Pakistan v South Africa, 1st Test, Karachi, 4th day October 4, 2007

Pakistan tangled in their own web

When did spin, not pace, become Pakistan's calling card?



'Eight wickets on debut, as Rehman took, is not to be sniffed at though neither is a 200-plus Test wicket legspinner' © AFP

'Are you 1970s India in disguise?' didn't ask any of the banners at the National Stadium in Karachi. At least one should've done, for the trust and emphasis Pakistan have placed on spin in this match has been similar to that India used to in the days of Bedi, Prasanna and their mates. Is it misplaced?

Pakistan went into this Test with, in effect, four spinners. Admittedly the pitch has been brazenly flirting with them from ball one (that too was basically in Pakistan's control) but as a change of policy, we haven't seen the likes since the Taliban became the enemy. Unless the world missed something that Shoaib Malik didn't, when did spin, not pace, become Pakistan's calling card?

Here, pace - and what fine specimens Mohammad Asif and Umar Gul are - has been reduced to roles extras would scoff at. Asif didn't bowl at all today (and he wasn't injured according to the selectors), Gul bowled seven overs, while in all, Pakistan bowled 57 overs.

Barring a break to change ends, Abdur Rehman wheeled away throughout, mostly partnered by Danish Kaneria. Neither was bad and the situation beyond repair anyway, but relying entirely on both, ignoring your pace made for mysterious ways.

Perhaps some myths need to be punctured, and not just that the quickest way to a South African collapse is through the finger or the wrist. Muttiah Muralitharan dispelled that notion last year (though only after taking ten wickets against them): "South Africans are very good players of spin. In the '90s I would say they were weak against spin but not now." On this evidence, Murali is not wrong and if Jacques Kallis does have weaknesses, spin doesn't seem one.

But as with the lazy assumption that Pakistani batsmen handle spin well, so too should be ditched the notion that Pakistan has a great spin bowling tradition and is a spin trap waiting to happen. There have been a few very good ones, no doubt, and one probably great one. Over 55 years.

And even when Abdul Qadir was moodily turning matches, it was mostly in tandem with pace. At its best, a lovely balance has existed: Imran at one end, Qadir at the other, Wasim and Waqar with Mushtaq, Shoaib and Kaneria. Pace has always played lead bully, spin its crafty, snide back-up, scavenging away.

Had Malik chased up some previous in this matter, he may have hesitated before boldly going where few Pakistan captains have gone before. Even at Bangalore in 2005, when Pakistan last heavily relied on spin to win a Test, they found Mohammad Sami in one of those rare, volatile moods willing to blow away whatever came his way.

But the real series to dig up was England's visit in 2000-01. Pakistan, believing England to be frail against spin, played two specialist spinners in Faisalabad, two part-timers and opened the attack with Wasim Akram and Abdul Razzaq. In Lahore they went one better and picked three specialist spinners, one part-time and Akram and Razzaq for variety. In Karachi, they played two specialists and a part-timer, Waqar Younis and Razzaq merely taking shine off the ball. Nobody in Pakistan, and especially here in Karachi, needs reminding of the consequences, and in particular that England's hero was a tall left-arm wheely-bin.

South Africa, who are not muddled and instead utterly realistic about their strengths, have made far better use of the same pitch with four seamers and one spinner. As England's pace attack did back then, Andre Nel and Jacques Kallis have mixed, matched and messed Pakistan up. That has allowed Dale Steyn and Paul Harris a free hand to do what they are there for. So well have they done that an out-of-sync Makhaya Ntini has barely been noticed.

Whatever the result here, Pakistan have a problem to resolve already. Do they stick with spin or slip back to their strength? Eight wickets on debut, as Rehman took, is not to be sniffed at though neither is a 200-plus Test wicket legspinner. Word is that Lahore might also spin and two spinners might play again. Dropping Mohammad Hafeez for a seamer is a get-out clause, though it leaves their opening even weaker, more makeshift than it already is.

Despite Younis Khan's magnificent fit of batting madness in the afternoon, Pakistan are still likely to end up paying the consequences. And if they persist in Lahore, then consequences may be greater still.

Osman Samiuddin is the Pakistan editor of Cricinfo