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November 14, 2005
It's been said before but it bears reiterating. On the surface, Shabbir Ahmed doesn't have much going for him as a Pakistani fast bowler. He doesn't fit the stereotype of modern day Pakistani fast bowling but in the few Tests he has played, he has repeatedly proved that he doesn't get the credit that should be his due.
He's tall but not in possession of the same daunting frames that Imran, Wasim, Waqar and Shoaib bring from 22 yards. He doesn't induce a fraction of the haste in batsmen as any of the others did.
Further his hunched approach to the crease and an action uneasy on the eye doesn't build up the thrilling anticipation of delivery as his predecessors and contemporaries did. It is his action, of course, that drives the doubt inherent in acknowledging him. His four wickets here, after all, make him the joint-fastest Pakistani to 50 wickets in Tests (10) with Waqar Younis.
He's been reported three times already in his brief career and as the ICC found, his action in his last Test looked shockingly ragged. Although he looked here to have rectified the kink, whenever and however his career ends, notoriety will hang over his head like a mark of the doomed.
His action aside, often, as it did yesterday, his threat can seem genteel, although it rarely is. It just isn't what we are accustomed to. While the other four bowlers in Pakistan's attack conceded runs at just under four an over yesterday, Shabbir lolled in for 13 overs of parsimony at under two and a half runs an over. This is why he is so effective. He only picked up one wicket but his dismissal of Trescothick today partly epitomised his value. Yesterday, pre and post-lunch, he adhered intelligently round the wicket to Trescothick, just outside off-stump, but angling in and constrictive. Today, with the same line he eventually induced the edge.
He doesn't possess the mind-numbing accuracy of McGrath - few do - but he produces discreet shifts in angles, lines, moving the ball just enough to induce uncertainty and edges. One advantage of his awkward, gangly frame is that it purchases him bounce, often unexpected. The top of Geraint Jones's off-stump was pegged back by one such invention, pitching good-length outside off and nipping back a touch.
The completed package has resulted in wickets in conditions as diverse as New Zealand, West Indies and Pakistan. It has resulted in a bowler who is unjustly underrated, even doubted. But with the extra baggage he carries, it isn't surprising that there were persistent mutterings, intensified yesterday, about his selection ahead of Rana Naved-ul-Hasan.
What was surprising, and pleasantly so, was the zeal which imbued Shoaib Akhtar's work today. Like Shabbir's action, questions will always hover over Shoaib's commitment and his fitness. But his two spells were both of reasonable duration- five in the morning and seven before and after lunch - and incisive, in getting rid, first of a pesky nightwatchman and then of a potentially destructive Flintoff. And despite our unhealthy obsession with his speed, that he was consistently above 90mph towards the death of an innings where he bowled 27 overs (only the fourth time he has bowled more than 25 overs in an innings in his last 15 Tests) should be highlighted. For someone whose fitness is shrouded in so much doubt, it would have gone a little way towards assuaging them.
The commitment in the field was almost mirrored in their batting, although not entirely; Younis Khan's unnecessary late waft was, potentially, a pivotal dismissal. Salman Butt, at least, was determined to follow the lead of his bowlers. His 53 runs encompassed a familiar wristiness, but it should be applauded more for his survival of two thorough examinations. He barely passed the first - when Flintoff asked all sorts of questions with the short ball - and more confidently the second, when Trescothick again tested his affinity for scoring in boundaries by deploying strategic boundary riders. Survive, though, he did.
Through an unlikely trio of S's - Shabbir, Shoaib and Salman - on a day that could have been debilitating, and demanded only utmost application to damage control, Pakistan will be quietly proud to be able to end with a match still alive. Had they displayed the same willingness to hang in on the first two days, they might even have found the contest more decisively poised in their favour than the nervy equipoise that greets them now. For, despite admirably reining back their opponent, given England's trademark refusal to relent, similar application will be needed for the remainder of this Test.
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