Spinning with a smile
The day before this Test he wasn't happy. Catches had been dropped - they have been for some time - and he had been without spark on his home ground, against opponents he fancies. In truth, he was also a touch overshadowed by the newbie Abdur Rehman, reduced on day four of a turner to the secondary spinner: "It was slow turn yaar (mate)." There was even idle talk of Kaneria being dropped for Lahore.
Had it happened, it might even have overshadowed the man to whom this Test is dedicated. Near enough four years ago against the same opponents, Pakistan held, in effect, a spin-out to decide which legspinner to bank on. Kaneria and Mushtaq Ahmed played the two-Test series: the former won a Test in Lahore, the latter did little, and Pakistan had a new leggie.
Since then Pakistan have played 34 Tests and Kaneria has missed only one. He's taken 141 wickets in that time, some of them expensive (35.46) and not all of them quickly (70.2 balls per wicket). But lead man he has been and if ever proof was needed as to why, then today was it.
When no one is sure really what the pitch will do (bounce, turn, a little seam too?); when the attack not only looks light, but unbalanced; when some bowlers, like Umar Gul, are having an off-day; when fate conspires against others, like Mohammad Asif; when batsmen get municipal permission and build houses at the crease; for such days is Kaneria.
He doesn't always make fools of men as Shane Warne or Abdul Qadir did and neither does he carry the precise threat of Anil Kumble. He bowls good balls more often than wicket-taking ones, occasionally he loses some fizz and South Africans at least are reading his googly better. Sometimes you can even lose interest in a Kaneria spell, until suddenly he takes a wicket and for about half an hour thereafter, you shouldn't move.
|The brief was wide-ranging and flexible: strike, but if not, then at least make runs dear. He has done this many times before and didn't stop doing it till well after tea, a shoulder-yanking 27-over spell later|
But he is Pakistan's get-out clause. When pace failed to take more than one in the morning, and the pitch lost some spice after about 20 minutes, Kaneria came on, the day only 12 overs old. The brief was wide-ranging and flexible: strike, but if not, then at least make runs dear. He has done this many times before and didn't stop doing it till well after tea, a shoulder-yanking 27-over spell later. Only in his last two overs did he look fatigued.
He also procured into the bargain two key wickets: what little gap there was in Graeme Smith's defence, he found it with a sharply-spun leg-break but given his form, Jacques Kallis for 59 was not just key, it was Christmas, Eid and Diwali all at once. And it was just reward too, for Kaneria had Kallis in more trouble than he has been in since setting foot at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi last week. It was the wrong 'un too. But during that hour from the mid-day drinks break right up to tea, when Kallis fell, Kaneria took some heat from the skies and put it onto the batsmen.
Ultimately it kept Pakistan in the hunt, even tilting it as Ashwell Prince said later, a little in the host's favour. Even when they didn't look like getting wickets, South Africa never looked like getting away. Prince, who played Kaneria with the same left-handed bluntness that has so annoyed him through his career, assessed Kaneria best later in the day. "It's hard for him to come on so early on the first day, but he did a good job of it."
A good job is exactly what it was, not the art form legspin is stereotyped as but something that needed to be done. Shoaib Malik will not be complaining. And tonight Kaneria will no doubt bring out the other smile like he brings out the other one: not of mischief, but content.
Osman Samiuddin is the Pakistan editor of Cricinfo