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August 7, 2006
It's quite lucky that Inzamam-ul-Haq, Bob Woolmer and Wasim Bari are men blessed with a plentiful mop of hair. After the performances of Kamran Akmal and Mohammad Sami on this tour and in this match, you suspect they're likely to be pulling some of it out. Not in anger, mind - none are prone to exploding - just mere exasperation.
Take Akmal first. Until this series began, Akmal had barely put even a toe wrong since cementing his place late in 2004; as a keeper, despite the odd blemish, he has been outstanding. And because of his extraordinary run with the bat, even those mistakes have been swept aside. But in this series, he has dropped catches regularly, been consistently untidy and to compound matters, the runs have dried up.
Two more catches were dropped this morning, both crucial in the context of a tight Test, and takes were fluffed with alarming regularity through the day. All of which prompted one Pakistani reader to write in, desperately pleading the PCB to "SEND BACK KAMRAN AKMAL as soon as possible as we are sure any other alternative would be better than him."
This is where the hair-pulling comes in. Does the management drop Akmal after three very poor Tests? Or do they persist with him, in the hope that it is just a blip which he will soon overcome? Evidence from the last year suggests that dropping him might be folly. And, of course, if he is axed who replaces him? There is no obvious understudy; both Zulqernain Haider and Akmal's younger brother Adnan are next in line, in theory, but untested in practice.
There is the merest echo of England's predicament before this Test with Geraint Jones, though they at least had Chris Read as an experienced back-up. It's difficult to pinpoint what has gone wrong - Bari can surely provide clues - but with each passing error, his confidence has dipped. Whatever they do, it is clear an understudy needs to be groomed, sooner rather than later.
The three will need to save some hair though, for the question of Mohammad Sami still floats. He has been abominable for much of the series. Very occasionally, he has riled himself but with the return of two frontline bowlers for the Oval likely, his dropping would have found unanimous backing. Yet he turns up today a different creature entirely to what we have seen thus far.
His morning spell was threatening but the real eye-opener came during an 11-over burst either side of tea. There was bounce and purpose in his run-up and words and attitude in his follow through; in between wasn't bad either, as he suddenly and mysteriously, located both reverse and serious pace, the two attributes which sprung him into the limelight to begin with. Above all, he was visibly more confident. Now for a man whose problems with morale are famously notorious, axing him just as he seems to be locating it is likely to be debilitating in the long-term. Paradoxically, it is justified; Mohammad Sami in a nutshell really.
At least the three have a little time before the next Test; for the rest of us, the hair-pulling begins now at the prospect of a truly delicious final day. Sami and Pakistan battled fantastically hard and their best day in the field came - if I'm allowed to be devil's advocate briefly - under Younis Khan. In truth, each member of the attack bowled with palpably more energy than they have at any stage so far.
Ironically, tomorrow Pakistan will need to dip into Inzamam's vast reservoir of calm if they are to chase down a score they haven't ever done before. But it isn't just the target they deal with. The new ball on a still indeterminate pitch brings it own issues but Danish Kaneria showed in a little passage of play that loopy spin might also play a part (his googly to Kevin Pietersen and the celebration thereafter are deserving of a separate piece altogether). Coincidentally, in another part of the world, another 300-plus target is being hunted down; there, a captain is already keeping at bay a left-arm spinner. What odds a similar scenario tomorrow?
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