October 2, 2007

Malik finds his slot

Shoaib Malik and Paul Harris were the stars of the day

Shoaib Malik: A impressive start to his Test captaincy © Getty Images

Pakistan finally woke up but it's still likely to be too late. Spirited they were through the third day, but it felt a defeated spirit, at best a statement perhaps ahead of the second Test that South Africa will not have it so easy again.

For much of this match Pakistan have looked jammed in a previous era, not a team moving into another. Twice as many spinners as fast bowlers seemed a new way of doing things, though possibly not the best. But even Mohammad Asif and Umar Gul have rarely looked so defeated by a surface. The spinners were supposed to have feasted like kings on this pitch, but have instead respected the holy month, until today.

In the bigger picture, Shoaib Malik scrapping away this afternoon was no bad thing. The uncertainty over his promotion to the captaincy revolved more around the timing, not so much the potential. In 18 Tests, he hadn't fully nailed down his place in the middle-order: two of his six fifties and his only Test century have come while opening, so where, if at all, is he best utilised?

There's no if now, for he is leader and on the evidence of today, the middle-order isn't a bad area for him to be in. For one, if conditions are right, there isn't a kind of innings he seems incapable of playing. His only Test century was an eight-hour match-saving one, and unlike his top order, he made the switch from 20 overs to five days without breaking sweat. Solid defence mixed calmly and eagerly with the odd biff, broken up occasionally by a thoroughly correct drive or clip.

The only blemish came in his demise, an ugly, dancing swipe about as necessary as a hole in the head. The situation at the time means that will attract unhealthy attention; a century in his first Test as captain would've been some statement, but a calming 73 isn't a bad way to start.

For all Pakistan's spunk today, however, South Africa have bossed this from the start. Makhaya Ntini apart, they have felt more tangibly up for it everywhere, in the field, with the bat, with the ball. Andre Nel has been the best fast bowler on view, charging in as a bull might to red cloth, twiddling his action, his pace and lengths but never his commitment. It is the way Nel is and so doesn't come as a surprise. Paul Harris, on the other hand, looked the most threatening spinner, which did come as a surprise.

Paul Harris: "Richard Pybus really turned my career around. Mentally especially he was very good for me." © Getty Images

He sparked Pakistan's slide yesterday and completed it today, in the process completing his first five-wicket haul. If you thought a South African spinner taking a five-for was rare - the last time that happened was three years ago - when was the last time a South African spinner took the new ball, as Harris did today?

Mark Boucher, beneficiary with two rare stumpings, reckons Harris is one the best spinners he has kept to. "He's tall, very tall and he gets good bounce. He puts it in consistent areas and is good at building up the pressure."

There is likely more to come from the man who cites top Australian surfer Kelly Slater as his idol ("I can't really think of any left-arm spinners as role models") and didn't become the fast bowler his height deemed him fit for because "there are no fast-twitch muscles in this body so I switched to spin."

He's not exactly an overnight star, for he has been around on the domestic circuit for almost a decade. The season before last, he was the highest wicket-taker domestically. His lack of multi-dimensionality and surfer ways doesn't really fit in with the South African way and he was almost lost to Kolpak.

But he's hung around, and with some help from Richard Pybus, it's paying off. "Richard really turned my career around. Mentally especially he was very good for me. I've been lucky to play on some good pitches so far and any spinner would love to bowl on this pitch."

Though South Africa stuttered late against some improved spin bowling, the lead is already imposing at 235. Boucher reckons anywhere between 320 and 350 is the target. "Our 159-run lead [first innings] is golden at the moment," he said, "because batting is going to be tough from now on. Another hundred runs or so and a 320 lead will be very competitive."

With Harris already itching to bowl on the fourth and fifth days, it is likely to be more than just that.

Osman Samiuddin is the Pakistan editor of Cricinfo