March 9, 2011

Look out, it's Bukhari v Chawla

It isn't exactly international cricket's new big rivalry but the Netherlands allrounder and Indian spinner have history, kinda

Mudassar Bukhari has a score to settle with Piyush Chawla. It's not the kind of one-on-one tussle that is likely to start an epic. It's not a Shane Warne versus Daryll Cullinan, Zaheer Khan versus Graeme Smith or any left-arm spinner versus Kevin Pietersen personal vendetta. But it's the competitiveness that has been missing in matches between Associates and Full Members.

Bukhari and Chawla's is a story that dates back five years, when the two were still playing for their respective countries' A teams. It was a six-nation tournament in the United Arab Emirates, featuring the A teams of the hosts, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Ireland and Netherlands. It was Bukhari's first tour for the Netherlands A, but more importantly, it was the first time he would play with a hard ball on a turf pitch. He had faced a hard ball before and bowled with one, but only on matting pitches. This was going to be a new experience. Things started off badly when he conceded 61 in his 10 overs in the first match against India A, but he got another chance with the bat. The Dutch were chasing 312 and had all but expired on 80 on 5 when Bukhari came in. He took his guard against Chawla. "He got me out first ball," Bukhari said.

The duck walk he did that day might provide the inspiration for Bukhari to show the Indian spinner how much he has changed, and even improved, since they first met. To begin with, he now regularly plays on turf pitches. "There are only four turf pitches in Holland," he said. "If you don't play for one of the clubs where they have a turf pitch, you will probably only play three games a year on that kind of surface. I play for Amsterdam Cricket Club which is where one of the four is."

Playing more regularly on a surface that is used at the level of international cricket that the Dutch are aspiring to has been an advantage to Bukhari ahead of this World Cup, although it has been challenging. "The ball skids more on a matting wicket so it's a big adjustment to make." Bowling on subcontinent pitches has only added to the difficulty, with wickets not traditionally suiting seamers. "It's very difficult to bowl here," Bukhari said. "The pitches are so flat and hard."

It showed in the first two matches, where Bukhari battled, first against England, although he did claim the wicket of the in-form Andrew Strauss, and then against West Indies, where he splayed his lines and lengths all over, and was lucky to escape with only 65 runs off his 10 overs. He pulled it back beautifully against South Africa, where he seemed to have understood that even without express pace, control will ensure his figures don't get distorted out of respectable shape. That match, in Mohali, was at the most seamer-friendly of the venues the Dutch have played at so far, and Bukhari should be proud that he was able to exploit the conditions to his advantage.

He currently has the lowest economy rate out of the bowlers from his team at this event - still high at more than six runs to the over - an indication of his ability and perhaps even his Pakistani bowler genes, something he suggested. "Cricket is in my blood," he said, smiling broadly. Bukhari was born in Punjab and left Pakistan with his family at the age of 14. He still has family in Pakistan, who live an hour outside Islamabad, and he goes back to visit them occasionally, and still has close ties to the land of his birth.

The World Cup has provided an occasion for him to meet other journeymen, those born in Pakistan who now play for other countries. One of the people Bukhari most enjoyed meeting was South Africa's Imran Tahir. "I saw him on the first day in Delhi at breakfast and I went to have a chat to him. We spoke about where our families are from and how things are back in Pakistan. We decided to meet for lunch in Mohali too."

Bukhari said he has never thought about playing for Pakistan but he does have a lot of admiration for the way they have performed over the years "I looked up to Waqar Younis a lot, but my favourite was Imran Khan." It's interesting that Bukhari did not name more of Pakistan's clutch of quicks in his list of favourite players, no Wasim Akram, or Shoaib Akhtar but instead made reference to Pakistan's greatest allrounder. It's because Bukhari regards himself primarily as an allrounder, even though his batting has not had much exposure on the international stage.

Besides a 71 against Ireland and 61 against Bermuda in 2007, Bukhari has no other score over 40. His average is in the teens but it's something he hopes he will be given more opportunity to excel in. "I can open and sometimes I am used a pinch-hitter somewhere higher up in the order." In his quest to become one of the Netherlands' premier allrounders, he must look up to some other allrounders in international cricket.

Someone like Jacques Kallis, perhaps? Not a chance. "Kallis is a good player but I don't like his batting," he said with a sheepish grin. Instead, in a way that perhaps underlines his subcontinental roots, it's Indian captain MS Dhoni whom Bukhari is in awe of. "It's just something about him, his confidence."And that's why Dhoni's wicket is the one Bukhari is targeting. The hunger in his eyes when he talks about the one scalp he would cherish is unmistakable, and the Indian captain would do well to be a wary of a man so desperate to be the one that gets him out. If it doesn't happen, he may switch to targeting Chawla - after all, there'll be some joy in that too.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent