will be few batsmen - only Inzamam-ul-Haq actually - who can look back and point to either an uncertainly bouncing pitch or a special delivery as the cause of a collapse (8 for 29) that England circa 1992 would have been proud of.
Marbles also have no outward correlation to selection policies (although given the number of changes Pakistan have made to their opening combination in recent times, there is an absence of them somewhere). Not many would have punted on Kamran Akmal being the first right-handed Test opener of the English summer (the fifth successive Test Pakistan have changed at least one of their top two).
There had even been suggestions from the Pakistan camp that Salman Butt and Imran Farhat would - commendably - be given an extended run, and that change merely for change's sake was not on. Would Shahid Afridi have been a better choice to open, not so much because he might have scored more runs than Akmal but because the strength of the lower order - of which Akmal is such a vital part - might not have been compromised?
With no ready explanation we should perhaps assume that Akmal's promotion was an odd tribute to Imtiaz Ahmed's promotion, for the first time, to opener in the Old Trafford Test almost exactly 52 years ago. Whatever it was, a bet on Akmal not succeeding probably attracted lower odds. Butt was dropped again thereby ensuring that if he retained any modicum of confidence after the treatment he has received in his short career, he is unlikely to do so now. At the very least you hope someone explained to him why he, and not Farhat, was dropped in light of recent failures from both; surely the latter's catching abilities (what are the odds of him ever hanging onto one?) didn't sway the vote?
On the recent occasions when Pakistan's batting has failed, they have been able to call upon their bowling to bail them out. It looks unlikely to do so here which you might argue is expected with Mohammad Asif, Shoaib Akhtar and Rana Naved-ul-Hasan not around, but that shouldn't be the case. The attack that won the Bangalore Test in March 2005 was, on paper, weaker than this one (Arshad Khan played and not Umar Gul).
And on reflection, Pakistan's bowlers did have a real honest toil about them in the afternoon - it's just that they missed the kind of edge that is needed to defend a nothing total. Mohammad Sami could consider himself lucky to still be in the side and though he could hardly get worse, he bowled with considerably more zest and verve than he has done at any stage in recent months.
Whatever else Sami may or may not possess, fortune is not his most reliable mate and if today's display doesn't convince you (one dropped catch, a couple of streaky edges) then this analysis in the Numbers Game might. Danish Kaneria will argue that whatever Sami has by way of luck is contagious and Faisal Iqbal's freakish injury later in the day suggests that it might be a geographical curse, hailing as all of them do, from Karachi.
Already the lead is now mounting and the pitch - as often happens with low first-innings totals - apparently inclined to schizophrenia. All of which leaves even the staunchest proponents of Pakistan's bouncebackability, in serious and grave contemplation: a pose which Rodin would tell you makes for nice marble statues.
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