India v Pakistan, 1st Test, Lahore, 2nd day January 14, 2006

A suspension of disbelief



Crash, bang, whallop: Shahid Afridi and Kamran Akmal smashed centuries in quick time © Getty Images
Sometimes on days that defy comprehension, you can only look to statistics to help you begin to understand what actually passed. In a little over 58 overs, Pakistan blitzed 353 runs, at over six an over for most of the day. In waltzing from 500 to their declared total of 679, they used 20.2 overs; nearly nine runs yielded from each over. Shahid Afridi's fourth Test century was his second 78-ball hundred - of the Test variety it must be reminded - in the last year, equaling his defiance in Barbados in May last. Again, it was the second-quickest by a Pakistani. In pillaging the innings' 134th over for 27 runs (obviously 36 was the target) he furthered his presence in Test cricket's speed-scoring records; Harbhajan Singh thus bowled the second most-expensive over ever. Kamran Akmal's third Test hundred was his fourth international century in just over a month and almost casually it was noted amid the carnage that it was the quickest ever by a wicketkeeper batsman in Tests.

But some sense of it must also be grasped otherwise. Afridi's innings actually is the easiest to understand and furthers the case for insanity being only a relative condition. See, the thing is, once you've established a level of madness, it soon becomes almost institutionalised. To the uninitiated it is a marvel; Greg Chappell said later that Afridi's innings ranked up there with the best hitting he had ever seen. To the initiated, it was another day in Afridi's world. In it - and by default when he is batting, ours - moving from 500 to 600 in 10.3 overs is not out of the ordinary. Hitting four sixes in succession, each one bar the first more and more obvious than the last is only slightly implausible.

The only shock in his innings was that at lunch, after 31 balls Afridi had compiled 18 mostly neat runs. The interval thus brought a possibility of the only aspect we can never imagine; Afridi dropping anchor. A six off his second ball after lunch and a cut four next ensured normalcy resumed and 22 balls later he brought up his 50 with, on a day not short of strokes, the most stunning of them all. Before Anil Kumble had even arrived at the crease, round the wicket, in his run-up, Afridi stepped possibly a foot or more outside his leg-stump and inside-outed for four through cover. Thereafter he hit maximums as if in tribute to Joe Darling, who on this very day in 1898 had struck the first six in Test cricket out of the Adelaide Oval against England.

But it is to Akmal we turn for fuzzing up the brain. The numbers of what he accomplished here are remarkable in any case. Only in his 19th Test, he has surpassed Rashid Latif's haul of centuries in Tests (1 in 37) and stands one behind Moin Khan's collection (4 in 69). But unlike both the men he usurped it's astonishing really how much of an orthodox batsman he actually is. In both attack and defence, he is equally compact although as in both his hundreds against India, the former he rarely resorts to.

How many batsmen after all can keep pace with Afridi and come close to surpassing it? And how many can do it without resorting to the bare violence of an Afridi? Spin or pace, all were swept, cut, driven and pulled and timed, not hoicked, not slogged, not bashed, rarely sliced and never mis-hit. On one knee he lofted Pathan over long-off for six with no crookedness in the swing of his bat. In light of Gilchrist's poor run of recent form, is it blasphemous to suggest that Akmal is the best wicketkeeper batsman in the world currently?

The madness of the day, however, is best captured by this observation, that both innings overshadowed the contributions of Younis Khan and Mohammad Yousuf. It is a shame in a way that Younis's innings will be remembered as much for the tragically notable manner and timing of his dismissal, for he became the first man to be run-out on 199. But Yousuf's should be remembered for he set the tone of urgency early on. As Agarkar and Pathan fed his off-stump, he gorged himself as he does, through drives, forces and glides. On any other day, 173 from only 199 balls would be headline, yet here it was an undeserved sidebar.

As Pakistan were marauding their way to their second successive 600-plus score at Gaddafi Stadium, we could have asked whether the opponent was England in disguise. But by the day's end, with Sehwag and Dravid racing to 65 off 13 overs, we guessed they weren't.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo