ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 / Features
Pakistan v West Indies, World Cup 2011, 1st quarter-final, Mirpur
Pakistan's bowling variety allows extra batsman
With the kind of choice he has, each bowling change Shahid Afridi makes has ensured that batsmen are unable to fall into the kind of rhythm they thrive on. On the pitches of the subcontinent, that is often a winning ploy
March 22, 2011
Through their unexpectedly smooth progress to the quarter-finals, the one question that has been asked of Pakistan repeatedly has been about the balance of the side. The Akmal brothers and Shoaib Akhtar hijacked matters temporarily, but the only on-field issue has been whether Pakistan have been playing a specialist bowler short to guard against the insecurities about its batting.
On the surface, much of the uneasiness about the combination is an instinctive, intangible one, a knee-jerk reaction to years of Pakistan sides geared around the bowling. No Pakistan team ever plays a bowler short, do they? It gives this combination initially a defensive feel, designed to make sure they can cover the weaknesses in their batting by taking from the strength of their bowling. And Pakistan play best when they are the aggressor, when they have specialists doing what specialists are meant to do.
In the loss to New Zealand, when Abdul Razzaq, Shoaib and Abdur Rehman bowled the last four, pivotal overs, the folly of this strategy came through. Chasing 300-plus subsequently, it wouldn't have made a difference whether they had six, seven or eleven batsmen in the side. Razzaq, who is a vital but underused component of this strategy, made a half-century at No 8, an effort lost on the game.
But after the win against Australia, a revision was in order and the true intent of what Pakistan have been trying to do seeped through. The comfort of Razzaq at eight was, after all, designed precisely for the kind of small innings he played against Australia, an unbeaten 20 that soothed frayed nerves. More tellingly, his two wickets earlier in the day meant Pakistan's attack looked just as Pakistan's attack is meant to look.
Though not conclusive either way, five wins in six games means the dilemma doesn't matter so much right now. And it matters even less because the attack they have played with, a bowler short or not, has actually done so well. "The way our boys have bowled in this competition has been amazing," Shahid Afridi said, with some justification ahead of Wednesday's quarter-final in Mirpur with West Indies. "All the credit [for our progress] goes to them for that. [Umar] Gul, Rehman, [Mohammad] Hafeez, Razzaq all have been bowling very well, Wahab [Riaz] as well."
They are joint-third on the list of team wicket-takers in the tournament, behind South Africa and India and equal with their quarter-final opponents. But for a rain-curtailed game against Zimbabwe, in which they bowled less than 40 overs, they would likely be higher. They also have the top wicket-taker and joint-fourth top wicket-taker of the competition in Afridi and Gul; the latter is the form paceman currently in the world.
But for variety, they are unmatched. In the first-choice XI they have played in the previous two games, they have every modern-day bowling option you can imagine. They have a right-arm fast bowler, a left-arm fast bowler (and both are fast, not fast-medium or some such dilution), a left-arm spinner, an offspinner, a legspinner, a right-arm medium-pacer; save for the chinaman, each and every angle is covered here. They have new ball wicket-takers, old ball reverse-swingers, death-over specialists, choking spinners through the middle, attacking ones through the same.
Just in case of injury or form, they have Shoaib's pace, Saeed Ajmal's off-spin and Junaid Khan's left-arm angle as back-up. So well-stocked have they been with options, they've even opened with spin, something they hadn't done in 13 years before this, and with some success.
And Razzaq apart, each and every one of them have done precisely what they have been asked to, and done it consistently. Hafeez has bowled nearly six overs a game and been miserly (only 4.08 runs per over conceded). He's picked up big wickets regularly, including Ricky Ponting and Upul Tharanga in the two biggest group games. Rehman has gone for only 4.42 an over, building a hurried and sustained pressure at one end.
These are the sweats, not the glory-seekers.
With this kind of choice, each bowling change Afridi makes has ensured that batsmen are unable to fall into the kind of rhythm they thrive on. Each change has brought a change of pace, a change of angle, a change in the degrees of turn to account for; in short, a different challenge.
On the pitches of the subcontinent, that is often a winning ploy.
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