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October 27, 2006
This is apparently the golden age of batting. Averages are soaring, batsmen average fifty for fun; only three of the world's current top 10 Test batsmen average below 50 and they do so by mere decimals. Test cricket's highest score stood in the name of Garry Sobers for nearly 40 years. Since then, it has been broken thrice in a decade.
Test cricket's highest partnership once stood for 56 years before it was broken in 1990-91. Since then it has also been surpassed thrice, most recently by Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene. Sure, records are meant to be broken but when they start happening so regularly you begin to wonder. Are batsmen really that good? Or has a combination of pitches without life and bowlers without fire bolstered their figures?
On the evidence of this tournament, where pitches have been deviant, it is the latter. Batsmen have moaned from the off; they spin too much, they crumble too much, they seam and bounce too much. Imagine the temerity of that eh? The cheek of it all, damn it, to actually provide an examination for batsmen. Have they not heard that cricket is now a batsman's game and bowlers merely it's occasional characters?
West Indies succumbed to 80 all out, India's top order has struggled, South Africa struggled to reach hundred against New Zealand, Sri Lanka succumbed on a tasty pitch to South Africa and even Australia have faltered. Not a single batsman has scored a hundred in the main rounds. The myth of the golden age lies in tatters, though nowhere was it more excruciatingly shattered than in Mohali today, which suddenly grew Perth's bounce and Headingley's seam.
To Pakistan go the honours, though let's not take anything away from Makhaya Ntini. If you let him bowl on desert sand he might still extract steepling bounce, so committed to each ball is he. On this, it was candy-grabbing not from babies, but from the dead. What has made him special over the last year is that it isn't just the angled bounce into the ribs. He cuts it away now, he nips it in from fuller lengths and he has a handy yorker. But only his most basic quality - bounce - sufficed today.
Pakistan's batsmen have spent this year, after their last home series, proving just how protected they actually are on home pitches. Possibly only Mohammad Yousuf and Mohammad Hafeez of the top order were undone by unplayable deliveries; the rest were just found out against bounce and seam. The embarrassment Pakistan heaped upon themselves at Perth in 2004/05 and Old Trafford this summer found another address, albeit an unusual one, in Mohali.
In a team of equals some were worse than others; Imran Farhat combines the particularly useful skills of not being able to catch with a wardrobe of the most outrageously ill-advised shots. He perished today as he did against New Zealand and the only remarkable aspect was that he didn't offer a chance before he went, as he generally does. Younis Khan might rue taking the captaincy finally and in matching Farhat dismissal for abject dismissal in this tournament, did nothing to dispel the impression that, like Michael Vaughan, ODIs bring out the worst in him. Both shone in what Bob Woolmer called "the worst batting performance I have seen in my time as Pakistan's coach".
South Africa's top order weren't much better, though Jacques Kallis's 17 during the early overs when Umar Gul and Rao Iftikhar were making up for absentee bowlers, deserves the status of a mini-classic. Beaten endlessly, hit once or twice, he still managed a couple of stunning shots and until the very last, a solid defense.
Sometimes nothing beats pure fight, not a racy pitch, not great bowling and that is what Mark Boucher and Justin Kemp provided. The back-up bowling they faced wasn't up to much but when recovering from 42 for five, even the flattest of pitches and friendliest of bowlers make for tough times. Both played smart and in making the slowest fifty of his eight (only two fifties before this were less than a run-a-ball), Kemp's check on his brasher instincts was commendable.
They put on 131 for the sixth wicket and for those who like numbers and coincidences, there are some from another South Africa-Pakistan encounter, in Durban 1994-95. Then, South Africa were reduced to 44 for five, before a sixth-wicket stand of 88 between Jonty Rhodes and wicketkeeper Dave Richardson allowed them to recover to 206. Similarities end there for Pakistan fairly romped to an eight-wicket win with 15 overs to spare.
Australia and India play to decide the remaining semi-finalist on Sunday here and if the pitch is in any way similar to this, you would think the hosts might struggle more. If they do go out, it would mean no subcontinent representation in the semis, thus reaffirming the age-old belief that batsmen from this region struggle on juiced surfaces. The only consolation, on the evidence of this tournament, is they may not be alone.
Stats highlights from the fourth ODI between India and West Indies in Dharamsala